Monday, March 26, 2012

Bits & Pieces of Belgian (20th Century) Architecture

I was in Belgium exactly a year ago. It was a strange experience; I was there by myself and so briefly (two days in Antwerp, two days in Brussels) that it felt like a dream. The weather was perfect and much like Paris in spring, with that same magical energy that people write songs about. Belgium was as beautiful as a dream or a song, too, and I found some of my pictures earlier today and thought I'd note down some places I'd recommend to others. 

The pictures aren't that great; I didn't have a proper camera at that point and my camera phone had very slow reaction times, but the places themselves are beautiful. I'd like to go back to Belgium!


It's just fun to be in Brussels. The shops are good and everyone's friendly and everything's always in pretty colours. It was Spring when I was there and dinner was chips eaten sitting on the steps of the Bourse. On my second night there was a man walking back and forth, comically imitating the steps of passers-by, and it was as if the crowd gathered on the steps were an audience in an auditorium, all laughing at the same moments.

Best known for Victor Horta, Brussels has some beautiful art nouveau and art deco buildings (including Josef Hoffman's lovely Stoclet Palace, unfortunately topped with scaffolding when I passed by). The city really grew after World War II; buildings (and especially interiors) from the 1950s are great and the whole area really sings with post-war optimism.

The Atomium:
Probably part of this is bias, since I love exposition architecture, but this shiny relic from the 1958 Brussels World's Fair is just so much fun. It's so futuristic, but very much of its time; the bright turquoise and red steps on the interior are so beautifully fifties. Another part of the fun is just how hard it can be to figure out exactly where in the structure you are until a sudden peephole gives you a view out over the surrounding area. You can imagine the Atomium surrounded by all the other pavillions from 1958 (and there is a display about them with models! if you like exposition architecture it's really heaven) and you can pick out those that remain, like the circular US pavilion. The Atomium has been renovated recently and you can imagine the excitement visitors would have felt when it was really brand new.

Parking 58:
I went to this carpark for the view, which is incredible, but also found the architecture itself pretty charming. I think, based both on name and appearance, that it was built in 1958. Look at how that round building for the lift shaft works with that straight line! And how the black bit sits so neatly atop the contrasting white! This might be the nicest carpark I've ever visited. If you're not seduced by the lift shaft, the view in the other direction at sunset is all domes and spires sparkling and echoed church-bells floating with the breeze. And you can see the Atomium, from the same year, in the distance!

Galerie Ravenstein
This place has very obviously seen better days (and is very hard to photograph), with almost all the shops closed, but is huge and has an amazing variety of surface patterns. It's very dated but in a good way; I don't think I had much sense of the fifties as having a distinct aesthetic until I wandered through the large circular court that the Galeries culminate in. It's also perhaps interesting as a shopping arcade from this period which had a more distinct consumer culture than many earlier times. The furnishings in the office reception are fifties, too, and there are tiled walls decorated with small figures; you can see the offices through the glass on the right as you enter (through the entrance shown above). 

Horta Dosages
Victor Horta's work lives up to his reputation, though I was only able to see a little of it. I went to the Music Museum, which was very noisy, and would report that the exterior is better than the interior as they've changed a lot of the building for display purposes. But it's beautiful! The exterior is gorgeous.

But Horta's tram stops are to Belgium as Guimard's metro entrances are to Paris! I waited in one for a while at one point and can report that it was a pleasant transport experience. There's also Horta's switch to art deco in the main Brussels railway station, which is worth exploring. That said, Horta buildings are the main thing I really don't think I saw enough of while in Brussels.

The Cafeteria on the top floor of the library
The benefits of this cafeteria are three-fold: firstly, there's the astonishing view over Brussels, with floor to ceiling windows; secondly, it's a library cafeteria so the prices aren't as inflated as at, say, the Music Museum cafe (which has a very similar view); and lastly it's yet another example of a charming 1950s interior with wood walls and brightly coloured furniture. 

I have mixed feelings about recommending the Royal Museum for Central Africa because it's a pretty awful place in some ways. The natural history areas are lovely, with beautiful old dioramas and murals (by Emile Fabry), and it's in a lovely old palace, but the section on colonisation is ridiculously apologist and I was really distressed by reading comments in the guestbook by people who had clearly swallowed the museum's suggestion that Belgium was responsible for everything positive in the Congo and nothing negative. I can't remember any specifics now but their exhibition on the Congo really wasn't something belonging in a museum that plays an educational role.

Across the park is Georges Hobé's art nouveau structure designed to evoke a sense of the forest in the museum's main hall. It would probably be more effective if they hadn't moved it, strung it with lights and made it a decorative canopy for the outdoor setting area at the park's wedding venue, but it's a still a pretty interesting piece of design.

It's also a nice trip there, as a tram takes you from a strange fifties terminus to a small Horta stop, going past Hoffmann's Stoclet Palace on the way to the outskirts of Brussels. 


Antwerp was sort of a strange place for me to visit because it felt a lot like Melbourne, where I lived for ten years. The only difference was that the architecture was 17th century, rather than Victorian, and the corner stores sell beer made by Trappist monks. I liked Antwerp a lot, but found it felt so familiar that I perhaps explored a bit less than I should have...

There are lots of cool shops in little laneways. I'd especially recommend Ra; I'm still wishing I'd bought the transparent raincoat I saw there last year. If you don't want to buy anything it's also just a beautiful place to look around, filled with unusual and interesting things you probably won't see anywhere else. Antwerp has a lot of really great 17th century stuff which is all generally covered by your standard guidebooks. I really liked the old print-works, especially the map rooms.

St Anna Tunnel:
This tunnel goes from one side of the river to the other and opened for Christmas in 1932. I just went into one end of it as it's quite long. The entrance building is beautiful and the subterranean passageway is beautifully tiled. In addition to this, the escalators going down to the tunnel are beautiful, with wooden sides. There's also a lovely little tiled wall giving details of the tunnel: it runs for 572 metres and is 31.57 metres underneath the surface.

Zuiderterras Building
I didn't go inside this cafe, but it's really lovely from the outside. I had originally assumed it was from the thirties, but upon looking it up I've discovered it was actually built in 1991 (designed by Bob van Reeth) on the site of an earlier classical cafe. I find postmodern buildings very often resemble art deco buildings; it's a bit disarming, though on closer examination I can see signs suggesting the correct period (primarily in the windows). The Zuiderterras Building resembles a ship, with portholes and solid verticals. I like the crispness of the black and white surfaces. The building is on the waterfront, connected to a walkway on the upper level. If you approach from the north it appears a very small cafeteria perched on the end of the promenade; when you reach it you realise the majority of the building is underneath you.

Mechelen Railway Station
This isn't actually in Antwerp; it's about ten minutes away in the Brussels direction. I stayed in the town for one night because all the hostels in Antwerp were booked out and I loved the railway station. I can't find much information on it but I've read that it's going to be 'upgraded' soon! This is sad because it's so excitingly fifties. It has a buffet and brightly coloured tiles everywhere, including a tiled mural! Why would anyone ever want to change that? I hope they don't. 

Incidentally, Belgium really seems to have mastered train stations. On my way into the country I passed through Liège station, which has been rightly celebrated since construction in 2009 (designed by Santiago Calatrava), and Antwerp Station is quite famously one of the most beautiful stations in the world. There's also the aforementioned Brussels Station, by Victor Horta, and at one point on the Brussels metro I waited on a platform lit several colours due to the sun shining through a huge stained glass window.

Having spent this time reliving my trip to Belgium a year ago, I now find myself desperate for chips with mayonnaise and vintage shopping in Brussels...

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