At the turn of the century, Belgian architecture played a vital role in the promotion of modern architecture with its Art Nouveau style, developed by the pioneers Victor Horta and Henri van de Velde. Art Nouveau was born as a reaction against the eclectic styles that had prevailed during the 19th century, such as neoclassicism, promoted by the academies, and neo-Gothic styles, taught at the St. Lucas Institutes.
Horta’s design for the Tassel House (1893, Brussels) already revealed all the characteristics of this new style: a new language of elegant curvilinear forms, a dynamic manipulation of interior spaces, and a decorative use of steel and wrought iron as structural frames. This project brought him an influx of both private and public commissions in Brussels such as the Maison du Peuple (1899), the architect’s own house (1898), the Aubecq House (1899), the Van Eetvelde house (1901), and the Waucquez Department Store (1906).
By 1895 Henri van de Velde, a prolific theorist and the first industrial designer, had designed his own house Bloemenwerf (1895, Uccle/Ukkel, Brussels) as a Gesamtkunstwerk (total work of art). Designed to the smallest details, this two-story house comprises a series of irregular polygonal rooms organized around a central hall with an upper balcony. This spatial nucleus acts as a symbolic womb from which art could be generated from within the family core to fight the ugliness that prevailed in contemporary society; the latter concept would become the basic tenet of his theoretical writings.
Reacting against the exuberant curvilinear forms of Art Nouveau, the Viennese architect Josef Hoffmann designed the Palais Stoclet (1911, Brussels) with simple and pure cubic forms stressing their planarity and rectangularity, an implicit reference to classicism. Although it was quite rare that an international architect would be commissioned for a work in Belgium, this does illustrate the international recognition Belgian architecture received before World War I.
During the Interbellum, Belgian architecture held the function of rebuilding the country. The main task was to provide sound and hygienic houses for the working classes. Louis van der Swaelmen (1883–1929), a landscape architect and an early town planner, promoted the idea of garden cities. Under his direction, a number of architects designed some of the finest examples of collective habitations. Notorious examples are the Small Rusland Industrial District (1923, Zelzate, East Flanders) and the Kapelleveld (1926, St-Lambrechts-Woluwe, Brussels) designed with Huib Hoste (1881–1957), the Cité Moderne (1923, St.-Agatha-Berchem, Brussels) designed with Victor Bourgeois (1897–1962), and the Logis (1927, Boisfort/Bosvoorde, Brussels) developed with JeanJules Eggericx (1884–1963).
After his return from Germany, where during the period 1907–14 he was active in the Kunstgewerbe of Weimar, Henri van de Velde, the precursor of the Bauhaus founded by Gropius in 1919, would in 1926 become the first director of the Intsitut Supérieur des Arts Décoratifs (ISAD), also known as La Cambre. La Cambre was to become the leading educational institute where most of the modern architects were trained by the pioneers of the modern movement, such as Louis Van der Swaelmen, Huib Hoste, Victor Bourgeois, Antoine Pompe (1873–1980), and Louis Herman De Koninck (1896–1984).
In 1930 Brussels hosted the third Congrès Internationaux d’Architecture Moderne (CIAM) to discuss the problems of national housing developments and their relationship to public amenities in urban areas. To seek a solution to these architectural and urban problems was the main intent of the Charters of Athens, signed in 1933.
Individual residences remained a more graceful subject to explore the new directions modern architecture could take. In 1927 the painter Guiette invited the French architect Le Corbusier (1887–1965) to design his House and Studio as a variation of his Citronhan house. Van de Velde’s built work during this period reveals a more mature modern style. Flat roofs, rounded corners, cantilevered balconies, and carefully selected material textures are some of the main characteristics of La Nouvelle Maison in Tervuren (1928, Brabant). Van de Velde’s library building for the University of Ghent (1936, East Flanders) is a concrete building that forms a landmark in the city, with its vertical articulated tower and horizontal building volume that stretches a whole city block.
De Koninck and Bourgeois, two talented and influential architects, promoted the ideas of functional rationalism. Because both were professors at La Cambre, their influence on future generations of architects would be pervasive. Adapting the doctrines of Adolf Loos, De Koninck’s projects, such as the Dotremont house (1932, Brussels), reveal a rational synthesis of plan, a technical virtuosity, and an acute sense for spatial composition. As meritorious as these projects are, they remained isolated instances and failed to generate a wide following as most buildings were designed without the intervention of an architect. It was only in 1939, just one year before the outbreak of World War II, that an act was voted to protect the architectural profession, which in turn led to the establishment of the Belgian Order of Architects.
After World War II, the focus once again turned to reconstruction, yet this time the pragmatism and the logic of modernism prevailed. New building programs, major public infrastructures, and sanitation were the main concerns in the larger cities such as Brussels, Ghent, Antwerp, and Liège/Luik. The National Society for Low-Cost Housing (1919), governed by politicians and technicians rather than architects, directed the building industry. CIAM members eagerly awaited commissions to put the ideas of the Athens Charter into practice. These architects proposed developing multistoried buildings; however, most of the rest of the country opted for surface building. Examples of high-rise towers for habitation are Renaat Braem’s (1910–) apartment buildings in Kiel (1958, Antwerp); the group EGAU’s Plaine de Dro ixhe complex in Liège/Luik (1951–70); and Willy Van Der Meeren’s (1923–) social housing high-rise Ieder Zijn Huis in Evere (1954, Brabant).
During the 1950s, architects exposed to the progressive movements of the international scene experimented with individual housing projects. The English-born architect Peter Callebout (1916–70), who produced some of the subtlest villas during the 1950s, including his Gerard House (1949, La Plante, Namur), was inspired by Japanese architecture and influenced by Alvar Aalto. The individual residences by Jacques Dupuis (1914–84), such as his Bertrand house (1949, Uccle/Ukkel, Brussels), reveal a more organic approach. The modernism of La Cambre is exemplified by the work of Roger Bastin, such as his design for the Matagne House (1950, Namen/Namur), the architect’s own house (1960, Namur/Namen, with G.van Oost), and his St. Nicholas Chapel (1961, Namur/Namen), with its elements of English Brutalism. The modern avant-garde, such as Willy Van Der Meeren—an inventive constructor with a social commitment, sporadically experimented with new formal solutions for a minimal dwelling such as the Ceca houses (1956) in Tervuren.
Early examples of modern public buildings can be found in the coastal city of Ostend. Its Post Office building (1953) designed by Gaston Eysselinck (1907–53); its Townhouse (1954) by Victor Bourgeois; and its Casino (1951) by Leon Stijnen (1899–1990) exemplify how large spatial complexes whose facades contain large portions of glass can create a monumental style.
The 1958 World Exhibition held in Brussels celebrated the victory of modernism, with traditional building being relegated to the Vieux Bruxelles (Old Brussels) area. New materials such as prestressed concrete, tension wires, glass, steel, and aluminum, and innovative structural systems such as rigid shells were exhibited to the public at large. The Philips pavilion by Le Corbusier and Xenaxis and the Marie-Thumas pavilion by L.J.Boucher (1929–), J.P.Blondel (1924–), and O.Filippone (1927–) illustrated how these new systems could be adapted to host a wide variety of functions.
During the early 1960s, project developers and architects alike exploited modernism and the International Style. Architectural practices bloomed, and an ever-spreading growth followed, during which quantity rather than quality would prevail. The different ideologies that had once distinguished the institutes of architectural education had all adopted the modern International Style, and differences among them would become one of language (Flemish versus French) rather then differences in pedagogy.
In 1968, just ten years after Expo 58, a decisive moment marked a turning point in the Belgian architecture of the 20th century. The student revolts of May 1968 aimed to expose the devastating consequences of a consumption society in general and that of the International Style in particular. The project developers were held accountable for their ever-spreading urge to destruct the old and supplant it with the new without any consideration for social or cultural implications. The demolition of Horta’s Maison du Peuple, in 1965, had gone by without any remarkable contest. As a result, two organizations for historic preservation were established that same year: the St. Lucas Archives and the Archives et Recherches de l’Architecture et de l’Urbanisme (ARAU).
Whereas initially these preservation efforts mainly pertained to buildings of previous centuries, during the 1980s attention slowly moved to include buildings from the early 20th century, such as the Interbellum Foundation (1981, Ghent) and the Livres Blancs de l’Agglomeration (1983, Brussels). The latter’s main objective was not only to preserve but also to rehabilitate significant buildings to make them economically viable. Because of their efforts, for example, Horta’s Wauquez Department Store (1906, Brussels) was converted with considerable success into the Belgian Center for the Strip (1988). To promote modern and contemporary architecture, other foundations were established such as the Stichting Architectuur Museum in Ghent (1983), the Singel Museum in Antwerp (1985), and the Fondation pour l’Architecture Moderne in Brussels (1986).
After the revolts of the sixties, a new generation of architects had to search for a new frame of reference, deal with the issues of how to integrate the old with the new, and reassess their role in society. New campus designs for the Université de Liege, for the Université Catholique de Louvain (UCL), and for the Free University of Brussels (VUB/ULB) offered great opportunities to put into practice some of the answers to these problems. The Sart Tilman campus in Liège created a new urban context with its modern buildings such as the Hospital (1973) by Charles Vandenhove (1927–) and its Sport complex by B.Albert (1949–). The UCL campus of Louvain-la-Neuve in Ottignies with its human scale was modeled after the old Flemish beguinages. The new campus for the Medical Faculties of UCL in St. Lambrechts Woluwe (1969, Brussels) offered Lucien Kroll (1929–) the opportunity to implement his methods of user participation.
Integrating modernism with classicism became the main issue during the 1970s and 1980s. Vandenhove devoted himself to create new languages of designs through the stylistic transformation of either regional vernacular or classical styles. Examples of the former are his own house in (Liège) built in 1961 and adapted in 1974; an example of the latter is the Delforge House (1983, Namur), with its reference to Palladian architecture. His assistant, Albert, designed the Villa Herzet (1985, Esneux, Liège) as a Palladian villa, transforming it to adapt it to the sloping site yet respecting its strict bilateral symmetric compostion. The plan is organized around a central hallway that stretches from the entry porch in the front to the garden in the back, where it opens into a semi-circular glass house. In Antwerp Bob van Reeth (1943–) designed the Van Roosmalen House (1988) in reference to the house Loos designed for Josephine Baker in Paris. Located along the terrace promenade of the Schelde, its design has an industrial maritime style with round windows, round corners, and roof terraces reminiscent of the deck of an elegant ocean liner.
During the 1990s, a number of Flemish architects with small practices, such as Stephane Beel (1949–), Luc Deleu (1944–), and Paul Robbrecht (1950–) and Hilde Daem (1950–) have gained some international recognition. The latter’s close collaborations with artists have inspired their minimalist approach toward architecture. Noteworthy examples are their projects for the Bacob Bank (1988) in Kerksem and the Canal Houses (1997) in Ghent. The last decade of the century was also marked by the engineered architecture of one of Belgium’s largest multi-disciplinary firms: Philippe Samyn (1948–) and Partners. Their oeuvre counts numerous industrial projects such as the OCAS Research Center for Steel Applications (1991, Zelzate, East Flanders), the Wallonian Trade Center (1992, Marche en Famenne, Luxembourg), and the Auditorium for the Free University of Brussels (1993). Although this oeuvre can be stylistically characterized as High Tech, it does have some classical aspirations and claims to supply the framework in which life’s activities can unfold.
Sennott R.S. Encyclopedia of twentieth century architecture, Vol.1. Fitzroy Dearborn., 2005.
HOFFMANN, JOSEF (FRANZ MARIA); HORTA, VICTOR; VAN DE VELDE, HENRI
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