Starting with a fortress, then transforming into a Market square, and finally into the economic, political, architectural, and cultural hub of Belgium, the city of Brussels teems with beauty. Being the largest municipality of Brussels, the city of Brussels is a historic center covering the northern outskirts. The city would make you reminisce about the beauty of Art Nouveau, Grand Palace, the Atomium, and many other places. 

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The relatively small city easily captivates people by its rich culture, cuisine, and architecture. Today we are digging deep into the Architecture of the city of Brussels.

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The city of Brussels._©https://www.umultirank.org/study-in-brussels/

Brussel’s Origin and History

The City of Brussels is a city that has seen great stepping stones of human settlements since the stone age and has also witnessed the era of Monoliths, Dolmens, and Standing Stones. Brussels has witnessed many great civilizations rise and fall. What today is Tour and Taxis was once home to the Roman occupations. Being located on the shore of Senne, Brussels later became the commercial center of trade and textile, then proliferating upwards to the places with lesser flood risks. 

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Later in the 17th century, it became the center of the lace industry and faced many destructive attacks, which destroyed the Grand Palace, ruining over one-third of the 4000 buildings. The city center was reconstructed gradually through the years, which visibly changed its appearance and left traces. 

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The The Grand Palace post Bombing by the French Army_©Statens Museum for Kunst Copenhagen

During the Belgian Revolution in 1830, Brussels became the administrative center, and the king decided to demolish all the city walls and start constructing buildings. Later after Independence, Brussel became the financial hub of Belgium, and many commercial companies were launched in the city. The Industrial Revolution led to growth in the city’s economy and commerce, leading to more people visiting it. 

In the 19th century, though, Brussels grew in population, leading to the influx of new buildings under the  Haussmannian style in modern times, which are the characteristic features of downtown Brussels today. Many remarkable structures like Saint Mary’s Royal Church, The Brussels Stock Exchange, and the Palace of Justice were built. 

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The Place Royale in late 19th century._©Library of Congress

Later in early 1960, Brussels witnessed the impact of  World War I, and after the war, it went under an extensive modernization process. Construction of railways and transportation, connections were undertaken, and many new modern offices were built. The primary purpose here was just development and not the aesthetic of buildings. Many architectural landmarks were demolished to make room for the new facilities, which often do not fit into the surroundings. This was later named brusselisation.

Geography and Climate

Situated in the heart of the Brabantian plateau, Brussels is located in the North Central part of Belgium.The highest point of the city is the Drève des Deux Montagnes in the Sonian Forest. The climate here is of oceanic type, which is characterized by warm summers and relatively cool winters. The city’s proximity to the Belgian coast affects the climatic conditions by bringing in sea breezes from the Atlantic Ocean. Though rainfall is not that frequent in the City,  it experiences violent thunderstorms in the Summertime. 

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Sattelite Photo of Brussels._©Copernicus Sentinel-2, ESA – https://scihub.copernicus.eu/dhus/#/home

Demographics

We all know that the architectural features of a place are highly inspired by the community living there, the culture, demographics, and many other aspects. Brussels has a population of around 1.2 million and is overgrowing presently. The gaps between various communities of the society like the young people, older adults or you may say the rich and poor is enormous. Apart from this, multiple people of other nationalities have settled here or just come here for some years. This migration of people started at the end of the 18th century and continues to date. 

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While walking down the streets here, the most common language that you may find here is French. Surprisingly, Dutch was the historically spoken language, but by the end of the 18th century, people got hold of French here, and since then, Dutch has not been able to compete with it.  

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Brussels demographics_©Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc.

What religion does the majority of people in the city follow? The answer to this helps us come up with an obscure image of the sacred places in the city. Historically, most Brussels followed Roman Catholicism, which is evident from many cathedral and historic churches. The Cathedral of St. Michael and St. Hudula is one of the prominent landmark churches.

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The Cathedral of St. Michael_©https://m.sworld.co.uk/2/511308/photoalbum/home.html

Culture and Religion

Due to the variety of people staying here, Brussel provides a hotspot of religious communities, including minorities like Islam, Buddhism, Judaism, and many others. The large population of Morrocan, Turkish, and other Muslim communities has also led to many remarkable mosques and structures like The Great Mosque of Brussels, the oldest mosque here.

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The National Basilica of Sacred Heart_©Michielverbeek

The rich history of changing settlements, the industrial movement, the influx of people belonging to different communities, speaking other languages- all these factors have collectively shaped Brussels into a historical, political, and cultural hotspot of Belgium which gave form to the city’s architecture. Walking down the lane of Brussels, you can see various architectural styles of the Gothic, Neoclassical, Art nouveau, and many others merging into one. 

Architecture of Brussels

Though many historical places and buildings had been demolished and rebuilt over time, some traces are still left, like parts of city walls preserved today for visitors. The historic center was also held where most of the buildings belong to the medieval period of architecture. Downtown Brussels is prominently marked by The Brabantine Gothic Cathedral of St. Michael and St. Gudula. One of the most visited architectural places in the City Center is The Grand Place and has been declared a UNESCO heritage site. The center is adorned with many ornamental sculptures, amongst which  Manneken Pis is the most famous one. A fountain showcasing a small bronze sculpture of a young boy urinating has become a tourist spot and symbol of the city.

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The statue of Manneken Pis._©Myrabella / Wikimedia Commons

The architecture of Brussels mainly has buildings belonging to five different styles; The Art Nouveau, Art Deco, Neoclassical, Gothic, and Neo-Renaissance, majorly because Brussels has always been the central hub for the country and the presence of any style in Brussels would make it essential across the country. 

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The Art Nouveau style

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The whiplashed railings in the staircase._©https://www.theartstory.org/artist/horta-victor/artworks/

The Art Nouveau style was one of the most prominent styles in Brussels. Many buildings, especially hotels, were constructed under this style. The famous examples of this style- Hotel Tassel, Hotel Solvay, and Hotel van Eetvelde by Victor Horta have been declared UNESCO World Heritage sites for their intricate details. 

Art Nouveau is incomplete without mentioning the whiplashed handrails in the staircase of Hotel Tassel. Later visiting Maison Saint-Cyr, the use of wrought iron embellishments showcases the features of the style. The Cauchie House, earlier the home of artist couple Paul and Caroline Cauchie, has beautiful paintings on the interior wall and is the dream of every Art Nouveau lover. 

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Hotel Tassel by Victor Horta_©Karl StasCreative Commons Legal Code

Art-Deco style

The influence of Art Deco in Brussels was remarkable too. The Flagey, a steamboat-shaped building, rises beside the Ixelles’ public square, stretching out towards the pond. It is the epitome of Art deco craftsmanship. Visiting the Koekelberg Basilica, you will experience the grandness of this monument; its copper dome today highlights the Brussels western skyline. 

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Many other Art Deco structures like the Residence Palace, the Town Hall of Forest, the Centre of Fine Arts adorn the city. Sometimes, these art deco styles were merged with other types. The Basilica of the Sacred Heart combined Art Deco with Neo-Byzantine elements and is considered one of the world’s largest basilicas. 

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Flagey Building in Ixelles_©Busoni

Neoclassical style

In the 18th and 19th centuries, neoclassical centuries bloomed in Brussels, mainly affecting the Royal Quarter/Coudenberg area near the Brussels park area. The Place Royalle, which was destroyed by fire, was reconstructed under this style, giving it a new look. 

Many other architectural marvels like the Royal Palace, the Church of St. James on Coudenberg, the Palace of Nation, the Academy Palace, and many others were built under neoclassical influence. They will make you reminiscent of the 18th and 19th centuries. 

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Magritte museum in one of the fine edifices of the neoclassical Royal Square._©claude thibault / Alamy Stock Photo

Gothic style

The architecture of Brussels has many Gothic landmarks in the city, ornamenting the skyline. Brussels’ Town Hall stands unbeaten in its features when it comes to the Gothic style. The facade of the town hall stands armed by an army of statues guarding its historic beauty. Later it was restored in the Neo-Gothic style, showcasing a 315-foot tall tower with the figure of the archangel Michael. 

The interiors are also adorned by a mixture of various types of different eras. This was mainly due to the retention of some rooms and others being purely neo-Gothic in style. St Michael and St Gudula Cathedral were the ones that gave a Gothic identity to Brussels as well. The magnificent vaulted ceiling and stained glass windows never fail to attract viewers. Many such Gothic buildings exist to date in the city.

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Gothic statues in Brussels Townhall._©Ainara Garcia

Neo-Renaissance style

Though the influence here was a little less than the other famous style, Brussels never failed to remind of the Neo-Renaissance style. While crossing the busy shopping lanes of the Galeries Royales Saint-Hubert by Jean-Pierre Cluysenaer, one gets highly attracted by the glazed exterior of the building and speaks a lot about urban modernism. Many other buildings stand as a testament to this style.

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Galeries royales saint-hubert._©Marc Ryckaert

Later in the Modern era, many modern office towers were built under commercialization and industrialization, like the (Madou Tower, Proximus Towers, Finance Tower, the World Trade Center, and many others. The city’s architectural approach embraced modernism with an ambivalent approach towards historic restoration, sometimes by demolishing the historical landmarks in the process.

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The Atomium_©o palsson

The city also has a rich art and culture, which prompted people to build the structures artistically with monumental importance. Brussels has extensive museums built under various styles, showcasing the skills and paintings of many famous painters like Bruegel, Anthony van Dyck, Jacob Jordans, and many others. Museums dedicated to Belgium’s national art and history were also built, giving Brussels political importance over time. The building designs here were also highly affected by the rich traditions followed by the people living here.

Apart from the industrial, commercial, and cultural aspects of Brussels beauty. The city also has over 8000 hectares of greenland, making it one of the greenest cities in Europe. There is a very rhythmic pattern of greenery in Brussels, which is very strategically planned. The city center has over 10% green land while the municipalities in the first ring have over 30%, and later 70% in the later rings of municipalities. 

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As you move away from the city’s core, the natural covers and vegetation continue to get denser. The Sonian Forest has been declared a UNESCO World Heritage site because of its stretch over three Belgian regions. 

The Botanical Garden of Brussels_©Trougnouf (Benoit Brummer)

Brussels—a fusion city—is just like a textbook which you can read to learn about different styles of architecture and their transformation over time. Being in Brussels itself would be like being in a museum telling you all about Belgium, its people, and its evolution. The historical importance and the influx of different cultures and its political rise as the capital gave Brussels the power to transform itself from a simple fortress into a complicated fabrication of various styles, cultures, and people.

Author

Currently in her 3rd year of Architecture at IIT Roorkee, Muskan believes that architecture has the potential to shape this world and its future. Being a keen observer, she always finds connection between architecture and human psychology. Besides this, she also loves art, music, movies and connecting with others.

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