Wednesday, 18 May 2011

Old England

The glass and steel tower of the Old England department store in Brussels is an extraordinary sight with a wealth of intricate decorative detail heavily influenced by Art Nouveau. Occupying an imposing position above the heights of the Mont des Arts, close to the place Royale, it was completed in 1899 to a design by architect Paul Saintenoy (1862-1952). For Saintenoy it represented an astonishing stylistic leap into the future when compared with the Pharmacie Delacre that he designed only a year earlier. The Pharmacie Delacre (below) is a fantasia of Flemish architecture in which traditional forms are given a Gothic twist and piled high in a Romantic accumulation of arches, turrets, spires and dormers – a world away from the assertive modernity of the Old England store. The chain of Old England department stores was founded by a Paris-based Scotsman, James Reid and included branches in Paris, Bordeaux, Geneva and Rome before arriving in Brussels in 1886. Tailoring for gentlemen and supplies of provisions and stationery were the specialities. Business must have been good – within 10 years new, much larger, premises were commissioned and Saintenoy’s shiny new Art Nouveau extravaganza opened in 1900. This was annus mirabilis for Saintenoy who was quick to abandon Art Nouveau in favour of more classical styles. In 1910 he took up a teaching appointment in the Académie Royale des Beaux Arts and his career as a practising architect dwindled to the occasional restoration project and never again approached the achievements of 1898-1900.

The store ceased trading in 1973 by which time local planning laws had obliged the owners to remove much of the decorative ironwork and paint the superstructure in white to conform to the colour code of the place Royale district. After decades of decay the building was purchased by the State to re-house the Musée des Instruments de Musique. Restoration began in 1989 and over the next 10 years the façade was returned to its original condition while internally it was adapted to function as a museum. The Musée des Instruments de Musique finally opened in 2000, the only addition to the façade being the strips of musical notation attached to the balconies.

Saintenoy’s design was basically that of an industrial building with a steel frame, glazing on the front to maximise daylight throughout the store and concrete floors. The seven floors were needed to replace selling space lost when city planners seized part of the site to widen the road. The profile is greatly enhanced by the central cupola flanked by an obelisk and a six-sided turret topped with an extraordinary lantern in wrought iron. Wrapping the steel on the front with sprays and tendrils of organic ironwork, brass and copper detailing and large ceramic panels spelling out the store name made the building stand out from anything else in the area. Compared with Horta’s À l’Innovation store on rue Neuve (1900), that exists only in photographs, having burned down in 1967, Old England appears determined to impress even at the cost of being considered unrestrained and flashy. It is curious that the pre-eminent Art Nouveau building in central Brussels should be the work, not of Victor Horta, acknowledged master of the style or even a lesser light, such as Paul Hankar, but of an architect who experimented in the idiom just once and quickly moved on.


Vanhees Benoit said...

Very eloquent, well written article on a very fine building indeed ! I wonder if this architectural gem would have survived, if it wouldn't have been so close to the Royal Palace. So many beautiful buildings in Brussels didn't, including the Palais d'Eté, the Grand Hotel or the Central Post Office...

Benoit Vanhees

Paul Snell said...

Great summary of a real landmark of Brussels!