Georges Rouzeau - 2006-11-01
Brussels is a city on the move, vibrating with an intense cultural drive that will culminate in 2007 with the anniversary of the Treaty of Rome. From the Atomium to the Centrale Electrique, from Art Nouveau to the history of Belgium, here is an overview of the places that have (re)opened in the last two years.
De l’Atomium à la Centrale électrique, de l’Art nouveau à l’histoire de la Belgique, voici un panorama des lieux (ré)ouverts depuis deux ans.
This is a visual shock worthy of Close Encounters of the Third Kind. As soon as you leave the Heysel metro station, the immense silhouette of the Atomium looms up before you. These nine metal spheres, built for the World Fair of 1958 by engineer André Waterkeyn, represent an iron crystal magnified 165 billion times: the atoms are symbolised by the spheres whilst the binding forces between them are represented by bars linking the spheres to each other. Culminating at a height of over 100 m, the structure at the time embodied the triumph of science and industry. This tourist attraction reopened in April this year after major restoration and reconstruction work. The cost of the operations was such that this symbol of Brussels very nearly disappeared for good. Five million two-euro coins embossed with the effigy of the Atomium were issued to commemorate its rebirth.
The tour is carried out in two stages. You take the lift – which, in 1958, was the fastest in the world – to the top floor to enjoy a 360° panoramic view of Brussels and the surrounding area. This is also where you will find the Atomium restaurant, a (very pleasant) surprise (see our article). Next, return to the ground floor for the rest of the tour: taking escalators and stairs, you can explore the spheres and admire the old-fashioned modernity of this Leviathan of iron and steel. One of the spheres contains an exhibition devoted to the Barbie doll: better things have been seen at the Atomium, notably a fabulous retrospective of fifties design. Don’t forget your camera: there are fantastic shots to be taken to capture this unique atmosphere reminiscent of Space: 1999.
Inaugurated a year and a half ago in the presence of the king and queen, the Belvue Museum is devoted to the history of Belgium, from its revolutionary birth in 1830 to the creation of the federal state, and including the end of the colonial empire in the Congo. Each room will delight history buffs with the quality of the original documents presented and an exhibition space design that is both classic and rigorous, even though it uses the most modern means. At the same time, the corridors of the museum are devoted to the history of the Belgian monarchs, from Leopold I to King Baudouin. One display cabinet even contains the jacket, broken rope and a piece of the rock against which Albert I, a seasoned mountaineer, smashed his skull on 17th February 1934 at Marches-les-Dames.
You will have a very informative time in a setting that is in itself a piece of history...In effect, the old Bellevue hotel was built in the late 18th century on the ruins of the old castle of the Dukes of Brabant (11th century), which served as a palace for the Dukes of Burgundy, then for Emperor Charles V and his successors. The hotel also welcomed many prestigious visitors and served as a residence for Princess Clémentine (1909), as well as for the future King Leopold III shortly after his wedding to Princess Astrid (1926-1930). Complete the tour with a visit to the archaeological site of the former Palace of Brussels, which is beneath your feet!
Former Palace of Brussels, archaeological site of Coudenberg
In a sense, there is "nothing to see" in the former Palace of Brussels, on the archaeological site of Coudenberg situated beneath the Belvue Museum: old stones, vaults, collapsed walls, the foundations of a chapel, blocked up windows... And yet here you can physically feel the great upheavals caused by the relentless march of time. For seven centuries, a princely residence stood there on Coudenberg hill, just above the present centre of Brussels. Through the ages this palace was notably inhabited by Philip the Good and Charles V, who abdicated here in 1555. In 1731, the building was ravaged by fire and was subsequently razed to the ground. The redevelopment works that ensued gradually resulted in the royal district as we know it today. A fascinating tour.
The Centrale Electrique (power station)
As its name indicates, this large 1,000 m2 red-brick building is a former power station from the 1900s, now converted into a centre for contemporary art. This institution, which has only just opened, occupies an ideal location right in the city centre, on Place Sainte-Catherine. The building’s eclectic façade is punctuated by courses of white and blue stone and pierced with large metallic openings that give it a severe monumentality. In certain places, the façade makes reference to the tower of the old church of Sainte-Catherine, which is adjacent to this building on the square. Following the example of the Palais de Tokyo in Paris, minimal restoration has been carried out: most of the infrastructures remain visible, only a few false ceilings have been added here and there. The Comme l’édifice parisien, Centrale Electrique benefits from the natural light that filters through électrique several glass roofs more than 9 m above our heads. At the time of my visit, an exhibition entitled Zoo was exploring man-animal relationships in contemporary art. It covered cloning (Pascal Bernier), industrial trout farming (Damien Odoul), an equestrian statue made ridiculous by the use of polystyrene (Jean-François Gavoty) and, of course, the beauty of the animal and its radical otherness. The place is intended to be open to all, far from a certain elitism in force in the milieu of contemporary art. From December, the Centrale Electrique will be exhibiting a selection of African photographers from the Bamako photography biennial, the biggest event devoted to this art form in Africa.
This house from 1893 was the first construction by architect Victor Horta. The future Belgian genius of Art Nouveau took his first steps for his friend Eugène Autrique. Three months later, he signed the Art Nouveau manifesto by building Émile Tassel’s house, whose plan radically changed the classic layout of rooms in Brussels homes. Restored with care and passion, enhanced by period furniture, the Maison Autrique remains classic: it retains the entrance door situated on one side of the façade which opens onto a long side corridor leading to three adjoining rooms: the sitting room on the street side, the dining room in the middle, and the veranda on the garden side. The Maison Autrique preserves this layout and is also visited as a typical example of a late 19th century bourgeois Brussels house. Although the architect still appears timid here, his use of iron, mosaic and light already shows the path that he was to take with confidence. Comic book authors François Schuiten and Benoît Peeters, joint creators of the Les Cités obscures (the Obscure Cities) series, had a hand in the exhibition space design. This is particularly obvious in the attic, where the “folle du logis”, as the imagination is nicknamed, has taken refuge, to the great delight of children. If you are fascinated by early 20th century Brussels architecture, head for avenue Léon Bertrand on leaving the Maison Autrique (turn right). This avenue, laid out in 1905, presents a remarkable architectural coherence that is very rare in Brussels.
Léon Spilliaert, a free spirit
Although the great playwright Michel de Ghelderode accused his country of being a “miscarriage of the diplomacy of 1815”, Belgium has nonetheless produced some very great artists... who did not all ask for French nationality! Make the most of the retrospective organised by the Royal Museums of Fine Arts to (re)discover the painter and sketcher Léon Spilliaert (1881-1946), born in Ostend. Reader of Nietzsche and Lautréamont (when L
les Chants de Maldoror were still unknown in France), friend of Maurice Maeterlinck and Emile Verhaeren, Léon Spilliaert is an artist in a class of his own, whose anguished universe sometimes evokes that of De Chirico. His inks and pastels wonderfully reproduce the silent world of objects, while a vaguely human form appears in a corner of the painting.
Crowne Plaza Hotel
Nicknamed “Le Palace”, the Crowne Plaza Brussels, which dates from the Belle Époque, is one of Brussels’ historic five-star hotels. It was recently fully refurbished in Viennese Art Nouveau style and still stands above the Botanical Garden. The city centre and Grand Place are a ten-minute walk away via avenue Adolphe Max or the shopping street, rue Neuve. The Roegiers metro station allows easy access to the financial district and Atomium. The hotel boasts 358 spacious, air-conditioned rooms equipped with all mod cons. You will also find a restaurant and pleasant beer bar on the premises.
Brussels tourist office:
The Atomium, boulevard du Centenaire, Square de l'Atomium, 1020 Bruxelles
Metro line 1A, direction Heysel.
Tel: +32-2-475 47 77
Fax: +32-2-475 77 79
Belvue Museum, place des Palais, B-1000 Bruxelles.
Metro stations: Parc, Trône, Porte de Namur, Gare centrale; tram: 92, 93, 94.
Former Palace of Brussels, archaeological site of Coudenberg, place des Palais 7, B-1000 Bruxelles,
Ask for a combined ticket for this and the Belvue Museum.
Tel: +32 (0) 2 545 08 00
Maison Autrique, chaussée de Haecht, 266. 1030 Bruxelles.
Tram: 92 and 93 (Saint-Servais) and 90 (Robiano). Bus: 65 and 66 (Robiano) and 59 (Herman).
From Wednesday to Sunday, from 12pm to 6pm (last admission at 5.30pm).
Centrale Electrique, 44, place Sainte-Catherine, Wednesday-Sunday 11am-6pm, except Thursday 11am-8pm.
Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium
Hôtel Crowne Plaza “Le Palace”, rue Gineste, 3, 1210 Bruxelles. Reservations: 0800 917 164.
Hotel reception: 32-2-2036200
Hotel fax: 32-2-2034011