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Building character: Brunfaut’s Progressive Architecture

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14:44 02/04/2013
Between the 1920s and 1960s, the Brunfaut family of architects designed some of Belgium’s best-known buildings. Some of them are famous for their usefulness and longevity, such as Brussels Airport, and some for their years of abandonment and neglect.

Chances are you’ve never really thought about the origins of Brussels’ Central Station, as you rush through on your way home. The terminal of Brussels Airport in Zaventem is another building that is taken for granted as travellers pass through its doors; it serves its purpose, and we don’t think any more about it.

But a new exhibition will open your eyes to the architectural ideology of these landmark structures – for these works are connected, and their modernist-era designers are being celebrated at the Atomium in the exhibition Brunfaut’s Progressive Architecture.

The Brunfauts were a family of designers who were a major influence on the architectural landscape of Brussels and Flanders from the 1920s through to the 1960s. Born before the turn of the century in Wallonia, brothers Fernand and Gaston both became architects, the former studying under Victor Horta, father of the Art Nouveau style. Maxime, Fernand’s son, followed him into the profession and would later collaborate with him on many works.

What sets the Brunfauts apart isn’t just the commissions of Brussels’ most important travel hubs; they weren’t just architects, designing glorious buildings for their own personal achievement. All three were also staunch socialists and combined their interests in political action and urbanism with their architecture. Their designs were greatly influenced by their socialist ideologies, giving rise to buildings that were functional but also created with the common good in mind.

As the exhibition title denotes, the Brunfauts were, above all else, progressive architects.

A socialist utopia

Working in the early part of the 20th century, the Brunfauts’ ideas tied in with socialist utopian ideals of the time. They believed in a bright future and were convinced that progress would lead to solutions for society’s ills, helping everyone to prosper.

Over the years, the Brunfauts became the preferred architects of the Belgian Labour Party, the country’s first socialist party, and were commissioned to construct several buildings for the party during the first half of the century. Fernand himself eventually became an MP and even gave his name to the pioneering Brunfaut Law on working-class housing in Belgium.

One of the family’s early designs can still be seen on Rue Saint-Laurent in Brussels, where the Asturian Delegation in Brussels now has its headquarters. The Brunfauts were asked to design the building for the socialist newspaper Le Peuple in 1931. Inspired by the Vesnin brothers’ Pravda tower in Russia, the Brunfauts’ impressive building with its glass facade was supposed to symbolise the transparency of the socialist movement, while its ultramodern design would serve as a sign of Brussels’ progressive attitude.

Most used, and most disused

From 1930 onwards all Fernand’s designs were done in collaboration with Maxime. The father-son duo worked on the Central Station in Brussels, finishing it together in 1952, just a few years after the death of Horta, their teacher. A link back to the era can be seen at the façade of the station’s main entrance, where nine windows symbolise the nine provinces of Belgium at the time.

One of the Brunfauts’ most important achievements is the Sanatorium Joseph Lemaire in Overijse, just outside of Brussels – although you wouldn’t know it today. Now famously abandoned, dilapidated and covered in graffiti, with shards of glass the only remnants of the windows that once were, it has been placed on a list of endangered buildings.

Designed as a place to recuperate, often for those suffering from tuberculosis, the building was in keeping with the hopefulness and confidence of modernism. Maxime’s socialist ideals were really put to use on this one. He insisted on installing one hand basin for each patient, an unusual request at the time, and even visited the families of miners to see how TB spread so that he could better design the infirmary.

The family remained committed to their socialist cause, receiving several important commissions from the Belgian Labour Party, including the construction of its headquarters in Brussels.

The Dagblad Vooruit

The Brunfauts’ influence further extended into Flanders with the swimming pool in the Leuven district of Kessel-Lo but most especially with Ghent’s Dagblad Vooruit. Located across the street from the famous Vooruit socialist palace-cum-cultural centre, the glass-fronted building hasn’t housed the socialist newspaper that once printed there for decades, but it still stands – empty. The latest plan for the listed building is to turn it into a youth hostel.

Gaston, meanwhile, was a follower of the minimalist International Style of modernism, and in 1949 was part of a team of architects that designed the United Nations Headquarters in New York, working with the world-famous Swiss architect Le Corbusier. The Brunfaut brothers both died in the 1970s, with Maxime living until just 10 years ago. Their legacy, however, will remain far, far into the future.

Brunfaut’s Progressive Architecture includes archives, photos, maps, models and exclusive accounts of the family’s personal and architectural story. The old plans and photographs serve to transport visitors back to a time of progressive thinking and abundant hope for the future and lend an appreciation and understanding for the works of the Brunfaut family, which, despite often being allowed to stand empty and fall to ruin, are still all around us to this day.

Atomium, Square de l'Atomium, BrusselsUntil June 9.

This article first appeared in Flanders Today

Written by Karen McHugh