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New facades in the old style: Brussels and the “Îlot Sacré” urban plan of 1960

Des façades neuves aux formes anciennes : Bruxelles et le plan urbanistique « Îlot Sacré » de 1960
Nieuwe voorgevels met vormen uit vervlogen tijden: Brussel en het stedenbouwkundig “Îlot Sacré”-plan uit 1960
Dominik Scholz
Traduction de Jane Corrigan
Cet article est une traduction de :
Des façades neuves aux formes anciennes : Bruxelles et le plan urbanistique « Îlot Sacré » de 1960 [fr]
Autre(s) traduction(s) de cet article :
Nieuwe voorgevels met vormen uit vervlogen tijden: Brussel en het stedenbouwkundig “Îlot Sacré”-plan uit 1960 [nl]

Résumés

Sur décision du conseil communal, la Ville de Bruxelles retrouva un aspect résolument historique à partir de 1960. De nombreux immeubles privés situés dans le centre historique se parèrent de façades en style ancien. Cette époque, connue comme destructrice envers la vieille ville, a paradoxalement mené à un renforcement de son caractère historique — un phénomène peu connu jusqu’ici. S’agit-il de l’expression particulièrement précoce d’une critique du progrès qui se manifestera ailleurs en Europe à partir des années 1970 ? Le présent article jette un nouveau regard sur l’urbanisme bruxellois. En analysant les acteurs et les discours, il s’interroge sur les raisons qui ont mené à la construction d’un nouveau centre-ville historique dans les années 1950 à 1970. L’article montre que ces raisons résident non pas dans le patriotisme local des mandataires communaux, mais dans une synergie complexe entre la politique urbanistique officielle, les protestations de la société civile et le désir d’épanouissement au niveau socio-économique.

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Notes de la rédaction

In order to see the figures in a better resolution, go to the article online and click on “Original” below it.

Notes de l’auteur

This article is taken from a doctoral thesis defended at Freie Universität Berlin in 2017. The research and publication in book form in 2019 were funded by the Gerda Henkel Foundation (Düsseldorf).

Any reproduction, in whole or in part, by any process whatsoever, without the consent of the owners of the work and the Archives of the City of Brussels, is prohibited.

Texte intégral

  • 1 Development of the “Îlot” plan made up of the Grand-Place and its surroundings. List of streets and (...)

1The Grand-Place is an architectural marvel and a showcase for the City of Brussels. The contrast with the surrounding streets is striking. The architectural quality is less sumptuous, and the buildings are often in very poor condition: abandoned ground floors, dilapidated facades, entire buildings uninhabited and a profusion of souvenir shops for tourists. A singular yet little-known urban planning policy had a deep impact on the socio-economic and urban development of this area. This was namely the “specific development plan for the area made up of the Grand-Place and its surroundings” from 1960. This municipal plan, sometimes referred to as the “Îlot Sacré plan”, was drawn up by the architecture department of the City of Brussels, and was approved unanimously by the municipal council on 21 March 1960 and formalised by royal decree on 24 August 19601. Until its repeal in 1995, it regulated the appearance of facades in a large area around the Grand-Place, encompassing no fewer than 691 buildings. In fact, the aim of this urban plan was “to preserve or restore the old and folkloric character of the public space within this area”. For the buildings concerned, it applied to all visible parts – mainly facades – and not to invisible parts (interiors, courtyards, rear facades) or to uses, i.e. residential or commercial. No less than 46 % of the facades in this area were “to be preserved and maintained”, and 28 % were to be “built in 17th and 18th century styles [...], regardless of their current state”. These styles were based on the use of brick and paintable lime mortar rendering. As many of these facades were covered with white plaster in 1960 [Eloy, 1985], the replacement of this plaster with visible bricks and the construction of richly decorated gables represented a major change, giving this part of the city an older appearance. Many of the brick facades and stepped or scrolled gables in the streets around the Grand-Place date from after 1960 (Figure 1).

Figure 1. Example of one of the new facades. It is located at 21 Petite rue des Bouchers

Figure 1. Example of one of the new facades. It is located at 21 Petite rue des Bouchers

On the left, the existing facade around 1955 and, on the right, the project designed and approved in 1957 by Jean Rombaux, municipal architect, with the facade as it was built.

Archives of the City of Brussels, Public Works, 77665

2In keeping with the urban planning views of the time, the 1960 Îlot Sacré plan was limited to passive planning. It did not concern the ownership of buildings, and did not require any work to be carried out. Instead, it came into force only when owners decided on their own initiative to make changes to their buildings. As a result, when a building permit application was submitted, even if it was just to replace windows or reinforce a gable, the owners were required to redo everything in the old-fashioned style, which could entail having to demolish the entire facade beforehand. Instead of physically preserving what already existed, the plan imposed the construction of new facades in old styles evoking a glorious past. Breaking with the rather lax approach to urban planning which had prevailed in post-war Belgium, the Îlot Sacré plan gave an older appearance to a large part of the historic heart of Brussels.

3The little-known existence of this urban plan for the area around the Grand-Place raises questions due to its stringency and atypical temporality. Academic literature describes the 1950s and 1960s as a period which was anything but respectful of the existing urban fabric and historical aspect of city centres, especially in Brussels [Van Loo, 2003: 79-82]. Brusselisation is said to have disfigured the urban fabric in an anarchic manner with the construction of motorways and modernistic towers, but this view overlooks the systematic construction of old-fashioned facades in the centre of Brussels (Figure 2).

Figure 2. Another example of a new facade, located at 24 Rue de la Violette

Figure 2. Another example of a new facade, located at 24 Rue de la Violette

On the left, the facade in 1956; on the right, the project designed by architects Henry and Jean-Marie Gilson in 1958, which was built immediately afterwards.

Archives of the City of Brussels, Public Works, 77792

4In a broader perspective, in the western world, the 1950s and above all the 1960s were heavily influenced by the idea of progress in economic, technical and societal terms. Modernistic urban planners wanted to use new knowledge and methods to greatly improve cities, which they considered poorly adapted. As a result, in most cases, these urban planners recommended demolishing the old residential neighbourhoods – which were considered to be dilapidated and unsanitary – and preserving only a few emblematic buildings. A famous example of this new approach is Brazil, which created a new capital, Brasília, in 1960. While the capital of Belgium made reference to its glorious past with the construction of old-fashioned facades in keeping with the Îlot Sacré plan, Brazil celebrated a radical break with the past as it inaugurated its new, rigorously modernistic capital in the middle of the forest. The majority of western urban planners were of the opinion that the function of a building should prevail and that its form should adapt to it. It was the victory of reason over emotion. On the other hand, the Îlot Sacré plan in Brussels regulated form only and not function.

  • 2 Prior to this study, Claudine Houbart touched on the subject, while focusing her analysis on a spec (...)

5Why did the municipal authorities decide to develop such an atypical plan? Which stakeholders were involved, and what were the arguments behind their implementation of what might be referred to as a “visual historicisation” of the heart of Brussels? Based on sources and archives studied for the first time2, this article aims to explain the adoption of the Îlot Sacré plan via the complex synergy between official municipal policy, general socio-economic transformation and the successful mobilisation of protest groups.

1. Traditional styles long favoured by local authorities in Brussels

6The fate of European city centres during industrialisation was studied intensively by former Brussels Mayor Charles Buls at the end of the 19th century. Buls was opposed to the monumental architecture preferred by King Leopold II, and was one of the few theoreticians in Europe to cast a sympathetic eye on old city centres. He felt that it was not a question of getting rid of them, but rather of taking care of them as focal points and integrating them into a harmonious land use plan. Parallel to this thinking was the need to be distinct from the very popular French styles, which were considered uniform and cosmopolitan. In 19th-century Belgium with its strong liberal tradition, the construction of buildings with an eclectic mix of Renaissance and Baroque elements provided property owners with the opportunity to stand out, and public authorities the chance to highlight the nation's glorious past, in a context of political competition with neighbouring France. The style used was often referred to as “Flemish Neo-Renaissance” or “17th- and 18th-century styles” in the plural, and played the unifying role as a Belgian national style. The idea of building in these styles was widespread even in the early 20th century, as seen with the redevelopment of Ghent's city centre for Expo 1913 and, above all, the reconstruction of city centres which had been demolished during World War I, as in Ypres. To help overcome national mourning, many municipal executives decided to give their towns an even older appearance in order to evoke a glorious national past. Following the vast destruction in the country during the war, the Commission Royale des Monuments et des Sites (CMRS) was also in favour of building facades in these styles [Scholz, 2019: 45-46].

7In the City of Brussels, it was above all the Comité d'Études du Vieux Bruxelles (CEVB), founded in 1903, which influenced the municipal authorities in this respect. This committee, which was chaired by the mayor, became known for having inventoried many buildings before they were demolished for the construction of the railway connection between the North and South stations [Meyfroots, 2001]. It is less well known, however, for its forward thinking as regards the respectful integration of the historic centre of Brussels into urban planning projects. Between 1912 and 1938, the CEVB developed four increasingly detailed proposals to create historic areas in the centre of Brussels [Scholz, 2019: 63-67]. The author of two of these proposals was municipal architect François Malfait, who took over at the CEVB when Buls died in 1917. Malfait was in line with Belgian urban planning policy at the time, but unlike Buls, he was open to the idea of building facades in the Flemish neo-Renaissance style.

8Compared to other Belgian cities, Brussels remained attached to this style for a very long time. One of the people responsible for this continuing enthusiasm was Jean Rombaux, a close colleague of Malfait's in the municipal architecture department. During the 14 years they worked together beginning in 1928, Rombaux adopted Malfait's ideas on the subject and took them to an even higher level. Rombaux only valued traditional forms, and dreamt of restoring buildings to their original state, which was not necessarily known or documented. He imagined a city with brick facades, and called for the removal of the “horrible plaster” which covered most facades [Rombaux, 1956: 72-79; Rombaux, 1960a]. In the 1950s, when Brusselisation was just beginning, the tradition of building new Flemish neo-Renaissance facades was still very much alive within the municipal administration.

9Politically, the situation was quite different. Cramped in the crowded, densely built-up City of Brussels, the municipal executive (Liberals and Christian Democrats) was not concerned about the old facades, and above all feared that the economic dynamism would shift to the other municipalities, where land was readily available. As a result, requests from investors to replace existing buildings with high-rise blocks, hotels and company headquarters were often approved. Widespread optimism and a belief in progress made the decision to demolish old buildings easier. Municipal and national authorities shared the intention to modernise the capital in order to increase its monumental aspect, revive old neighbourhoods and make the city more commercially attractive [Leloutre and Pelgrims, 2017].

2. Effective protest organised by the Ligue Esthétique Belge and Défense de Bruxelles

  • 3 Archives de la Ville de Bruxelles (AVB), Bibliothèque, Bilan des activités de la Ligue « Défense de (...)

10It would be wrong to believe that no criticism of this destructive urbanism was expressed in the 1950s. Voices were already being raised at the time. Let us mention the highly successful appeal by a journalist to the country's elite in 1952, urging them not to cede Belgium's urban planning destiny to elected representatives [Dupierreux, 1952]. This appeal led architects and town planners, as well as tourism representatives and museum directors, to create a protest group called “Défense de Bruxelles” in 1953. They set themselves the goal of “modernising the capital harmoniously while respecting its beauty and past”3. A reasonable compromise between the two movements seemed necessary to them: “Our principle is not to set the past and future of Brussels against each other [...], but to reconcile, in a healthy understanding of the present, two points of view which seemed divergent only because they had not been confronted sufficiently” [Van Damme, 1955].

  • 4 Extraits d’un mémorandum de monsieur Grosjean à des personnalités parlementaires sur la nécessité d (...)

11While the Défense de Bruxelles group has been studied in part [Deligne and Billen, 2009], a second protest group has remained outside the focus of academic research until now: the Ligue Esthétique Belge, founded in 1953 as well by Pierre Grosjean, owner of the Galeries Royales Saint-Hubert. Grosjean feared a loss of income for his property, but above all was also deeply convinced that he should fight against “vandalism” and “the aesthetic degradation of Belgium” as a whole4. For him, beauty was an objective criterion, and only buildings in the old style deserved to exist. With his ambition to safeguard the idealised image of Belgium undergoing deep transition, Grosjean succeeded in attracting a wide conservative audience. Initially close to the Christian Social Party (PSC), the Ligue Esthétique Belge already had 1 000 associate members a year after its formation, including counts, barons, ministers and economic stakeholders such as the Société Générale de Belgique and the Union Minière du Haut-Katanga. Specialists in architecture and urban planning were underrepresented. Grosjean maintained effective lobbying relations with these people and institutions. Furthermore, he often mentioned the names and titles of the distinguished members he represented, in order to be heard. Despite a decentralised organisation into provincial committees, the League's work relied above all on the involvement of the founding president himself [Scholz, 2019: 87-95].

  • 5 Allocution à l’I.N.R. du 26 janvier 1954 [par Pierre Grosjean], in: AVB, Archives de la Ligue Esthé (...)

12Despite their strong differences, the two associations agreed on the positive role of the urban fabric of the historic centre in urban planning policy; both also criticised the laxity and nonchalance of members of the Brussels municipal executive. They launched petitions and sent letters to elected representatives, thus gaining enormous media coverage in the mid-1950s. Pierre Grosjean, president of the Ligue Esthétique Belge, “monitored the authorities” with outstanding professionalism. He criticised them for their “incredible inefficiency and [...] incoherence” [Ligue Esthétique Belge, 1953: 13]. After presenting the League's manifesto at the Palais des Beaux-Arts in December 1953, Grosjean addressed the general public on the radio: “Indignation is no longer enough. Protesting is hardly better. We must oppose and we must fight”5.

13Since 1953, the municipal executive of Brussels had been facing heavy criticism for its lack of a coherent, respectful urban planning policy. Furthermore, the Ligue Esthétique Belge had managed to convince a powerful municipal councillor, Raymond Scheyven, to become a member. It was PSC national treasurer Scheyven's interpellation during the city council meeting on 22 March 1954 which finally triggered a major change. He demanded that the municipal executive pursue a comprehensive urban planning policy which would include the Ligue Esthétique Belge and Défense de Bruxelles [Au Conseil communal de Bruxelles, 1954]. Following Scheyven's sharp criticism, Pierre Merten (PSC), the alderman for public works, was forced to take action. He prepared a detailed response for the meeting of 14 June 1954. That day, he opened a new chapter in the city's urban planning policy. In an immediate reaction to the media pressure from the Ligue Esthétique Belge and Défense de Bruxelles, Merten announced that he would treat the urban fabric with respect and consider the historic part of the city as a positive element to be integrated into town planning policy [BCB, 1954: I, 762-787]. This fundamental declaration did not go unheeded. As a first direct consequence, a financial budget was allocated for the construction of facades of private buildings in the Flemish neo-Renaissance style. From 1954, the owners of these buildings could automatically apply for municipal financial assistance of up to 25 % of the cost of the works to modify their facades in this style. The municipal budget made available for this purpose would gradually increase each year. A second consequence was the creation of a municipal planning committee, which the Ligue Esthétique Belge and Défense de Bruxelles were invited to join. From then on, all urban planning projects had to be discussed by this committee, giving these two protest groups direct political influence.

3. Reinventing “îlots sacrés”

14The new way in which the historic part of Brussels was viewed by the municipal executive of Brussels took another step forward in 1956, with a change of members. Liberal mayor Van De Meulebroeck wished to step down, so Lucien Cooremans – a member of the same party who lived near the Grand-Place – took over as mayor. Cooremans took advantage of his inaugural speech to the municipal council on 27 February 1956 to announce the next step: the implementation of an entire urban planning programme aimed at creating historic areas in the historic centre. In his view, the modernisation of Brussels “[could] not be achieved at the expense of the venerable testimonies to the past: it [was] necessary to identify ‘îlots sacrés’ where the historic face of residences and sites [should] remain intact” [Scholz, 2019: 101-104]. Just as Merten – alderman for public works – would later repeat, Cooremans specified that the “îlots sacrés” were intended to compensate for the demolition of other neighbourhoods. In return for the establishment of these areas, the land in the historic centre which was not part of this programme would remain free of all urban planning constraints, in order to enable a major transformation of the urban fabric.

15It was mayor Cooremans himself who coined the expression “îlots sacrés”, which later became an established term [Scholz, 2019: 103-104]. The concept itself already existed: Cooremans commissioned municipal architect Jean Rombaux to draw up this urban planning programme, which was based on the work carried out in the first decades of the 20th century by the Comité d'Études du Vieux Bruxelles (CEVB) and its former superior, François Malfait. Though not very active, this committee still existed in the 1950s. Rombaux based his work on the CEVB's documentation and the 1 500 photos taken when it listed all of the facades affected by the demolitions associated with the North-South connection. Furthermore, Rombaux defined the area of the first “îlot sacré”, i.e. the one around the Grand-Place, more or less based on the boundaries drawn by Malfait in 1918. The “îlots sacrés” programme was therefore a direct continuation of plans which had been developed more than 30 years earlier. Rombaux also took up the idea of going beyond the area of the Grand-Place, defining several other areas in the historic centre as historic areas. Like the CEVB at the time, Rombaux had plans for a second “îlot sacré” around the Vieille Halle-aux-Blés. According to Rombaux, the six other “îlots sacrés” to be created in 1956 were the Grand Sablon, Place du Béguinage, Place des Martyrs, Place des Barricades, Place du Congrès and finally, as the eighth “îlot sacré”, the Parc de Bruxelles and its surroundings. All of these “îlots” were to cover approximately one fifth of the Pentagon area (Figure 3).

Figure 3. Map of the centre of Brussels, drawn by municipal architect Jean Rombaux, showing the location of the eight planned “îlots sacrés (dated between February 1956 and 1 April 1957)

Figure 3. Map of the centre of Brussels, drawn by municipal architect Jean Rombaux, showing the location of the eight planned “îlots sacrés (dated between February 1956 and 1 April 1957)

Source: Archives de la Ville de Bruxelles, Cabinet du Bourgmestre Lucien Cooremans, plate 255, card 2

16It was at an event organised by the Ligue Esthétique Belge in 1958 that Merten confirmed these plans and officially launched the programme for the eight future “îlots sacrés”. Rombaux's position was strengthened by the continuous lobbying of the Ligue at political level. It kept up the pressure, alerted the media and organised public events. His status as a member of the municipal planning committee gave the Ligue Esthétique Belge enormous weight. With an iron fist in a velvet glove, its chairman Grosjean dominated the work and decisions of this committee. This led to the approval of a long list of amendments to the special development plan for the first “îlot sacré”, which became even more restrictive, giving absolute priority to the aesthetics of the facades and disregarding the other essential needs of the residents and shopkeepers concerned (Figure 4).

Figure 4. One of the 500 leaflets which the Ligue Esthétique Belge had distributed to local shopkeepers in 1960 to encourage them to build new facades in an old style

Figure 4. One of the 500 leaflets which the Ligue Esthétique Belge had distributed to local shopkeepers in 1960 to encourage them to build new facades in an old style

Archives of the City of Brussels, Archives of the Ligue Esthétique Belge, box V

  • 6 See letter from Pierre Merten, Echevin des Travaux Publics, to Victor Bure, Directeur Général de l’ (...)

17The special development plan for the first of the “îlots sacrés” was completed by Rombaux at the end of 1959 and adopted in 1960. Both the heritage of the 19th century – still promoted by municipal architect Jean Rombaux – and the militant forces of Défense de Bruxelles and, above all, the Ligue Esthétique Belge, were necessary in order to succeed. This atypical synergy – which developed in Brussels between 1954 and 1960 – was made possible by two factors. The first was the level of municipal autonomy which existed in Belgium. If a municipal executive wished to apply principles which had long been considered outmoded elsewhere, it was free to do so. The higher authorities of the Ministry of Public Works had to content themselves with overseeing the application of the not very restrictive urban planning regulations in force in Belgium since 1946 [André, after 1961]. The second factor was that these national authorities made the conscious decision not to prevent the adoption of the “îlot sacré” plan, which again was linked to the intervention of the Ligue Esthétique Belge. Its president, Pierre Grosjean, extended his lobbying to Victor Bure, the powerful director general of urban planning at the Ministry of Public Works, whom he had included in the discussions from the beginning and with whom he had discussed the plan on several occasions6.

4. The negative consequences of the urban plan for the first “îlot sacré”

18The one-sided orientation of the Îlot Sacré plan – at the time known as “Number 1” – had radical effects as soon as it came into force in 1960. The first people to be affected were building owners. All of their planning permit requests had to go through Jean Rombaux. The municipal architect was trying to encourage owners to adorn their buildings with old-fashioned facades, based on a budget established for this purpose in 1954. This is evidenced by a series of brick facades with plaques indicating the years 1956, 1958 or 1960, or with 1961 on their gables (Figure 5).

Figure 5. Detail of the facade located at 24 Rue de la Violette, showing 1958 as the year of construction

Figure 5. Detail of the facade located at 24 Rue de la Violette, showing 1958 as the year of construction

See also Figure 2.

Photo taken by the author in 2024

  • 7 Lettre de M. van Nuffel d’Heynsbroeck, président de l’asbl Œuvre de l’Hospitalité, à Lucien Coorema (...)
  • 8 Lettre d’Adrien Bosmans, directeur du bureau d’architecture Gudrun, à la direction des Finances de (...)

19From 1960 onwards, thanks to the Îlot Sacré plan, Rombaux was able to take advantage of the new, stricter regulations to rigorously impose his stylistic preferences. Owners were generally unhappy about “the obligation to build facades in the style of the 17th century”7. It was not only the imposition of a “very special style”8 which annoyed them, but also the high costs it entailed. Co-financing by the City of Brussels for facades – which continued to be granted throughout at least the 1960s and 1970s – only covered 25 % of these costs and did nothing to improve housing or commercial conditions. As a result, owners preferred not to invest their own equity and offered their properties for rental. One of these owners used the press to alert the public to the enormous cost of Flemish neo-Renaissance facades and the financial disaster which awaited owners after purchasing a building which was subject to the requirements of the Îlot Sacré plan [Van de Voorde, 1973] (Figure 6).

Figure 6. A brick facade located at 15 Rue de la Madeleine, built in the early 1970s in accordance with the urban planning requirements of the 1960 “îlot sacré” plan

Figure 6. A brick facade located at 15 Rue de la Madeleine, built in the early 1970s in accordance with the urban planning requirements of the 1960 “îlot sacré” plan

The other two facades on the left and right were built before the plan came into effect and are therefore older.

Photo taken by the author in 2024

  • 9 Lettre de Jean Rombaux, Architecte principal de la Ville de Bruxelles, à Léon Reumont, Ingénieur pr (...)

20Convinced that he had to defend Brussels against the modernists, Jean Rombaux turned a deaf ear to financial complaints. As a result, there was an increase in the number of new facades with an old-fashioned style being built in the area covered by the plan, such as the Kredietbank (renamed KBC in 1998) offices in Rue de la Montagne, and Galerie Agora. The latter is the most striking example of this extreme focus on the visual aspect: built in the mid-1960s, the entrances to the gallery in Rue des Éperonniers and Rue de la Colline feature brick facades without a building or a roof added behind them (Figure 7). Even Rombaux admitted that “the abnormal situation [...] [was] beginning to attract serious criticism from well-informed people”9.

Figure 7. The new facades of the Galerie Agora located at 11 Rue des Eperonniers, built in 1963; the sky is visible behind them, as there are no buildings attached to them

Figure 7. The new facades of the Galerie Agora located at 11 Rue des Eperonniers, built in 1963; the sky is visible behind them, as there are no buildings attached to them

Photo taken by the author in 2024

  • 10 The master plan for the centre of Brussels written by the Tekhnê group in 1962 was so rigorous from (...)

21Building owners were not the only ones to question the municipal executive regarding the negative consequences of the Îlot Sacré plan on socio-economic and urban development. In the early 1960s, urban planners also regretted the fact that the municipal executive had involved protest groups such as the Ligue Esthétique Belge in drawing up the plan, rather than specialists such as themselves [Scholz, 2019: 170-172]. Unexpectedly, an element which accelerated the change in perspective was Congo's independence in 1960. The year of the adoption of the Îlot Sacré plan – intended as the first of the eight plans to be implemented – was also the year when many urban planners and engineers who had planned airports, dams and new districts within the Office des Cités Africaines, had suddenly lost their jobs. Although these specialists intended to work for young overseas countries from then on, with the creation of the legendary Tekhnê engineering consulting firm10 in Brussels in 1960 [Moniteur Belge, 29/09/1960, 3896: 1617-1619], the Brussels municipal executive also wanted to benefit from their colonial expertise. The desire for a radical change in urban planning policy was prompted by the Belgian Minister for Health, who criticised the living conditions in the centre of Brussels towards the end of 1960 and made subsidies available to the Brussels municipal executive for “slum prevention” [Scholz, 2019: 152]. In response, the municipal executive commissioned Tekhnê engineering consulting firm in January 1961 to develop a radically modernistic “master plan” for the entire city centre. The main objective of this plan was to improve housing conditions, as well as to improve traffic flow and economic development. It did not take over the plans for the other seven “îlots sacrés” which Rombaux had begun to work on. These plans never saw the light of day. The phase during which the municipal executive was open to the idea of reinforcing the historic appearance of facades in the city centre therefore only lasted from 1954 to 1960. By abandoning the creation of the other “îlots sacrés” in favour of encouraging the use rather than the appearance of buildings, the municipal executive anticipated the new urban planning law adopted in 1962, which prohibited Belgian municipalities from drawing up urban development plans without defining the use of the land concerned.

22The alderman for public works, Paul Vanden Boeynants (PSC), was then tempted to modify the only Îlot Sacré plan which had been implemented – the former “îlot sacré” number 1 – given its negative effects on housing and commercial development. This attempt was unsuccessful, however, due to the increased complexity of political decision-making brought about by the federalisation of Belgium. This resulted in the division of the CMRS into two, the creation of the Urban Area of Brussels and the loss of national power in terms of urban planning. As a result, and against the wishes of almost all of the parties concerned, the 1960 Îlot Sacré plan remained in force, and its requirements were applied effectively until it was repealed in 1995 by the new Brussels-Capital Region, created six years earlier [Scholz, 2019: 150-231].

Conclusion

23The temptation is great to pass negative judgment on the former obligation to build new facades in an old-fashioned style, as it existed from 1960 onwards in the “Îlot Sacré” urban plan for the area around the Grand-Place. Let us recall that, at the time, the protection of architectural heritage as defined at the beginning of the 21st century did not yet exist. For decision makers at the time of the plan, the only option for dealing with the radical, unbridled modernisation of the city, which was breaking away from the urban fabric passed down for generations, was to reinforce the old-fashioned appearance of the facades in certain areas. The Ligue Esthétique Belge were militantly in favour of this option to preserve the image of the Belgium of yesteryear, in at least a few places. It was thanks to their action since 1953 that the municipal architect, Rombaux, was able to develop an urban planning policy such as this, which was already outdated elsewhere. The synergy between the effective lobbying of a conservative group and the presence of a nostalgic movement within the municipal administration became a reality in the absence of strict urban planning rules at national level and thanks to the municipal autonomy in these matters in Brussels and in all other Belgian municipalities.

24The programme involving eight “îlots sacrés”, of which only the first was implemented in the form of an urban development plan in 1960, was in perfect harmony with the concept of functional zoning which had been promoted by the modern movement internationally since the 1930s. Zoning divided the urban fabric into functional geographical entities, some of which were to be modernised by enhancing the historic aspect of facades, based on strict requirements. On the other hand, other areas were modernised in a completely unrestricted approach. We may therefore conclude that historic Brussels as envisaged by the “îlots sacrés” programme of the late 1950s was thus in perfect keeping with functional modernisation at the urban planning level; historic Brussels in the form of the “îlots sacrés” programme was a product of modernisation, not a carefully preserved remnant of the past.

25This urban planning element distinguishes the “îlots sacrés” programme from “La Belgique Joyeuse”, the folklore complex which existed briefly during Expo 58. In fact, the two concepts existed more or less at the same time, but the development of the “îlots sacrés” programme had already begun before the start of the exhibition. Expo 58 was an initiative of the Belgian government, and La Belgique Joyeuse was the result of the support received from the Belgian brewers' federation, while the “îlots sacrés” were the responsibility of the local authorities. Even when it was suggested to Mayor Cooremans that La Belgique Joyeuse should be transferred to the city centre after Expo 58, he did not make the link between the folklore complex – which was made of unsustainable plaster – and his municipal urban planning project, which he considered necessary for the future development of the city. The “îlots sacrés” programme and La Belgique Joyeuse met the same need to reassure the population during a period of hypermodernisation, but they had no connection with each other in terms of their creation [Scholz, 2019: 122-123].

26The Îlot Sacré plan was already an anachronism when it came into force in 1960, and remained so for 35 years. What survived was an urban situation artificially frozen in time, with dilapidated buildings hiding behind new facades in an old style. The plan also amplified the tradition of facadism, which has spread to many parts of the Brussels Region. In terms of its geographical dimensions, the old Îlot Sacré plan was reactivated in 1998 to form the buffer zone required by UNESCO in order to declare the Grand-Place a World Heritage Site. The term “îlot sacré”, meanwhile, continues to be used following the decision by the union of shopkeepers in Rue des Bouchers to call itself the “Commune Libre d'Îlot Sacré” in 1960 [Longcheval, 2012]. As a result, the term is no longer associated with an urban development plan in the late 1950s which covered a large part of the city centre in reaction to Brusselisation, but with the restaurants and folklore of a few small tourist streets.

The author wishes to thank his thesis supervisors, Chloé Deligne (ULB) and Dieter Gosewinkel (FU Berlin) for their guidance, and also Claire Billen (ULB) for helping to define the research theme.

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Notes

1 Development of the “Îlot” plan made up of the Grand-Place and its surroundings. List of streets and buildings under the application of article 4 of the differential regulations. Considered and adopted by the Municipal council meeting of 21.03.1960, in: Service Public Régional de Bruxelles, Bruxelles Développement urbain, Direction de l'Urbanisme, file D2043/82-001, municipality of Brussels.

2 Prior to this study, Claudine Houbart touched on the subject, while focusing her analysis on a specific figure [Houbart, 2012]. This study is based on a systematic analysis of the Fonds du Bourgmestre and Fonds de la Ligue Esthétique Belge in the Archives of the City of Brussels; all of the important debates held by the Brussels City Council at the time; the Fonds René Lefébure in the Archives of the Royal Palace; and the urban planning archives of the former province of Brabant held by the Brussels regional administration.

3 Archives de la Ville de Bruxelles (AVB), Bibliothèque, Bilan des activités de la Ligue « Défense de Bruxelles » depuis sa fondation, Brussels 05/01/1956, p. 1.

4 Extraits d’un mémorandum de monsieur Grosjean à des personnalités parlementaires sur la nécessité de la défense esthétique des cités et des paysages (s.d., s.l.), in: AVB, Archives de la Ligue Esthétique Belge, box G.

5 Allocution à l’I.N.R. du 26 janvier 1954 [par Pierre Grosjean], in: AVB, Archives de la Ligue Esthétique Belge, box F, file « allocutions, interviews ».

6 See letter from Pierre Merten, Echevin des Travaux Publics, to Victor Bure, Directeur Général de l’Administration de l’Urbanisme au ministère des Travaux Publics, of 10/03/1960, in: SPRB, Bruxelles Développement urbain, Direction de l’Urbanisme, file D2043/82-001, municipality of Brussels.

7 Lettre de M. van Nuffel d’Heynsbroeck, président de l’asbl Œuvre de l’Hospitalité, à Lucien Cooremans, bourgmestre de Bruxelles, 04/10/1958, in: AVB, Cabinet du Bourgmestre Lucien Cooremans, 154/1 « Divers », farde « 1959 », pour rue de la Violette 24.

8 Lettre d’Adrien Bosmans, directeur du bureau d’architecture Gudrun, à la direction des Finances de la Ville de Bruxelles, 19.11.1958, in: AVB, TP 77665, pour la Petite rue des Bouchers 21.

9 Lettre de Jean Rombaux, Architecte principal de la Ville de Bruxelles, à Léon Reumont, Ingénieur principal de la Ville de Bruxelles, 27/08/1965, in: AVB, TP 82066, pour la galerie Agora.

10 The master plan for the centre of Brussels written by the Tekhnê group in 1962 was so rigorous from a functional point of view with respect to its application of the Athens Charter, that the plan, and the group as a whole, were criticised as part of the social protest movements of the 1970s. The fact that the plan was never adopted officially, and its details never published, contributed to the legendary nature of the Tekhnê group.

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Table des illustrations

Titre Figure 1. Example of one of the new facades. It is located at 21 Petite rue des Bouchers
Légende On the left, the existing facade around 1955 and, on the right, the project designed and approved in 1957 by Jean Rombaux, municipal architect, with the facade as it was built.
Crédits Archives of the City of Brussels, Public Works, 77665
URL http://journals.openedition.org/brussels/docannexe/image/7273/img-1.png
Fichier image/png, 832k
Titre Figure 2. Another example of a new facade, located at 24 Rue de la Violette
Légende On the left, the facade in 1956; on the right, the project designed by architects Henry and Jean-Marie Gilson in 1958, which was built immediately afterwards.
Crédits Archives of the City of Brussels, Public Works, 77792
URL http://journals.openedition.org/brussels/docannexe/image/7273/img-2.png
Fichier image/png, 479k
Titre Figure 3. Map of the centre of Brussels, drawn by municipal architect Jean Rombaux, showing the location of the eight planned “îlots sacrés (dated between February 1956 and 1 April 1957)
Crédits Source: Archives de la Ville de Bruxelles, Cabinet du Bourgmestre Lucien Cooremans, plate 255, card 2
URL http://journals.openedition.org/brussels/docannexe/image/7273/img-3.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 214k
Titre Figure 4. One of the 500 leaflets which the Ligue Esthétique Belge had distributed to local shopkeepers in 1960 to encourage them to build new facades in an old style
Crédits Archives of the City of Brussels, Archives of the Ligue Esthétique Belge, box V
URL http://journals.openedition.org/brussels/docannexe/image/7273/img-4.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 152k
Titre Figure 5. Detail of the facade located at 24 Rue de la Violette, showing 1958 as the year of construction
Légende See also Figure 2.
Crédits Photo taken by the author in 2024
URL http://journals.openedition.org/brussels/docannexe/image/7273/img-5.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 555k
Titre Figure 6. A brick facade located at 15 Rue de la Madeleine, built in the early 1970s in accordance with the urban planning requirements of the 1960 “îlot sacré” plan
Légende The other two facades on the left and right were built before the plan came into effect and are therefore older.
Crédits Photo taken by the author in 2024
URL http://journals.openedition.org/brussels/docannexe/image/7273/img-6.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 414k
Titre Figure 7. The new facades of the Galerie Agora located at 11 Rue des Eperonniers, built in 1963; the sky is visible behind them, as there are no buildings attached to them
Crédits Photo taken by the author in 2024
URL http://journals.openedition.org/brussels/docannexe/image/7273/img-7.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 486k
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Référence électronique

Dominik Scholz, « New facades in the old style: Brussels and the “Îlot Sacré” urban plan of 1960 »Brussels Studies [En ligne], Collection générale, n° 188, mis en ligne le 28 janvier 2024, consulté le 27 février 2024. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/brussels/7273 ; DOI : https://doi.org/10.4000/brussels.7273

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Auteur

Dominik Scholz

After studying history in Berlin, Saarbrücken and Paris, Dominik Scholz defended his doctoral thesis at Freie Universität Berlin in 2017. He was a member of the “Laboratoire interdisciplinaire en Etudes urbaines” (ULB) and a founding member of “Arbeitskreis Historische Belgienforschung”, the German forum for research in Belgian history.
scholz_dominik[at]web.de

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