Belgium, officially the Kingdom of Belgium, is a country famous for its captivating sights and architecture. It has been termed the “Battlefield of Europe” for its central location in many of the significant wars of Europe. It is a country that has seen and documented its rich history with its buildings, where the old structures exist right alongside the modern ones.

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Brugge, Belgium_www.unsplash.com

Prehistory

Neanderthal fossils were discovered in Belgium territory dating back to almost 100,000 years. Neolithic flint mines were also unearthed implying a level of cultural and technological advancements and domestication. However, the region remained mostly unoccupied late until the Bronze Age when Celtic tribes began to settle here. These tribes established contact with the exterior world by trading with the regions of the Mediterranean. 

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Neolithic Flint Mines discovered in Belgium_whc.unesco.org

Past

Belgium enjoyed a boom in its architectural development starting in the mid-18th century and lasting well into the 20th century under Austrian rule. It was the result of renewed interest in Greek and Roman architecture after ancient sites had been excavated in its territories. This Neoclassical Architectural style underwent various phases – Austrian, French, Dutch, and modern. By the end of the 20th century, it was overtaken by others such as Art Nouveau, Art Deco, and Modernism. Some important structures of this style are the Palace of the Nation (now Belgium Federal Parliament) and the Palace Royale. 

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Palace of the Nation, Brussels_www.letsflycheaper.com
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Palace Royale, Brussels_www.unsplash.com

The term neoclassical according to the Merriam-Webster dictionary means “of, relating to, or constituting a revival or adaptation of the classical especially in literature, music, art, or architecture”. It was characterised by grandeur of scale and simplicity in forms. Structures of this form usually have symmetric floor plans, greek and roman columns, flat or domed roofs, and minimal decorations.

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Palais du Justice, Brussels_commons.wikimedia.org

After independence from the Austrians, under the leadership of their second king Leopold II, Belgium underwent another transformation. The king believed that creating aesthetically pleasing structures would help improve the economy by attracting tourists and thus funded several of the now prominent buildings such as the Palais du Justice and the Cinquantenaire. This period also saw the construction of the iconic Antwerp Central Railway Station by architect Louis Delacensarie. The 19th century industrial movement coincided with King Leopold’s rule and soon reached Belgium. 

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Cinquantenaire, Brussels_www.unsplash.com
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Antwerp Central Railway Station, Antwerp_www.flickr.com

Art Nouveau began gaining traction. Architects began to experiment and create exquisite structures from iron and steel, spiralling majestically. The Art Nouveau style was characterised by iron and steel frameworks with stone, frescoes, and graffiti, all combined with natural, feminine curves and skylights. This style is seen in buildings such as the Old England Building and the Maison Cauchie. 

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Old England Building, Brussels_www.gettyimages.com
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Maison Cauchie, Brussels_www.flickr.com

Victor Horta was one of the pioneering architects whose townhouses contributed to Belgium being considered the Art Nouveau capital of the world. Hotel Tassel, by Horta, is considered to be the world’s first Art Nouveau structure. Gustave Strauven, Henry Van de Velde, and Paul Hankar were some other architects, inspired by Victor Horta, who also significantly contributed to Belgium’s Art Nouveau structures. This style mostly flourished in Brussels as a result of the improving economic conditions of the middle and upper classes. It led them to spend extravagantly on indulgent townhouses and houses.

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Hotel Solvay, Belgium_www.explore.brussels

The end of the First World War brought on a change from curves to straight lines. The excessiveness of Art Nouveau structures felt fraudulent. While Art Nouveau was almost single-handedly pioneered by Victor Horta, Art Deco was the result of numerous architects. This style laid focus on simple shapes and symmetry. Belgian architect Albert Van Huffel’s Koekelberg Basilica is one of the shining examples of this style. Private mansions and apartments such as the Villa Empain and the Van Buuren Museum are some more Art Deco treasures of Belgium.

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Koekelberg Basilica_www.wikipedia.org
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Villa Empain, Brussels_www.visit.brussels
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Van Buuren Museum, Brussels_www.architecturaldigest.com

However, during the 1960s and 70s, a majority of the art deco structures were torn down as they were considered of no value. Some structures such as the former Belgian radio and TV building, Flagey, were rescued due to growing public demand for the conservation of Belgium’s heritage.

Present – From “Old Buildings to Exquisite Structures”

Belgium’s architectural past of the 20th century has buildings designed by various “starchitects” adorning its skyline. There is the astounding Port Authority Building by Zaha Hadid, Liège-Guillemins Railway Station by Santiago Calatrava, and Antwerp’s Palace of Justice by Richard Rogers. The 1958 World Fair’s Pavilion in Brussels, the Atomium, is another famous structure. It was meant to be deconstructed and removed at the end of the world fair, however, its public popularity meant that it would survive to date. 

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Liège-Guillemins Railway Station, Belgium_www.unsplash.com
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Port Authority Building, Belgium_www.huftonandcrow.com

Contemporary structures such as Villa Roces, the Ghent City Pavilion, the Umicore Building, and the Hofheide Crematorium present wonderful, eye-catching examples of the current strides in the country’s architecture. Other structures such as the Vlooyberg Tower, Reading between the lines, and Le Toison d’Or are some other astonishing structures.

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Villa Roces, Belgium_www.wikipedia.org
Le Toison d’Or, Belgium_www.jaspers-eyers.be

REFERENCES

Oliver Wainwright – The Guardian (2022). The Flanders phenomenon: how Belgian buildings went from joke to genius. [online]. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2022/apr/28/flanders-phenomenon-belgian-buildings-joke-genius-greatest-public-architecture-earth-zaha-hadid 

Lonely Planet (2010). Belgian Architecture. [online]. Available at: https://www.lonelyplanet.com/articles/belgian-architecture

James Norman – The Culture Trip. Contemporary Belgian Architecture | The Best Buildings and Designers. [online]. Available at: https://theculturetrip.com/europe/belgium/articles/contemporary-belgian-architecture-the-best-buildings-and-designers/

Nana Van De Poel – The Culture Trip (2017). Belgium’s 10 Most Unique Structures And Buildings. [online]. Available at: https://theculturetrip.com/europe/belgium/articles/belgiums-10-most-unique-structures-and-buildings/

Focus on Belgium (2016). BRUSSELS, ART NOUVEAU CAPITAL. [online]. Available at: https://focusonbelgium.be/en/culture/brussels-art-nouveau-capital

Author

Kanak Holani is a first year architecture student who can usually be found reading novels and trying her hand at various crafts. She is passionate about history, culture and climate and how it all ties in with architecture.

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