Thursday, 31 October 2013

Brussels art deco - Uccle and Ixelles

Brussels is well known for its large collection of art nouveau buildings, but the city is also rich in art deco and modernism from the 1920's through to the 1940's. Many of the best examples of Brussels art deco are in the suburbs and last Sunday afternoon I was fortunate enough to be able to see several of them on a walk through Uccle

Uccle (or Ukkel if you prefer the Dutch/ Flemish name) was a rural area until the period immediately after the First World War when it became subject to rapid development, including the construction of a large number of art deco and modernist buildings demanded by the grown up children of families that might previously have desired and been able to afford art nouveau residences. This change in demand reflected the changes brought about by the War. These included shortages of materials, money and patience. Clients wanted their homes built in six to twelve months rather than the five or so years it had taken to construct the Art Nouveau gems designed by Victor Horta and his contemporaries. 

My walk began in Avenue L'Echevinage which contains several interesting buildings - the first being a very simple house dating from the mid 1930's and for which the architect is unknown (any information on his or her identity would be very welcome!). At first glance the house is very simple with only modest decorative detail, reflecting the rejection of the earlier art nouveau style. However, a closer look reveals some very clever detailing - the criss-cross brickwork underneath the bay window, the v-shaped metalwork details and glazing in the front door, repeated on the small window to the side and the railings on the external steps. The brickwork is also used to decorative effect with bricks being laid both upright and lengthways on different parts of the facade. The pillar with the light fitting to the left of the door adds further interest to this little house and of course the vibrant red paint makes it stand out on this most elegant of Uccle's side streets.

Art deco house, Avenue L'Echevinage, Uccle, Circa 1935, architect unknown.
Just a little further down the avenue stands a building known as la maison des terraces, built in 1935 and designed by architect Raphael Delville, Admiring this beautiful modernist, white painted cement building in the autumn afternoon sunshine, for just a few seconds I could imagine myself in Tel Aviv. The house has beautiful curved balconies, curved glazing at first floor level and a hidden doorway beneath the first of the terraces. There is also a roof garden, built for social gatherings and sun bathing which became popular in Europe for the first time during the 1930's as part of a new awareness of, and interest in health. Again, I was reminded of Tel Aviv where communal space was provided on the roof of apartment blocks to encourage communal activity as well as to provide space for washing clothes and other practical activities.

Delville worked with another leading Belgian architect - Stanislas Jassinski, in designing a World City proposal for Antwerp in 1941. The World City idea was a utopian vision of another Belgian - Paul Otlet in which a single city, the world city, would radiate knowledge to the rest of the globe, through bringing together major cultural, social and sporting institutions in a single place. The Antwerp plans were not realised but Delville's maison des terrasses vies for being my favourite deco or modernist building in Brussels - albeit with strong competition.

La maison des terrasses, Avenue l'échevinage, Uccle. 1935, Raphael Delville.
Raphael's maison certainly won my heart but I was equally impressed by the work of another architect - Louis Tenaerts. A prolific architect, he was responsible for many of the buildings in Uccle, including at least five in Avenue Coghan alone. As with several of the architects I discovered on this walk, there seems to be very little information about him on the internet or in English language publications. Sounds like a book waiting to be written?

I must confess that I almost missed Tenaerts' best Uccle buildings. The day which had started out in autumnal sunshine had grown darker and heavy rain had began to fall. Cold and wet, I was on the verge of calling it a day when my guide mentioned an "interesting little deco house" around the corner. I must thank him for this teaser which turned out to be an understatement. Tucked away in the quaintly named Rue de la Seconde Reine (street of the second queen) is the other candidate for my favourite Brussels deco building. Dating from 1930 and the only deco building in the street, this beauty has a wonderful glazed facade which runs the length of the staircase. The narrow facade also has a small balcony and three half disc decorative features below the flat roof. Despite the darkness and the driving rain, I managed to get a couple of reasonable pictures of the building. Just great! 

The house in Rue de la Seconde Reine was one of two Tenaerts designed buildings that stood out on my walk, the other being in Avenue Coghan. Also dating from 1930 and another narrow building, it  too has a window that runs the length of the staircase, a roof terrace and a stylish black and white striped surround to the garage door.

Rue de la Seconde reine, Uccle. 1930, Louis Tenaerts.

Avenue Coghan, Uccle. 1930, Louis Tenaerts.
Jean-Florian Collin was another busy architect from this period. His speciality appears to have been apartment blocks, one of which can be found at 358 Avenue Brugmann in Uccle. This large block has a somewhat austere exterior broken only by some interesting cement beading running up the facade and  an imposing recessed main entrance. The centre of the door sports a sunray motif which is repeated at the apex. Built in 1930, this is one of a number of blocks along Avenue Brugmann, most of which were built as financial investments and some of which are demolished every thirty years or so to be replaced with something more contemporary for the rental market!

Collin worked on into the 1970's, including designing large social housing estates in France and Belgium. Perhaps more interestingly, he was active in the Belgian resistance during the Second World War and was awarded both the French Croix de Guerre and the Medal of Resistance. He went on to become actively involved in politics including serving in the Belgian parliament, holding office as Mayor in a small town near Namur and vigorously campaigning for European economic integration.

Apartment building, Avenue Brugmann. 1930 by Jean-Florian Collin.
While most of the deco buildings I saw in Uccle were residential properties, the district boasts a stunning art deco church, one of three in Brussels. The Catholic Church deemed art deco to be an acceptable architectural style having earlier rejected art nouveau as being too sensual. The Church of St. Augustine sits in the centre of the interestingly named Place de L'Altitude 100. Dating from 1936 and the work of architects Guianotte and Watteyne, the church dominates the skyline of this part of the city. Described as a pyramid, within a circle, within a square, it has many classic art deco features incuding several references to the "rule of three" and the use of geometrical motifs. The church was locked on the day of my tour but I am advised that the interior is also impressive both in size and appearance - and is now far too big for the local congregation.

The Place de L'Altitude 100 draws its name from the fact that this is the highest point in the city. Well, Belgium isn't famous for being mountainous.

Summit of Church of St. Augustin, Place d'Altitude 100, Uccle. 1936, Guianotte and Watteyne.
Uccle is not the only part of the city where art deco and modernist architecture can be seen. The Ixelles district, perhaps better known for its art nouveau (which I will post about later) also boasts a number of excellent art deco buildings.

The Cascade apartment building on Rue General de Gaulle was built in 1939 and is the work of architect Rene Ajoux. Overlooking the Ixelles Ponds, I love the cream ceramic tiled cladding, the rounded corner balconies and the curved glazing on the block's facade. It is adjoined to a pair of equally   beautiful art nouveau buildings, demonstrating the architectural richness of this quarter. One of the art nouveau houses was for sale on the day of my visit. Sadly it was offered for several million Euros. I must remember to buy that Euro Millions lottery ticket.

Just across the ponds from the Cascade is one of Belgium's most famous modernist buildings in Place Flagey. Originally built as the home of the national radio and broadcasting company - the INR. It was for a time considered for demolition but has been reinvented as a cultural centre with cafes, cinema, theatre, music and an exhibitions programme. It has also acquired a new name -  Flagey. Built between 1933 and 1939 and designed by Joseph Diongre, it occupies a long, large footprint on the edge of Place Flagey. It has recessed upper floors and a circular tower with three levels that stand out across the ponds. Guided tours of the centre can be arranged by booking in advance - details are on the website.

Brussels architectural walks are offered by the Action Urbaine organisation (ARAU). Their rich programme includes many styles of architecture across the city with qualified and interesting guides.

You can see more pictures from Brussels here.

You might also like  Art Deco in AntwerpModernist Riga and Marcel Janco and Modernist Bucharest.
Cascade apartment block, Re General de Gaulle, Ixelles. 1939, Rene Ajoux.
Flagey, Place Flagey, Ixelles. 1933-39, Joseph Diongre.

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