Brussels Facades

by Nick Fern

I was brought up on the concept of the London square, so the heterogeneity of Brussels streets is a charm that took some time to acquire and is only seen by walking.

I’ve been told that planning laws forbade more than two or three identical facades next to each other, but plot width, the style in vogue when most of the buildings were constructed, and, I guess, a practical limitation on height (three or four floors, in a world with no domestic lifts) ensured a harmonious whole. And, of course, Belgian individualism was much happier when everyone had their own distinct style; no worry as to whose front door belonged to whom.

… the heterogeneity of Brussels streets is a charm that took some time to acquire and is only seen by walking.

So, having had now a year of limits on travel, I’ve started various cross Brussels walks, usually following a bus or tram route. For example, the tram 81 travels through a marvellous cross section of multi-cultural Brussels, from Montgomery to a park on the edge of the E19 at the edge of Anderlecht.

Clearly, in the first decade of the 20th century and then in the 20’s Belgium’s wealth was on display. Sometimes the frontage may be simple but with the most magnificent iron work decorating doors and balconies; or simplicity made charming by the addition of a sgrafitti or mosaic panel, often high up. Most of the ironwork is cast, easier to make, but still demanding a local and industrial artisan sector. However, much of the more delicate work is forged, the job of a blacksmith, working presumably to the designs of the architect.

Thus, even ignoring the public works, the Town Halls of St Gilles and Schaerbeek, now less than the most sought-after communes, the private display of fine taste still shows the status they had a century ago. Not everything has been destroyed though often one has to walk head and eyes up, to ignore the horrible shop fronts lining the streets.

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