My kind of town is one that has character enough to overcome the disorders that are heaped on it in the course of its daily life. I do not have a shrine to tend, as my friends in Walkeshwar, Mumbai, do or as a citizen of the ancient would have had, as a key to the rituals of renewal that lend order to a state of apparent chaos. The contemporary European city is my lot and I am interested in the roots of the modern condition to underpin it. That is why I had little difficulty in choosing Brussels, a city that epitomises the dilemmas and ambiguities of our condition. On the one hand is its tendency to revel in the past, manifested by the plague of museum building, while on the other there is a tendency to shy away from the public real to the asylum-like privacy of the bedroom or office. Warmth has become our god and that is not a cultural state that has been conducive to the well-being of towns. To understand the hidden agenda of the avant-garde in Belgium, and particularly the symbolist and surrealist heritage that challenged the public realm by profoundly disturbing the world view of the private domain, it is worth setting the scene a little.
Brussels became the capital of the kingdom of Belgium when it was founded in 1830, and in many ways that of Europe following the second world war. In recognition of the city’s growing status almost very decade and multiple has seen an exhibition or building campaign initiated in its celebration, making Brussels the European museum city par excellence. The list of interventions is too long to begin but each has left its mark on the topography of the city; some profound, others absurd and some of the best lying ambiguously between the city of the interior and that of the exterior.
Undoubtedly the most absurd gesture is the Atomium, an iron crystal molecule magnified 20 billion times and built for the 1958 World’s Fair”
For the international exhibition of 1880 the Palais du Cinquantenaire was created and now houses, with other less macabre institutions, a Royal museum of warfare commemorating Brussels as both the crossroads of Europe and the necropolis of the continent. Curiously the city lacks the distinguishing features of the urban cemetery park, like Montparnasse in Paris, but boasts a beautiful neoclassical square, the Place des Martyrs, the surface of which inclines gently towards its centre at which is revealed a mausoleum, like an open wound, a floor below. Not surprisingly Victor Bourgeois considered Brussels an apt location for building Le Corbusier’s Geneva Mundaneum project complete with an Urbaneum as a part of a vision of the Cité Mondiale.
The grotesque star-figured Berlaymont, the EU headquarters building, is also a truncated version of the urban tower building (based on Le Corbusier’s ‘ville de trois millions d’habitants’ of 1922), drawn by an acolyte in 1932. Of gargantuan scale two other projects are worthy of mention. On the site of the city’s gallows, Poelaert designed the monstrous neo-baroque Palais de Justice (almost twice the plan area of St Peter’s), which is at least a fitting tribute to the symbolist poet Paul Verlaine, who was tried and imprisoned after a shooting incident in Brussels. Undoubtedly the most absurd gesture is the Atomium, an iron crystal molecule magnified 20 billion times and built for the World’s Fair of 1958.
The city of interiors is by contrast of great power and dignity. To start with, the impressive Grand Place whose elevations, created by the Hôtel de Ville and the guild houses, are like the heraldic drapes in some vast hall. Close by, cut into the picturesque historic fabric, are the Galeries Saint Hubert (above) that were the centre of urban life for 50 years after their opening in 1847. Grandly proportioned, this covered city was replete with shops, a theatre, casino, clubs and newspaper offices that spawned the foundations of artist’s group Les XX and the review L’Art Moderne. The exhibitions, lectures and concerts of the Belgian societies were vital in the development of modern art and inspired the great epoch of symbolist architecture, of which Brussels is the capital. While London has one Soane museum, Brussels has a handful of interiors that surpass it in their completeness and synthesis and provide a direct lineage from Viollet-le-Duc to Chareau. Victor Horta created four extant examples and another, the Maison du Peuple (below), was disastrously demolished in 1969.
The most intense interiors are those of the surrealist poets and painters. The two strands of Belgium surrealism began to merge in the mid-1920s to become one of the most influential cultural groups of the twentieth century. Thinking of that shrine and my own transient understanding of this city I leave the last words to René Magritte: ‘I am repatriated by a moment of panic. These are the privileged moments that transcend mediocrity. But for that there doesn’t have to be art – it can happen at any moment. If one looks at a thing with the intentions of trying to discover what it means, one ends up no longer seeing the thing itself, but thinking of the question that has been raised. One cannot speak about mystery; one must be seized by it’.
Eric Parry’s My Kind of Town was first published in AT16 (March 1991)