Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Capital of Europe 2: Public Buildings


One thing worth remembering everywhere in Brussels is that it was a capital built on mass murder. Its most glorious years, architecturally, the late 19th century up to around 1940, are the years where this tiny country presided over what is now the Democratic Republic of Congo, where initially, under the personal rule of Leopold II, there existed a regime of genocide and brutality which compares only with the Khmer Rouge's Cambodia, Stalin's Soviet Union and Nazi Germany in the extent, scope and ruthlessness of its violence. Needless to say, it's rather less famous than those. Brussels is what it is partly because Kinshasa is what it is. The oppression of the Belgians by the Belgians does not compare, but Brussels is nonetheless a city whose very skyline is marked by the barbarism of Leopold II and his more bourgeois lieutenants, in the form of the Palace of Justice his government had built in the 'upper town'. This part of the upper town was literally constructed on top of the lower, displacing thousands of slum-dwellers. You have to get a lift down to the lower town, which attaches itself to the Palace's ludicrous bulk with an admirable lack of decorum.

Not all of the monuments on the Brussels skyline are so horrible as this. Looking from a position on the platform which leads to the lift above, you can see two of the most extraordinarily odd things on any skyline in the world, both of them in the direction of Heysel. One is the Koekelberg Basilica. This was planned to be the largest cathedral in the world, and is not far off even today. It went through various revisions, got consecrated in the 30s and finished in 1969, to a freakish design by Albert Van Huffel. So what there is now, reached by a grandiose ceremonial route, is a bulging, bulbous mass of stylisation and domination, Gotham City if it were more Byzantine than Goth.

The other thing is even more fun - the Atomium. Being good nostalgists for the future, you should all already know about this. It's the future we were promised and denied in its most vast and unavoidable form, and it still quickens the heart to see a massively magnified iron crystal rising hundreds of feet in the air over houses and blocks of flats, as if such a thing were normal, as if we should all be living inside atoms. (the photo below is of my sister and is the best photo I have ever taken, although the competition is not too stiff)

Near to it is another exhibition building, and another example of the architectural fusions you only seem to get in Belgium. Designed in the late '30s, this one, the work of one Joseph Van Neck, is like the Futurist architecture that would have developed if the 19th century aesthetic had never really been interrupted. Plenty of figures and ornamentation, and even the metalwork seeming to have something (HG) Wellsian about it, the way it seems to rear upwards to eventually thrust itself forward makes it more like Sant Elia than anything actually built by the Italian Rationalists. Anywhere else it'd be an overwhelming building, but here its position on the skyline is necessarily eclipsed by its giant metal neighbour.

Socialist Architects of Brussels, Unite

Rather comfortingly for optimists, there was (and I hope the past tense isn't totally necessary) plenty of opposition to capitalism and imperialism in Brussels, and much of it had unusually direct links with architecture. Victor Horta, the city's most famous architect, was a member of the Belgian Workers Party, and designed for them the Maison de Peuple, a metal monument this time for the Internationale, housing everything from socialist events and concerts to disputatious conferences between Bolsheviks and Mensheviks. It was demolished in the 1960s, though fragments of its metal work were saved and eventually became ornaments for a Metro station. Horta's architecture is where art nouveau seems genuinely revolutionary rather than reformist, a new world of glass and iron rather than dressings to beaux-arts houses, with machine-crafted ornament attempting to rival nature in its illogical curves and permutations. As a way of saving the art nouveau public buildings that seldom work properly, there's an agency which restores them and makes them into (usually curiously chosen) museums. So a department store by Horta becomes a cartoon museum, and Paul Saintenoy's wonderful Old England department store becomes a museum of musical instruments. The latter is the finest of the art nouveau buildings we see there, a highly non-contextual black iron squiggle stuck on the end of the boring imperial bombast of the upper town.

Horta then went moderne, and ended up being made a Baron by the Belgian government, an indicator perhaps that his socialism didn't run too deep - though it seems to fit the aristocratic nature of his buildings, with even the cubic art deco of the 20s and 30s using opulent materials and plenty of light. You can see it in the suprematist-classicist Bozar, and also in the Central rail station he designed, which was eventually finished by the firm of Maxime Brunfaut, all rectangles, travertine and deco light fittings. And in the photo above, me and my Dad.

Maxime, Fernand and Gaston Brunfaut are who I really want to talk about here, a family of modernist architects, of whom Fernand actually became a Socialist MP. I bought a postcard of one of their buildings several years ago on another visit to Brussels, which looks like this, an amazing - and built! - interpretation of the Vesnin brothers' glass offices for Pravda, designed in 1930-2, appropriately for the Belgian socialist daily Le Peuple. I had unsuccessfully searched flickr and elsewhere trying to find photos of the thing still extant, and when I finally found the address, I approached it with some trepidation, expecting it to be in some ruinous state, or to be housing a bank or something equally egregious. It wasn't as bad as that - in another example of incongruous adaptive re-use it is well restored, but as the offices for the government of Asturias, of all things, with their flag where the people's flag once was. I'd be much happier if it was occupied by whatever socialist press is left there, the Belgian Schnews or something...

As a building it's another peculiar fusion - this time Constructivist-deco, with black and red vitrolite tiles going alongside the Vesninesque stair tower and the mercifully untouched neon sign. The vitrolite actually continues into the earlier part of the building, which is - of course - another cartoon museum. I only hope that there is some link between the cartoon in question and the 'Socialist Co-Operative' the building proclaims itself to be. Meanwhile, Maxime Brunfaut designed another, even more vivid and exciting building for the Flemish socialists in Ghent, with the same vitrolite running along the entrance - that a socialist corporate style should attempt something approaching glamour is an encouraging thing.

This is a late (1949-52) building by Maxime Brunfaut, the Congress Station, in the bureaucratic heart of the city. Nearby is the relentless, EUR/Il Conformista stripped classical of the national bank, and the many Miesian office blocks which were reclad to make them less scary and/or technologically dysfunctional. This is rather a shame, and fans of the bureaucratic aesthetic have to look further afield to find their jollies. One such is this opaque glass thing, which can give you an idea of what Berlaymont, the notorious EU headquarters, looked like before it was made to look nice.

The building above is the Shell offices, which seem to sum up Belgian modernism, in a sense - while the form is totally taken from the department stores of Erich Mendelsohn, the vaguely De Stijl sculptural accoutrements end up creating a curious decorative modernism that is still far more advanced than the dynastic edifices the corporation was designing for itself in London at the same date. All of it is more interesting than the EU Quarter - both it and the upscale boulevard Louise are practically the only architecturally uninteresting places in Brussels, not for stylistic perversity or mismatching or crass ornamentation - but for their relentless postmodernist tastefulness.

Le Peuple, Lift, Atomium, Old England and Shell building by me, others by Frances Hatherley.


Blogger Will said...

Hazel and I visited Brussels earlier this year. Great destination for a break, good sightseeing opportunities and delicious food. I must admit I found it an unsettling place, apparently crumbling before our eyes. I never made it to the fairground - that Van Neck building is amazing.

Spurred by your post, I've uploaded some photos onto Flickr:


As you can see, I was mostly interested by the ruins. I spotted that Brunfaut Press Coop opposite the Horta department store/cartoon museum as well:


That whole street seemed to be former press offices.

12:58 am  
Anonymous Faithful to the Line said...

The Palais de Justice is monumentally foul; the Brussels authorities made the mistake of opening it to the public on the day it was completed - the assembled crowd showed their architectural appreciation by tearing out the fittings, pissing on the seats, and lighting fires. Troops had to be called in before order was restored.

The benighted architect, Joseph Poleart, was reportedly cursed by a local witch for the building (and the evictions it caused), and died during its construction.

10:16 am  
Blogger Lang Rabbie said...

Is there still that cafe named De Skieven Arkitek ("The Crooked Architect") after Poelaert?

10:31 am  
Blogger owen hatherley said...

Still is, yes - I had a drink in there.

11:52 am  
Anonymous D. Griffin said...

I will actually speak out for the Palace of Justice as one of the world's most profoundly loony buildings, a kind of Hill House of public architecture (think Shirley Jackson) and proof positive that psychedelics were not an invention of the '60s.

In the US we had to wait until the Mall at Albany, NY, to get such an amazing pile of What Not to Do.

6:43 pm  
Blogger owen hatherley said...

It is completely fucking psychotic, no doubt about that...

6:45 pm  
Anonymous D. Griffin said...

What better building, then, to house its inhabitants (contemporary or otherwise)? Proto-fascism as the ultimate piling up of other people's details (i.e. culture and wealth).

We have our own follies in the US and particularly New York, but they tend to depend on the concept of glamor: buildings that suggest weightlessness, transparency, self-illumination or any other thing to make the viewer think that what he is looking at couldn't possibly be there at all. The original World Trade Center and the castle at Disneyland had one thing in common--you were not supposed to believe in them. They were sets for spectacles. The Palace of Justice crushes the viewer with structural tags: it practically has its own gravitational pull. You are supposed to believe in it--you are not allowed otherwise. Better architecture? Perhaps not. More honest? Perhaps yes.

6:59 pm  
Blogger nxlb said...

Great to read your piece! It made me remember the almost overwhelming oddness of the place. Must go back. The development anarchy and semi-autonomous boroughs did not leave me feeling it was an especially bourgeois place (in the context European capitals) I must say. But perhaps that was because of shock (the Palace of Justice has to be seen in person to fully understand its WTFness!).

I remember as a kid hearing Meades say that Belgium was so strange that in Belgium Magritte was not a surrealist but journalist. Fantastic.

11:21 pm  
Blogger rob (moderne melbourne) said...

Enjoyed your posts. But the Exhibition building dates from the early-mid 1930s, not the late 30s. It was the main location of the "Exposition Universelle" in 1935, and an ad for the exposition was included in my recent book on Art Deco in Melbourne, Australia. Dont agree that the building is an "example of the architectural fusions you only seem to get in Belgium" - there are many examples of similar buildings constructed for exhibitions around the world during the 1930s. FWIW, there was a presentation on Art Deco in Belgium at the recent World Congress on Art Deco in Montreal - by Bob Bradshaw, an Irishman. Would be interested to see a post about buildings by any Belgian architects in the Congo.

regards from Australia
Robin Grow, President, Art Deco & Modernism Society, Melbourne

1:53 pm  
Blogger Rémy said...

You must read, if you haven't already, "Brüsel" by Schuiten and Peeters, a BD set in a not-very-alternate Brussels. There's a lot about architecture in this story, with guest appearances by an alternative Palais de Justice, Schaerbeek station, etc etc. These two have many other works in the same vein and the refurbished "Arts et Metiers" station in Paris is the work of François Schuiten. Also see the cast of the tram bursting out of the wall in Porte de Hal station. There are some great buildings in Brussels, but it's been shafted over and over again.

8:46 pm  
Blogger owen hatherley said...

You know, I had a look through that in the cartoon museum shop - it looked very sexy indeed, but I was holding out for an English translation - perhaps over-optimistically.

12:35 am  
Blogger Rémy said...

I thought I'd seen an English version of Brüsel and I was right: ISBN 1561632910.

Forgot to say: I enjoy your blog! Thank you.

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