Brussels and its heritage: a tumultuous relationship

Brussels and its heritage: a tumultuous relationship

Brussels is well known for its heritage and its sites, which are remarkable both for their diversity and for their often-singular stories. Our capital's heritage reflects the city! To mark International Day for Monuments and Sites - whose 2021 theme is "Complex pasts: Diverse futures" - discover a selection of buildings and sites whose complexity has left its mark on the history of Brussels. While large-scale urban development projects are often criticised at the time of their implementation, as was the case recently when part of the city centre was transformed into a pedestrian area, it is often difficult to determine whether their long-term future impact will be positive... Join us as we look at some typical examples from Brussels’ past! 


    The Villa Empain

    You probably know the Villa Empain as a cultural venue, but are you familiar with its tumultuous history?  

    If you know Brussels' majestic Avenue Franklin Roosevelt, you're bound to have spotted the imposing Villa Empain! It was built between 1930 and 1935 at the request of Louis Empain, son of wealthy businessman Édouard Empain.  

    Louis Empain was only 22 years old when he embarked on this architectural adventure. He entrusted the construction of his Art Deco villa to architect Michel Polak, who already had a great reputation! The lines were sober, but the refinement was extreme, particularly in the choice of materials. The villa's swimming pool was also highly admired back in the 1930s.  

    Louis Empain only lived in his Brussels villa for a short time, possibly as little as a year... before donating it, in 1937, to the Belgian State, which transformed it into a museum of decorative arts. Requisitioned during the Second World War by the Germans, the property was then rented to the USSR embassy, which led to protests from Louis Empain, who recovered his property in 1963!  

    Used as a multicultural centre for about ten years, Louis Empain sold his property which was being rented at the time to the RTL channel - a rather luxurious site for radio and TV studios! When the Luxembourgish media moved out of the villa, it became a victim of vandalism and was partially destroyed. Thankfully the Boghossian brothers bought it, restored it completely and set up their foundation, conceived as a centre for art and dialogue between the cultures of East and West. A fine reconversion and a symbol of openness to the rest of the world. 



    © Fred Romero


    The Palace of Justice

    Brussels’ Palace of Justice is one of the capital’s most imposing monuments; but do you know the story behind this famous building? 

    This colossus immediately catches the eye when you are visiting the upper part of the city. Making an impression on the general public was also the building’s original intention. 

    The Palace of Justice was built between 1866 and 1883. Today, this giant towers high above the Brussels cityscape, and the choice of location was no coincidence. The area known then as 'Gallows Hill' was the execution site for those condemned to death during the Ancien Regime. This is where the famous architect Joseph Poelaert began work. He was clearly inspired by Greco-Roman temples - though, in truth, the building is eclectic in style - and he had great ambitions! Poelaert created a gargantuan building, with some 40,000 m² of usable area and a dome that sits more than 100 metres up in the air!  

    The gigantic scale of the project caused many problems for the architect, which tarnished the image of the building. The compulsory acquisition of housing in the modest Marolles neighbourhood, the astronomical sums that had to be invested, the maintenance and heating costs - at the time, 1,200 tonnes of coal were needed to heat the building in winter - were just some of its issues! The expansion plans in the 1960s, which led to the 'Battle of the Marolles', caused further upheaval.   

    The building, which was partly set on fire by the Germans during the Second World War, has been undergoing continuous renovation for more than 40 years. The image of the courthouse surrounded by scaffolding is part of the collective memory of several generations... and now even the scaffolding needs replacing!  

    After several years of debate about the purpose of the building, it was finally decided that it would remain a judicial building. It is a fine example of a commitment to the past and our collective heritage! 


    © Sebastien Nagy


    The 'North-South connection'

    You have probably already travelled through Brussels by train from north to south. But do you know the complex background to the construction of this rail link?

    Since its inauguration in 1952, it has seen the passage of 1,200 trains a day: the 'North-South connection' is an essential part of mobility in Brussels!

    In the 19th century, rail transport gradually became more important in Brussels, with the construction of the North Station — on the site of the present-day Place Rogier — and the South Station — on the present-day Place Rouppe; but there was no possibility of crossing the centre of the capital by train... For this reason, but also to remedy delays and train accidents, many projects were drawn up... and the winner was that of the engineer Bruneel, a largely underground rail link — 2 km of underground tracks for a total length of 3.5 km.

    The construction work began in 1911 and was completed only in... 1952! Before the work began, ten years was devoted to studying the projects' feasibility as well as the expropriation procedures... which involved 1,650 buildings and 12,000 Brussels residents... There were sure to be protests against these works, which reconfigured a large part of the city centre — at times being referred to as the 'scar' of the city centre — and sometimes destroyed historic districts.

    Although it can be difficult to imagine the positive effects of a radical building project, in this case they soon became apparent: for example, it became possible to reach the heart of Brussels by train — via the new Brussels Central station; moreover, the much more modern appearance of the centre also played a role in the hosting of such an event as the 1958 World Fair. In short, the outcome for Brussels was certainly beneficial!

    And today, given the many environmental issues that concern us, the train is more than ever the means of transport of the future!



    © Sebastien Nagy


    The Maison du Peuple

    You probably already know the Sablon Tower - or Tour Blaton - the 27-storey high building in the centre of Brussels... but have you heard of the building's predecessor, the Maison du Peuple, one of architect Victor Horta's grandest achievements?  

    This high-rise building has stood on Place Émile Vandervelde since 1965, but did you know that this was once the site of the Maison du Peuple, a remarkable Art Nouveau building in the city centre? Built between 1896 and 1899, it was, like all the other "People’s Houses" erected throughout Europe, a social meeting place for culture and political debate. 

    As was often the case with Horta's creations, it was a work of great quality that impressed not only with its size but also its construction and decoration. It contained numerous majestic reception rooms with extraordinary acoustics - the largest of which was on the fourth floor - a beautiful steel structure and a series of rooms of various uses (a café, a butcher's shop, a bakery, staff offices on the second floor). It was known at the time as the Palais Horta or the Horta Socialist Church, as it was the venue for many meetings and congresses. 

    In 1964, the place was judged to be old-fashioned and its demolition - or more precisely its dismantling - followed in 1965... An attempt was made to save the building by storing the various parts first in Tervuren and then in the King Baudouin Park... but these intentions sadly never came to fruition. Since then, the building has become a symbol of the phenomenon of Brusselisation: the devastation caused by destruction for the benefit of real estate or urban development projects, combined with real estate speculation. 

    Since 2020, a beautiful 3D reconstruction has made it possible to visit the Maison du Peuple as if it were still standing!