Sunday 16 February 2014

Art deco in Antwerp

99 Meir, Joseph Selis, 1933
Antwerp is known for its historic centre which dates back to the middle ages, for its connection with Rubens and Flemish painting and for its famous port through which millions of immigrants left Europe seeking a new life in the Americas. Antwerp should also be known for its 20th century architecture, including its rich collection of art deco buildings. 

I recently visited the city for the first time, armed with a google map and tips from an excellent Facebook page called  Art Deco Antwerpen , which is a must for all visitors interested in architecture. This is not a large city and many of the deco highlights are within walking distance of each other. Unfortunately I chose a grey and wet weekend to visit but a warm coat, big scarf, umbrella, camera and regular coffee stops ensured that I thoroughly enjoyed my visit.

Meir, Antwerp's main shopping street, is home to my favourite deco building in the city. 99 Meir is currently home to Italian fashion designer Massimo Dutti's store. Originally a second Meir branch of Maison Tilquin, manufacturers and purveyors of high quality silver cutlery, it was designed by architect Joseph Selis, and completed in 1933. It is a slim, striking building with numerous deco features making it stand out from its larger neighbours. Constructed from reinforced concrete, the facade features slightly rounded windows and a central pillar topped by a flag pole. The pillar divides the floors in half and has examples of the classic "rule of three" displayed at the top and bottom of the pillar as well as on the flagpole. The door has a striking handle resembling two number threes facing each other.

Selis also designed the original interior including the knife shop, counters and cupboards, some of which remain today due to the protected status of the building. Whilst I was in Antwerp, the store was closed, apparently for refurbishment so I was unable to go inside but it was possible to see the counters and lighting from outside. Clearly, I will have to come again! The building has been the Massimo Dutti store since 2003 and underwent extensive refurbishment from 2002-4 under the supervision of the Department of Monuments and Sites.

Doors, 99 Meir, Joseph Selis, 1933

KBC Tower, 35 Schoenmarkt, Jan van Hoenacker, 1932.
Europe's first skyscraper stands at 35 Schoenmarkt,  a short walk from 99 Meir. Built between 1929 and 1932 and originally the Torengebouw van Antwerpen, the KBC Tower stands 87.5 metres tall, second only in the city to the Cathedral of Our Lady. Reflecting the period architecture of Chicago and New York, it was one of Europe's first buildings with a structural carrying frame, also reflecting practice in the USA. The tower dominates the city centre skyline with its deco-featured soaring facade. Unfortunately, many of the original internal features have been lost. The tenth floor tearoom and beer hall were ripped out in the 1970's and the roof terrace cafe was closed. Things could have been worse. In the 1960's there were plans for complete demolition. A "restoration" took place in the 1970's which included removing the apartments on the upper floors and converting them to offices. Today the tower has retail space on the ground floor and offices at all other levels. 

Despite the losses, the facade can still stop visitors in their tracks with window after window, floor after floor and the stylised figures at the lower levels. The central tower is flanked by two wings, one curved, accentuating the height and narrow waist of the tower. It is known to Antwerp's residents as the Boerentoren or farmers' tower, as at the time of building the most important shareholder was a farmers' co-operative. The architect was Jan Van Hoenacker who designed a number of buildings across Belgium including a theatre, bank office and brewery.

Deco figures on the faced of the KBC building
Many of the buildings featured in this post were constructed close to the time of the 1930 Exposition that took place in both Antwerp and Liege. The Antwerp fair concentrated on maritime and colonial themes whilst Liege focused on industry and science. The Exposition also marked the centenary of Belgium as a sovereign state. Few buildings remain from the Exposition but on the outskirts of the city, the Kristus Koningskirk stands in the middle of the residential area of Kiel. The church was built from 1928-30 and was designed by architect Jos Smolderen. During the exposition the church was used to display Flemish art to visitors from around the world. 

The church has elements from a variety of styles but clearly fits into the modernist/ art deco genre with a particularly striking main clock tower and brickwork reminiscent of the Amsterdam School. Smolderen spent time in the Netherlands during the First World War, seeking refuge in Belgium's neutral neighbour. During this time he had contact with Dutch architectural genius H.P. Berlage. There are other examples of the influence of the Amsterdam School amongst the buildings surrounding the church - a school dating from 1934 as well as a number of residential properties. Kiel is another part of Antwerp to visit again.   

Kristus Koningskirk, Kiel, Antwerp. Jos Smolderen, 1930.
Kristus Koningskirk, Kiel, Antwerp. Jos Smolderen, 1930.

Detail of school in the Kiel district, 1934.
Few cities can boast an art deco style church. Antwerp also has an art deco tunnel! The Saint Anna Tunnel is a pedestrian and cycle route under the Scheldt river. The entrance buildings on both sides of the river were designed by Emiel van Averbeke who also completed the early drawings for the KBC tower. These imposing structures are constructed of yellow brick and have partially glazed pillars on each flank. There are decorative canopies above the entrance and at the top of each building.

The interior of the tunnel is charming. Visitors descend a wooden escalator reminiscent of some of the old London Underground stations and then pass through a 572 metres of white tiled walkway. There is also a colourful tiled information panel in the tunnel, giving details of its dimensions and dates of construction. The tunnel was completed in just 22 months and cost the equivalent of one million Euros. Seems like a bargain to me. The grand opening took place on September 10th 1933 with Antwerp Mayor Camille Huysmans officiating and walking through the tunnel, bizarrely followed by 20,000 students!

Detail, entrance Saint. Anna tunnel. Emiel van Averbeke, 1933.

Entrance, Saint Anna tunnel.
Ceramic information panel, Saint Anna tunnel.

Antwerp has many other art deco and modernist buildings to explore and discover. The city is conveniently placed to allow a visit to be combined with Brussels, Amsterdam or even Paris thanks to Eurostar. Below are a few more examples of Antwerp's version of deco.

Retail and office building off Meir

Curved detail of building above
Door to the Tropeninstitut, Nationalstraat
Modern house (I think!) in modernist style in Cogels Osylei.
You might also like Brussels art deco - Uccle and Ixelles
Visit my Facebook page Art Deco and Modernism around the world

1 comment:

  1. Beautiful buildings! And yes, that last hous is modern. It was built in 1992 by Conix Architects!