Friday 8 November 2013

Art nouveau, Ethiopian coffee and a fabulous risotto - a bit more Brussels

Lobby ceiling, Generali Building, Rue Baron Horta
Brussels is just two hours by train from London. Well known for beer, chocolate and sea food, this is a city with much more to offer than those and one which is seriously under-rated. It is an architectural treasure house especially for devotees of art nouveau and art deco, is home to some world class museums and makes a mean cup of coffee too! 

The main reason for my recent visit was to see the Henry Van de Velde exhibition at the Cinquantenaire Museum. Van de Velde was one of those multi-talented individuals that abounded in the 1900-1930 period. He was a painter, an architect, designed furniture and textiles and also turned his hand to writing. Not only was he enormously skilled in these areas, he had received no formal training in most of them and was a self-taught architect. Despite that the boy did well and his legacy is on glorious display in the current exhibition which includes his paintings, furniture, architectural drawings and reconstructions of some of the interiors of his various homes. Born in Antwerp in 1863 he worked in Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany and Switzerland throughout his long life. The exhibition also features works by his contemporaries including a couple of interior design pieces by Josef Hoffman and some rather wonderful pointilist paintings by Paul Signac.

Van de Velde's early architecture was in the art nouveau style. One of his contemporaries was Paul Cauchie, who designed the art nouveau masterpiece - Maison Cauchie which stands in Rue des Francs, just five minutes away from the Cinquantenaire. Maison Cauchie was built as a private home, which explains the legend Par nous pour nous (by us, for us) on the building's facade. The facade advertises his sgraffito capabilities in addition to his architectural talents. Incidentally, his wife, Carolina Voet was also an accomplished artist. The couple met when studying at the Academie Royale des Beaux Arts in Brussels. The house can be visited once a month - see the website for details.

Facade, Maison Cauchie, Rue des Francs, 1905, Paul Cauchie
Another art nouveau favourite of mine is the Maison de Saint Cyr in Square Ambroix. Built in 1902 and designed by architect Gustave Strauven, this beauty is just four metres wide but is the most striking building in this pretty square. The house is rich in lines, curves and geometric shapes, many of which are provided by the ironwork on the balconies - all of which are different. Just about every inch of the building is covered in decorative detail, colour or ornament. I love the large windows and the circular feature on the uppermost floor. Rather incongruously, a bus stop stands right outside the house, juxtaposing the elegance of fin de siecle Brussels with the busy modern city and people waiting to go to work. The house was completely restored in 2010 and appears to be in excellent condition. What a wonderful place to live!

Maison de St. Cyr, Square Ambroix, 1902, Gustave Strauven
Art nouveau architecture can be found throughout Brussels, including many fine examples in the Ixelles district. The house in Rue du Lac designed by Leon Delune and built in 1904 is an especially beautiful example. In need of some restoration, it still shines with its enormous stepped, glazed facade, which follows the staircase. The glazing is covered in floral motifs as is the "P" shaped glazing on the main door. Delune was responsible for a number of art nouveau buildings in Ixelles in the streets surrounding the ponds, notably Rue de la Vallee and Avenue General de Gaulle.

Maison in Rue de Lac, 1904, Leon Délune.
Maison in Rue de Lac, 1904, Leon Délune
For me, no trip is complete without some quality cafe time, strong coffee and good cake being my not very secret and certainly not guilty pleasure. On this visit I discovered something very special - the Aksum Coffee House in Rue des Eperonniers. Housed in a small and beautiful art nouveau building which sports a huge vintage advertisement painted on the outside wall, this Ethiopian owned and run cafe sells great Ethiopian coffee and a rather marvellous lime cream pastry. Not to mention the pistachio crumble! The smell of coffee permeates the cafe and several types of bean and blend are on offer as is hot chocolate and speciality tea. Although tiny, the cafe packs customers in and also manages to stage interesting art exhibitions. At the time of my visit a series of works from Senegal were on show. A real find and a place to return to.

Aksum Coffee House, Rue des Eperonniers
Still on food, I had the possibly best vegetarian risotto of my life to date in the Bozar Brasserie in the Palais des Beaux Arts - the large Victor Horta designed cultural centre on Rue Baron Horta. A bit of a find - a Brussels restaurant with a really good vegetarian option, my dish was deliciously peppery with sweet potato, artichoke and other interesting vegetables - a cut above what passes in many cities as risotto and great for those of us not fond of meat. The dining room has been lovingly restored to what I assume resembles its original 1928 look with dark wood, steel, hat stands and period lighting and is now in the capable hands of David Martin - a local superstar chef (think Ottolenghi, Stein, etc). He also has a restaurant in Cambodia near Angkor Wat! The Palais itself has a world class programme of music, art and theatre and it is possible to sneak in during the day to view and even take pictures of the public areas.

The Generali Insurance Company stands just across the road from the Palais des Beaux Arts and after looking at it for a few minutes and feeling it to be familiar, I realised it is similar to the Generali building  in Jerusalem's Jaffa Street. The lobby door was ajar and I peeped in to discover the beautifully decorated ceiling pictured at the top of this post. Sporting mermaids, boats, a lion and striped decorative features it was a very lovely surprise. I can't seem to find any details about this building, so as usual any information will be most welcome!

Several European cities have managed to keep their grand shopping galleries from the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. In Brussels most visitors will find the opulent Galeries St. Hubert a short step from the Grand Place and filled with enticing, if expensive chocolatiers. Dating from 1847, the Galeries also has a great book shop specialising in art and architecture where many a happy hour (and Euro) could easily be spent.

Much as I like these Galeries, they are not quite my favourite - that accolade has to go to the Galerie Bortier in Rue de Madeleine. Opened one year after Galeries St. Hubert, this much less glitzy arcade with its wood panelled walls and glass roof is crammed full of second hand booksellers, antique print shops and a tiny shop selling old maps. It is a browsers paradise and another place where serious money could be spent! Rue de Madeleine has several contemporary art galleries, so after browsing the books, you can browse the art work too.

Galerie Bortier looking on to Rue de Madeleine
One of the best things about traveling is happening on something interesting just by chance. Well, I had one of those experiences in Brussels. Wandering around the centre of the city, I came across an exhibition called the Chocolat Show.  Housed in an old shop unit, it was a temporary exhibition of chocolate tins dating back over many decades. The tins were all from the collection of Yvette Dardenne, who apparently has over 56,000 of them in total! It was a step back into a more stylish time with tins designed to commemorate important events or to appeal to different markets. The collection includes items from Switzerland, Germany and France and even a couple of items from good old Cadbury's. The exhibition will now be closed but you can read more about Ms. Dardenne's obsession here.

Window display of Chocolat Show
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You can see more pictures from Brussels here.

1 comment:

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