Belgium, a densely populated country located on the North Sea Coast of Benelux, is an absolute architectural treasure. Belgium is enlaced with canals, cobblestoned streets, bridges, shopping arcades, comic strip routes, lakes, castles and the ever so famous Belgian chocolate. Though Belgium is not as big, it’s enough to accommodate a lifetime of immersive experiences with its gorgeous landscapes, enchanting architecture and graphic murals all over. Belgium is a perfect blend of classical and modern architecture, making it a true delight.
History of Belgium Architecture
In the 18th century, Belgium took a neoclassical route because it was under the rule of Austrians. But soon after independence, Belgium was in for urban redevelopment. Belgium’s then ruler was determined to make Belgium more aesthetic to promote its economic potentiality. This early 19th-century overhaul of Belgium introduced industrial architecture in Belgium, i.e. iron and glass.
In the 1890s, Art Noveau was the aesthetic that came through and became the template for the new Belgian aesthetic.
Major characteristics of Art Noveau in Belgian:
- Sinuous Lines
- Organic Trendils
- Floral Motifs
- Wrought Iron Framework
- Round Windows
Though Art Noveau was striking in the facades, it unveiled itself much more in the interiors.
Art Noveau conveyed movement with its curvilinear essence. After the first world war, the sinuses were replaced by rigid, rectilinear lines of the Art Deco movement. This movement drew in bold geometry, cubism, new materials, and combined technology and craftsmanship. But soon, this too was replaced by brutalism. The 1950s marked the entry of brutalism in Belgium. This led to the tearing down of beautiful Art Noveau buildings in the 1960s and ’70s.
Architectural Marvels of Belgium
Let’s dive into a few classic architectural phenomena of Belgium to understand and experience its architecture better:
1. Old England, Brussels, Belgium
Architect: Paul Saintenoy
Style: Art Nouveau
Built in 1899, Old England is one of the best pieces of art nouveau in Belgium. Formerly a departmental store, and now a museum of musical instruments. This building is a model of an industrialised version of art nouveau with exposed wrought iron and steel facade.
- Glazed facade treatment accented with fine plant motif perforations.
- The decoration primarily consists of multicolour porcelain.
- The canopy adorns the facade like a piece of jewellery. It spans across three levels and consists of a huge bay window.
- On the top, a turret and cupola crest the building. The cupola is made of wrought ironwork.
- At the fourth level, on the Northwest edge, is an octagonal tower trimmed with a lacy railing.
2. Cathedral of Our Lady, Antwerp, Belgium
Architects: Jan and Pieter Appelmans
The cathedral of our lady is a Roman Catholic cathedral, and it strongly imbibes ‘ House of God and Abode of People’. The cathedral consists of a 123m high spire and is the highest church tower in Benelux.
The cathedral is a gothic gem and with an extensive art collection, even that of Rubens.
- Two spires- North (123m) and South (63.5m)
- A crossing tower-where the nave and transepts meet (43m)
- A carillon with 49 bells
- 7 Aisles
- 125 Pillars
- 128 Windows (55 stained glass)
The cathedral is one of the most celebrated architectural wonders in Antwerp.
3. Hôtel Tassel, Brussels, Belgium
Architect: Victor Horta
Style: Art Nouveau
Hotel Tassel is considered the first real piece of art nouveau architecture because of its remarkable planning and innovative material application.
It was revolutionary not just in terms of artistic expression but also technical aspects. Tassel is symbolic of a time of economic progression, industrial growth and vast artisanal traditions.
In the planning of Hôtel Tassel, Horta broke away from the traditional schemes of Belgian spatial organisation. He divided the house into three different parts. The first two blocks were built in brick and natural stone, where one block faced the road, and the other faced the garden. The two blocks were connected by a steel structure covered with glass.
Horta had put in a lot of work to produce complex and well-detailed interior spaces. The rooms were organised around a central hall rather than the usual corridor setting. The floors were designed to be innovative and have open floor plans. Horta himself designed each element present within. The door handles, panels, windows in stained glass, mosaic flooring and woodwork. The materials conform well to the art nouveau movement and bring in fluidity and organic essence.
The exterior is a fine example of Art Nouveau, but Horta applied an array of different features for the building to stand out. Although, these features existed within the domain of art nouveau. The diversity mainly came from the use and mix of materials.
Features of the exterior:
- Slender iron columns
- Large bay window
- Exposed rivets and frameworks
- Organic Acanthus against the riveted iron beam
The exterior seamlessly blended organic and industrial. The stylistic goal of Horta was to provide openness and lightness to the building, which he perfectly achieved.
The beauty of Belgium is that it has enough architecture to indulge in for a lifetime. Its countless architectural features make it a country of profundity and multiple anecdotes. Belgium’s streets are vibrant and packed with architectural heritage sites. The houses, cathedrals, museums, town halls, chapels, castles, cafes etc., are powerhouses of architecture and styles.
The architecture of Belgium is one of the most intricate ones in Europe. It has so much to contribute and educate just by its physical appearance. Not just the buildings but the squares, streets and lakes all add up to the beauty of Belgium. It is scenic and charming in all dimensions and is worth not one but multiple visits, especially for architects.
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- WikiArquitectura. (n.d.). Tassel House – Data, Photos & Plans. [online] Available at: https://en.wikiarquitectura.com/building/tassel-house/.
- Google Arts & Culture. (n.d.). Art Nouveau Architecture From Around The World. [online] Available at: https://artsandculture.google.com/theme/art-nouveau-architecture-from-around-the-world/rQICeqMfl0oPJA?hl=en.
- Wikipedia Contributors (2020). Hôtel Tassel. [online] Wikipedia. Available at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/H%C3%B4tel_Tassel.
- Wikipedia. (2021). Cathedral of Our Lady (Antwerp). [online] Available at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cathedral_of_Our_Lady_(Antwerp)#Facts_and_figures
- [Accessed 17 Oct. 2021].
- World of Wanderlust. (2015). 12 Reasons to Visit Belgium. [online] Available at: https://worldofwanderlust.com/12-reasons-to-visit-belgium/#:~:text=The%20first%20and%20most%20obvious [Accessed 17 Oct. 2021].