By Antonio Malara
Since middle school I have always connected the image of Brussels to a particular building, it was a photo that I always looked at in the geography book and the building was that of the current headquarters of the European Commission. I liked it because it had a particular shape, like an "X" and then it was built with materials that at the time I saw as futuristic and out of the ordinary. Not only during adolescence but I believe that for a long time afterwards for me Brussels was only and exclusively that building, I had never committed myself to studying something more about the city which in fact even on TV was linked to European politics especially after my birth of European Union. As I wrote in the "Rabat" post, just before returning to Italy, talking with a person from the travel group in Morocco, he said that in Brussels there was nothing to see except the "Grand-Place", the main square. I don't know why but I absorbed those words as curiosity, I didn't trust that person and I wanted confirmation that he was wrong. That episode certainly influenced my choice to go to visit Brussels that same year. It was May 2019 and I managed to leave for the Belgian city after a "negotiation" with my lover at the time who didn't even know where Brussels was.
I landed at the airport well before my partner who was arriving from an Eastern European city and I headed straight into the city. Brussels was connected to the airport via a regional train which worked very well and it was from the train that I saw the first thing that surprised me. A few stops before the centre, looking out the window I noticed a Gothic church, a little far away but very large! I knew it wasn't the cathedral because it was in the center but I was amazed by the majesty of that church whose existence I didn't know. My reasoning was logical; if the church was majestic, why was it never mentioned when talking about Brussels? I started from the assumption that everyone knew Notre-Dame in Paris but the one I saw from the train seemed equally spectacular. Once I arrived at the central station I headed to the hotel on foot, walking uphill in the Sablon district. Once in the room I started looking for the church and discovered that it was "Église Notre-Dame de Laeken".
Our hotel was in the Sablon area, slightly higher up from the center but only a ten minute walk away. The exploration of Brussels therefore began with a long descent that passed through the "Mont des Arts" which included a square on one side and the "Jardin du Mont des Arts" on the other. Regarding the park, it was incredible how it developed in altitude upwards, we couldn't see it at all. In other words I only saw a staircase, therefore a very cold-looking concrete work, with a statue of a man on horseback at the base. Subsequently exploring the city from the upper part I was able to see the gardens in all their beauty but I will talk about them later. From “Mont des Arts” down, after three blocks we arrived in the center.
The impact with the "Grand-Place" from which we arrived via a small road was impressive due to the magnificence of the monuments but annoying due to the presence of commercial vehicles present inside the square! Large vans and trucks, up to eight meters long, were horribly scattered around every corner of the square, there were stationary ones and moving ones so we had to be careful. I understand that goods have to be delivered and the Grand-Place was a place full of commercial activities but the way it is done not only there but almost everywhere in our ancient cities is decidedly horrendous. First of all, these vehicles should be used as they do in Japan, that is, to transport goods from one hub to another and not to the door of the store. Our age, which is considered so advanced, should deliver goods by avoiding this type of vehicle which has nothing to do with the squares or streets of cities like Brussels. Even if they wanted to use these horrible vehicles, the goods could be delivered at dawn and not late in the morning, this was already a more acceptable solution. Even though I had a very bad time with the vomiting presence of commercial vehicles inside the Grad-Place, fortunately this square had buildings that almost immediately took me to another dimension. The first building I immediately targeted was the City Hall, called “Hôtel de Ville“. At first glance it reminded me a lot of the Rathaus in Vienna, the design was in fact very similar with the central tower, the ground floor with arches and two floors with symmetrical windows. The Brussels City Hall was perhaps less large but decorated with many more statues which practically covered the entire main facade in a camouflage manner. In fact, the impressive thing was that these statues, although large, seemed to be part of the columns, then looking carefully at the details they could be perceived as decorations. As I stood there I understood that not only the City Hall, but all the structures of the Grand-Place deserved a very particular study of the details which were infinite. Beyond everything, however, what I noticed was the perfect symmetry of construction of the Hôtel de la Ville. Recently I have been studying these ancient structures more carefully and I personally believe that they have something special, something that today's architects and engineers can only dream of building. Whoever built those buildings was undoubtedly part of a civilization superior to ours!
The second building that my partner and I paid attention to was the "Maison des Ducs de Brabant", a building that was part of the "Corporations Houses", and which occupied an entire block in the south-eastern part. It practically remained to our left with respect to the road we had taken to access the Grand-Place, but it was so large that we only noticed it as we moved towards the center of the square. Personally, this building, although built long before the Art-Deco style, for me looked a lot like it. The straight and clean lines of the beams with as many linear details inside can still be seen today in American buildings from the 1930s. What distinguished it from Art-Deco architecture were the decorations such as the Corinthian capitals, the statues and certainly the roof. In addition to this, access to the palace was via several staircases but in general to me that palace gave me more of a "modern" idea than one from several centuries ago.
Right in front of the "Hôtel de la Ville" stood "La Maison du Roi", a building whose history I only studied later but which immediately struck me at the time. First of all, it was the only building to have a dark gray color, compared to the light colors and gold decorations that almost all the other buildings in the square had. Not only did the color give it a sinister, malevolent connotation but its design also increased this aspect. It looked like the home of the bad character, the one that in the movies always dresses in black and where his house is always covered with dark clouds. “La Maison du Roi” had a design with a tall central tower and smaller ones at the corners similar to those of the City Hall however the arched structures that multiplied and shrank on each floor gave it a sinister connotation. It was an ambiguous symmetry, full of mystery emphasized even more by that unnatural color. According to history, this building was originally made of wood and housed the bread market, later in the fifteenth century it was replaced by a stone building which had administrative functions. That building was then demolished because it was damaged and rebuilt at the end of the 19th century. So the current structure is relatively recent which means that in the nineteenth century there were still people capable of building complex buildings in stone rather than the current steel and glass.
Except for the City Hall and the "Maison du Roi", all the other buildings of the "Grand-Place" were grouped under the name of "Corporation Houses" which were originally the homes of wealthy merchants and headquarters of the guilds. I have already described the "Maison des Ducs de Brabant" but regarding these buildings the ones that struck me the most were those lined up on the western side. There were seven of them, all with their own personal style but for some reason they worked in unison. Most of the time beauty doesn't take me in a rational but creative way and when I started looking and photographing that side of the square I was fascinated by it without knowing why. At first glance, these buildings all had a linear design with perpendicular lines and the color that stood out was that of the gold decorations. However, from the central part towards the left it was as if the lines were broken by elements such as statues and other decorations combined with the fact that on the left the lot on which they stood was slightly further inland than those on the right. The strange thing was that the decorations were everywhere but despite this I had this sensation of metamorphosis as if a single building started from a situation of order (straight lines) to end in a sort of chaos (rounder lines, buildings more staggered compared to the others). I came up with the rational details later by analyzing the photos but at the time of my visit and also the subsequent times I passed those structures, they fascinated me as a whole, as something magical that has no logical explanation. This is a principle of beauty that I love very much because it is like a divine connection that has even more value when it unites a human being in beauty with something material as in this specific case was the architecture of the buildings of the Corporations.
For some strange reason perhaps linked to irony or an ambiguous fetishism, in the city of Brussels there was a sort of veneration for pee. It was such a high passion that the city had dedicated three bronze statues to this very natural but intimate function that we all do daily to purify our organism. However, in Brussels two of these statues were represented by children, perhaps originally this choice was to cause less scandal but today with this bigotry which has taken us more backwards than forwards from a cultural point of view, they take on a somewhat equivocal connotation. The three statues are the “Manneken-Pis” which depicts a child while peeing, "Het Zinneke" a dog doing the same thing and "Jeanneke-Pis" a little girl performing the same function. The Manneken-Pis is the most popular statue and was located a few blocks from the Grand-Place and was one of the first things we saw after the square. It was located at an intersection and was inside a fountain with a semicircle perimeter closed by a gate. If it hadn't been for the people standing in a disorderly manner at that intersection, I wouldn't have understood that the statue was there in that specific point. In fact, the work was very small, positioned at least a couple of meters away from the closest visible point and especially in that time in which I was there, it had a particularity; he was dressed. I don't know why but the statue had a sort of tailcoat, glasses and even a mustache. The small penis that urinated emerged from the lower part. It was clear that the dressed version had a different effect, I can only imagine the full version however both the size and placement left me perplexed. What was even more shocking was the number of people there to look at the statue. In reality there was nothing to do there, after a minute and a few photos of a place that even aesthetically barely reached the satisfactory level, everyone could continue with the journey. For some strange reason people remained there watching as if the statue suddenly began to speak, perhaps exclaiming "one more thing". We stayed there no more than two minutes, after which we continued a few blocks to reach Het Zinneke. While I was walking I had an atrocious doubt thinking that they had also dressed the statue of the little girl, that would have been a disappointment and the height of bigotry. The dog statue was also located at an intersection, it was of normal size and completely free from protection. Anyone could stop and take a photo while holding or touching the dog. It certainly gave more of a sense of freedom and moreover, looking at it before getting close to it, it could have seemed like a real dog. He was immortalized in a natural way as all dogs do during their needs; with one leg raised. The dog was male as could be seen from the member and as often happened in bronze statures, these took on a golden color in the parts that were touched most often. I was relieved to notice that the most worn parts of the dog were the ears and the tip of the tail. In this case there had been a sort of bigotry on the part of the people, in fact the dog's member was not yellow and it meant that no woman or gay man had played or joked with the dog's member which was also of considerable size.
Jeanneke-Pis was on the opposite side from the other two statues, we arrived there from yet another part of the city, exactly after visiting "Place De Brouckere". I must say that that part of the city was very beautiful and characteristic with its small streets and some very old brick buildings, the external furnishings of the restaurants completed the beauty, giving the neighborhood a soul, the sign that there was something alive beyond architecture. Jeanneke-Pis was inside a semicircular ravine that was closed by a red gate. The little girl was depicted squatting on a flat rock that was surrounded by plants, with her legs spread while she peed. The semicircle background was yellow and behind it there was a sort of shell that always seemed to me to be made of bronze. The little girl's expression was amused with her gaze turned to one side, the two braids on the sides of her head gave her an even more childish connotation. The reproduction of her sex was very faithful, you could see it clearly and very closely. It was certainly a more faithful statue than the others and also more mocking. It didn't seem obscene to me, at most if there's one comment I can make it's about the reproduction of the belly. For some reason the sculptor wanted her to be pot-bellied, an element that was a bit disturbing for me, probably he wanted her that way to distract attention from sex, to make the little girl more innocent. I was happy with the statue because it was displayed in a visible and explicit way, without censorship or clothing, a form of freedom and independence without the shadow of bigotry and false moralism.
The center of Brussels also had a nice gallery which however I frequented more during dinner time so I found myself without photos because I normally don't bring my camera when I go to dinner. The rest of the center was a very pleasant place to walk around, not only for the architecture of the buildings which fortunately were almost all ancient but also for the restaurants and the many shops. It was a historic center that was explored with the spirit of discovery, thanks also to the urban planning which was not linear. The only larger street which, however, was a construction site at the time I visited it, was "Boulevard Anspach". At that time they were paving it and probably making it for pedestrians only, one of the things that should be done in all the historic centers of the world. This road ended at “Place De Brouckere”, a very beautiful place which however I only partially appreciated during my visit. The large square, despite being rectangular, gave a strange funnel effect with in the center of the background a beautiful building of what today I personally define as from the "Tartaria" era. At the time I still didn't have any particular knowledge of buildings like this one so I didn't go and photograph it up close. However, even then, buildings like that attracted my attention from an unconscious point of view. The building had all the features I love; excessively high doors and dimensions of the individual floors, columns with Corinthian capitals, round and triangular shaped frames above the windows and finally this palace also had statues of four caryatids right on the top floor. The only thing that ruined the view was the giant Coca Cola billboard and the backdrop of other modern buildings built of cheap steel and glass. The building today houses the Hôtel Continental but I’m always curious to know what its use was in the past. Were there really people taller than us who could justify those high doors, how did they heat it and above all how did they build it? These are the questions that I always ask myself today when faced with a building like this, especially when next to it there is a modern and miserable skyscraper built in an elementary and linear way. I will talk about the other buildings that struck me in Brussels in the next chapter, a chapter born precisely because in this city "there was nothing to see"!
I saw the first important building in Brussels in the center a few steps from the "Grand-Place", a building built in the so-called neoclassical style. It was imposing despite only having two floors and a basement but the dimensions of the individual levels were double those of today's buildings. The structure was very large and was like at the center of several streets, it was certainly conceived as something central, a very specific reference as if the streets all had to lead to it. From an aesthetic point of view it was beautiful with the typical elements of this "style" which saw columns with Corinthian capitals, triangular or arched frames. Everywhere there were relief decorations that also depicted scenes with people. In addition to this there was also the presence of many statues especially at the corners of the roof. From one of the narrowest slopes, there was a modest staircase leading to the entrance. Unfortunately when I saw it, the building was surrounded by fences because there were construction sites both on the sidewalk and on one of the streets onto which the building overlooked. In addition to this, but for obvious reasons this time, there were also many construction vehicles such as trucks and vans. Even though the building fascinated me, I couldn't dedicate the right photos to it, basically because the construction site surrounding it disturbed me, it was really a visual issue. Today perhaps I would have photographed it more just to document details, leaving aside the pure aesthetic and visual aspect. Today the building houses the stock exchange, I don't know if it has a particular name but personally I believe that defining such a building with the activity for which it is used is something inappropriate, especially when this activity is connected with the barbaric economic system in which we live today.
For me, the De Brouckere building was a sight that I welcomed with amazement. As I was walking towards the square of the same name, this structure suddenly appeared and left me perplexed. It was a smaller copy of “Le Berlaymont” only that it “leaned” on another building! Basically, a dark gray "X" shaped building made of steel and glass, was as if supported with a staggered geometry on another building with the same characteristics but which had a triangular shape, at least from the block where it was located. I was wading because I didn't know that building and it wasn't mentioned in anything I read about Brussels so I was very surprised when I saw it. I must say that although I didn't love that type of design, I still appreciated it both for the element of surprise and because it was a variant of another building that I had been curious to see since childhood. Without a doubt it was totally out of context in the place where it was located because in fact it was a disturbing element compared to the surrounding architecture, however I believe that this was precisely the intention; that building was also noticeable because it was in that specific area of the city.
But the real amazement and shock from an architectural point of view I had when I went to visit the "Monument a la Gloria", a panoramic point from where we could have the most beautiful view of the city of Brussels. This was also a place that I had found among the things to see in the city and to be honest I was very happy because it was close to my hotel area. From what I had read I thought it was a second rate visit and moreover the place was a little out of the centre. I didn't want to disappoint my partner by taking her to uninteresting or pseudo-romantic places so I was happy to be able to reach that scenic spot with just a short walk. However, as I walked along a straight road that would take me directly to the large square, I saw on the horizon a large black and gold dome that surmounted the entrance to a neoclassical building, to see it from afar it must have been very large. Once in the square, the building, which was totally covered by scaffolding, revealed itself in all its grandeur! It was the part that looked like the main facade and was monumental with an endless series of columns and two protruding sections. Up close I could perceive the depth because the entire part under the dome was hidden by the central part, with the triangular pediment which was at an incredible height. The ridiculous thing was the “Monument a la Gloria”; a marble obelisk with bronze statues in the lower part. The monument itself was large but compared to the palace it was something that could even go unnoticed. The square ended on a balcony from which we could see the whole city, however from that position there was another even more surprising view. It was the side part of the building that continued with its design giving the impression of never ending. Today that enormous building is called "Palais de Justice" and clearly houses offices that I suppose have to do with justice or the judiciary. However, what I still don't understand today is why that palace is not mentioned anywhere, as if it were a palace like others, as if it were not special like the Louvre for example. Without a doubt the building should be home to something more cultural like a museum and not something boring like the supposed justice of our times. For the rest, the view of the city was not something special, the monuments such as the City Hall were distant and appeared very small, while some modern skyscrapers with elementary and anonymous lines stood out. In addition to this, the elevator that took you to the lower part of the city also ruined the view; a white tube design that looked more like a base jumping platform!
In addition to the "Palais de Justice", in the upper part of Brussels there was another important structure whose magnificence I was unaware of; it was the Royal Palace. As I reached it walking on Rue de la Régence, I could see a part of it let's say a separate block from the main one. I glimpsed it from a courtyard but it was notable for its aesthetic perfection, it had a design with mainly arched windows, then there were columns and many decorations. There was a Belgian flag on the roof and another of the Belgian state next to that of Europe on the first floor. It was a modest structure, with normal proportions suitable even for people of our height and not one of those structures where the first level was five meters high. Continuing along that road, exactly in "Palais Royale" there was a building which instead had proportions that went in the opposite direction. It was a so-called "neoclassical" building with six very high columns and Corinthian capitals, passing by it I could barely notice the pediment and the dome of what must have been a tower. Under the covering of the pediment I could see the square design, also present in many arches such as that of Paris or Milan just to name a few. At the time I didn't really notice the particularity of the structure, only when I was able to observe it from the opposite side of the square I perceived the architecture well. The triangle of the pediment had a painting and not a work in relief, at the top of the tower there was a small cross and several analog clocks. For the rest the palace had a regular series of windows; arched design on the ground floor and rectangular on the upper floors. Today while studying the buildings of Brussels to write this post, I discovered that that building is the church of “Saint-Jacques-sur-Coudenberg”! For me this was a surprise because the building did not resemble a church at all, I regretted not having studied it inside and I was also surprised to discover that currently on Google maps, both the building in the courtyard of the Royal Palace that the aforementioned church, are darkened on the platform.
The Royal Palace, also obscured on Google Maps, was another surprise like the "Palais de Justice". In this case I was struck more by the extension than the height as well as the well-kept gardens and very bright greenery. In terms of style, the building reminded me a lot of the Louvre but "distributed" in a different way. The design elements were in fact the same, the Royal Palace had some more neoclassical features such as columns and a triangular pediment on one side but otherwise the series of windows and the typical dark tiled roof were in the same style. It must be said that the side that could be seen was the one on "Parc de Brussels" but the building was significantly larger. The whole complex had a low wall just over a meter high all around, however right in front of what must have been the entrance, there was a "Buckingham Palce" style gate. The sight of the Royal Palace created the same reactions in me as the "Palais de Justice", the latter, although covered by scaffolding, it was clear that it was built in a more complex and monumental way while the Royal Palace gave me the impression of being more of a museum. In fact, it was precisely this aspect that made me reflect on this point; we follow the archetypes we have been indoctrinated into! The Louvre palace has always been proposed to us as a museum so we tend to identify it as such every palace that resembles it. If instead they had decided to make the Royal Palace of Brussels famous, we would have identified the Louvre as a museum that resembles a royal palace! In reality, these two buildings, like many others, have a very similar design but no one can say in principle what their original use was. I have the impression that at a certain point in the past someone decided to give a very specific meaning not only to individual buildings but to individual nations. Pre-established clichés: Italy is famous for this, France for that, Germany for yet another reason. However, there is a certain type of very ancient architecture that almost all these nations have in common and which in my opinion is not explained sufficiently.
There was a road that led from the upper part of Brussels to the lower part, right there I saw another building that thrilled me a lot. It was an Art Nouveau structure, very different from what I had seen in the city and which clearly stood out from the others. It was the Old England Building, this building is now a musical instrument museum but I don't know what it was originally. It was built of iron with large windows with rectangular lines on the first two floors and arches on the last two. The particular thing that I liked the most was an octagonal-shaped external element, a sort of cantilever that started from the third floor and reached the top. It was on the left side and was like a ravine for the upper floors, it would have been nice to see its construction also inside to understand more about its original function. However, as often happened to me in the past, I had no talent for improvising and if I didn't know a place or structure and hadn't planned to visit it, I limited myself to enjoying the amazement that the discovery gave me, precisely for this reason I didn't visit the Old England inside.
A few steps from the Old England Building there was one of the first things I had seen in Brussels only I had seen it from the wrong perspective. From the upper part of the city there was a view of the "Jardin du Mont des Arts" the only one from which it was possible to appreciate the beauty of these gardens and beyond. It was an incredible view with two rows of rectangularly pruned trees at the sides of the park, a tall row of smaller trees and then a central pattern of green and red plants. On the horizon, right in the center was the City Hall tower, a perfect geometry and symmetry. It was incredible how the entire park couldn't be seen from below, nothing not even a flower, it was a game of ambiguous perspective that made a place that was exactly the opposite seem cold and grey. Looking at my photos I could notice that in Brussels there were many geometric aspects between the various structures and streets, I don't know if intentional or causal.
During the visit to "Le Berlaymont" which I will talk about later, I saw that there was a very large park nearby, the "Parc du Cinquantenaire", however I did not visit it that day but I decided to return later also to relax. The park was very large and it was a pleasure to wander around that very bright greenery. I like it when there are these natural areas in very urbanized contexts because in just a few steps you find yourself in a different dimension where everything is cancelled, including the noise of the city. However, walking inside the park I suddenly found myself in front of a structure I didn't know, it was imposing and majestic. It was a triple triumphal arch, surrounded by a colonnade which although different, gave a feeling like that of St. Peter's in Rome. In this case the colonnade did not start from the ground but two levels above: at the base in fact there was a sort of stone wall and above that another floor with series of windows, above which there was the colonnade. Once again I had the doubt that it was me who had done the wrong research on Brussels but that was probably not the case. Probably the work called “Monument du Cinquantenaire” was reported only that its beauty was not described. Normally when reading specialized magazines, one rightly or wrongly emphasizes this or that monument, certainly in the case of Brussels, the places of interest were not marked in a particular way so that with a light reading one could not perceive the beauty of a place. The monument was very beautiful and its size could not be perceived well, especially from a distance. This is because the area in front of it was large and free of structures, however as I approached it I had the sensation of being tiny and I am referring precisely to a level of proportion. In fact, what struck and strikes me about these "ancient" works was the sensation of being small in proportion to the details of the structure. In front of the Burj Khalifa, for example, you perceive the height of the tower but the individual floors, therefore the entire structure, remains proportionate to our size so we perceive it in a different, and more natural way. In the case of the “Monument du Cinquantenaire” even the cars near one of the arches seemed tiny and we know when cars are intrusive in the urban context. Once again, looking at that monument I had the impression that it had been conceived for people who were taller than us and not just to be something monumental! The work had many decorations, both statues and images in relief as well as a series of columns which were almost triple the size of those of the colonnade. The “Monument du Cinquantenaire” was the last work of architecture I saw in Brussels, it was therefore a discovery and if on the one hand I had the joy of wonder, on the other I did not have the opportunity to study and photograph it in better way. However, I was happy to have concluded the visit to the city with the view of this mega structure, simply beautiful.
As I said at the beginning of the post, the first church I saw in Brussels was more of a “vision”, a cathedral so large and illuminated that it could be seen from the train even though it was very far away. The first closest contact with a church instead occurred in an original and unexpected way, simply by opening the window of my hotel room. I don't know if they gave me that large room with a special view because it was my first stay in that hotel, the fact is that from the window there was a very beautiful view of the "Église Notre-Dame des Victoires au Sablon". The singular thing was connected with her name; it was called Notre-Dame and was at first glance the miniature version of the more famous Notre-Dame of Paris. Seeing it I had this impression and at the time I still didn't know that it was called that way. Notre-Dame de Sablon was very close to my hotel and I had my first close contact on the same day that I went to visit the "Monument a la Gloria" for the first time. A side part of the church overlooked "Square du Petit Sablon", a small but very beautiful and well-kept square, this meant that it was appreciated more from the side view. In fact, the main facade was on a narrower street with buildings which, although low, did not facilitate the view. It must be said that the rear part had an entrance that was, both in design and size, as large the main facade. The style of the church was defined as Brabant Gothic but for me the definitions have no value. What I appreciated about the church was its complexity, the materials with which it was built and the multiple decorations which, as in other cases, were one with the structure. I believe that the added value of the church was its size in relation to its details. It was like the art of modeling when a very small object had incredible details. I liked it above all for this reason, for being a "mini" version and I think this was precisely what struck me immediately when I saw it from my bedroom window. In the end I photographed and appreciated the church mainly by looking at it on the side, even better from inside the park. This park-square was of unique simplicity and harmony; developed on a slight slope, it had a statue in the center in the upper part placed above a fountain. On the sides of it along the staircase that led to the highest part, there were various statues of people, the greenery was everywhere and balanced perfectly. If I have to be honest I appreciated that square even more than the church or in any case they balanced each other well, certainly the perspective from the park on Notre-Dame was enriched by all the flowers and plants which, in addition to giving depth, canceled out the brutality of the road and the cars. Unfortunately, although Notre-Dame was close to the hotel, I didn't go back often and I didn't even visit it inside.
“Église Notre-Dame de Laeken” was outside the city and we took the metro to get there. After that we had to walk a bit until we reached it, however I remember that walk with great pleasure. The neighborhood was quiet and we crossed some streets marked by rows of colorful houses. Compared to "Notre-Dame au Sablon", next to "Notre-Dame de Laeken" there was a square paved with small square cobbles, however that square was a parking lot for horrible cars! Once I got over this drama, I began to admire that beautiful and majestic church. The color was off-white. I liked those precise cuts of the stone in contrast to the Gothic lines and the more complex decorations. The church had strange proportions in the sense that it was longer than it was wide. The very emblematic main facade seemed narrow in relation to the height and looked like a place from a horror film. The three entrance doors were at the top of a staircase and were actually at the end of three high arch-shaped corridors which, by virtue of the decorations, gave a disturbing 3D effect. It was a vortex effect, if you looked at that facade but focusing at the arches, you had the effect of being sucked in. Furthermore, the round lines of the arches were surmounted by triangular frames for the entire height of the structure, thus creating a kind of balance of forces. Up close the vortex effect was even greater and was amplified even more in the photos taken with the wide angle. In reality that type of design was similar to the more famous Notre-Dame de Paris but the 3D effect was less noticeable there because the cathedral in Paris was on the plain.
Luckily all the other sides of the church were surrounded by greenery and wide sidewalks without cars, so I enjoyed taking many photos focusing on the details, especially the rose windows and stained glass windows. Without a doubt, despite being a monumental church, “Notre-Dame de Laeken” struck me more for its main facade, a design full of depth that amounted to mystery, captivating and in a certain sense dynamic. The church seemed like a menacing being, capable of swallowing visitors rather than hosting them. It probably won't be the only example of its kind but it's certainly the first of this type that particularly struck me.
“Cathédrale Saints-Michel-et-Gudule” stood in the center but in terms of level it was slightly higher than it. It faced a tree-lined square and to see it well we had to cross it all. Precisely in contrast to the church described above, the cathedral had a flat face with four perpendicular structural elements that protruded outward from the rest. The impression was of a simple building despite the architectural details such as the windows and the many statues present especially above the entrance doors. It was also its position that gave this idea of a two-dimensional structure because essentially, except for the facade, it was difficult to see the entire cathedral from the side because the other buildings were very close. In addition to this, the entire road around the back was uphill so it was not easy to appreciate the details of the structure because we were never on a level surface. However, even with strange perspectives, I managed to take many photos of the rear part too, but in the end those details seemed to belong to another structure compared to that of the front part. “Saints-Michel-et-Gudule” cathedral certainly gave the impression of being ancient, a more lived-in structure, I cannot say whether because this was actually the case or because it had received less maintenance. In the end, we visited the cathedral almost at the end of our stay in the city and beyond the pleasant time spent there taking photos, the structure did not impress me like others of the same kind. I’m very convinced that this was due to its position, I have a certain refusal and discomfort in appreciating structures that arise in strange positions and that do not have enough free space around to be able to admire them well. The problem, however, was not with the structure but with the unfortunate people who had built other structures around it that were too close.
I discovered the Atomium during research before visiting Brussels but to be honest I didn't know about this particular and complex structure. In the imagination of its designer these round modules connected to each other were to represent a giant atom. Personally, at least looking at the photos before visiting it, I didn't have this impression, however this structure attracted me anyway. Its wide shape at the bottom which then ended in a point gave me the feeling of a different version of a modern tower. Rather than representing something specific, I saw it as an original structure in itself due to its particular shape and different from all the others. Two factors contributed to this; the materials with which it was built and the fact that it was inside a park so it did not collide in a grotesque way with other classical structures.
In person, the structure was truly incredible because it was very tall and actually bare. The various round modules connected to each other gave a skeleton effect, if it had not been for the materials such as the mirrors and the impeccable painting of the cylinders, it seemed like a work that still needed to be covered. Even in person it didn't give me the sensation of a giant atom, but I liked it. The Atomium had original perspectives both from afar and as I got closer, especially standing right below, there was a point where I could see all the round modules giving a sort of hyperspace effect. It looked like one of those works from American amusement parks and its location was suitable for its purpose. Together with my partner we decided to go up and see it on the upper floors too if they could be defined as such. From the height of the first modules there was a singular view, a crushed effect on the surrounding buildings, probably also emphasized by the construction of the module itself. Normally the panoramic points are inside a skyscraper or on their terraces, but from the Atomium I had more the sensation of being suspended like in a carousel. From the first floors there was a very close view of the "Mini-Europe" park, a green area where the major European monuments were reproduced, certainly an ambiguous selection of them. Nearby I also recognized the Heysel stadium and for a moment my mind went back in time to the tragedy that occurred during the European football match which I had seen on live TV at the time. I honestly didn't know that the stadium was so close and that you could see it so clearly from the Atomium, it was a memory that I didn't want to come back to my mind, but it didn't bother me too much.
From the highest module I could also see the tallest monuments of Brussels, except that they were very far away and the haze made their view even worse. In general, however, the experience in the tall modules of the "tower" was much more interesting than tall buildings of this kind in much larger cities and therefore with a greater surface area to admire. Furthermore, observing the construction details inside the Atomium was certainly more satisfying. The cylinders had red stairs inside that led from one module to another and it was original to walk inside the same modules which from round balls instead became a real ground where only part of the round design could be perceived. Even the illustrative area regarding the history and construction of the work was original; a sort of bat cave or a place similar to the one depicted in the 007 films where the men from Spectre gathered to talk about their sinister projects. In general I was positively surprised by the Atomium mainly for being a work built outside the centre, far from high-level works but rather close to other entertainment attractions more appropriate for families.
I have to tell the truth, over the years I have lost a bit of the enthusiasm regarding the goals I had when I was younger. I have achieved many things that were dreams and I’m happy with the fact that many times I have achieved them even after twenty years, when I no longer expected it. I have always reacted with enthusiasm, amazement and even irony to these events. However, now, unless the goal is something big, I tend to react in a simple way, with contained enthusiasm. For some strange reason the day I went to see “Le Berlaymont” I was happy like a child, motivated to finally see that palace, a curiosity I had since childhood. Maybe even then I didn't take everything for granted and so there was an extra motivation. The fact is that I planned the visit carefully and in detail so as to be able to dedicate the right attention to that building.
My first view of the Berlaymont was from a new perspective, that is, from one of the four facades where the part covered with the orange panels could be seen. I had sometimes seen those panels on television when they framed the building from above but it wasn't my favorite image. However, even from my first perspective, I could see the famous gray design that had so impressed me as a child. Subsequently I began to act in a childish way, that is, having photos taken of me with the building and starting to walk around it taking dozens of photos of it. I don't have the slightest memory of what my partner did while I was doing a photo shoot at the building but she certainly pitied me as she always did when she couldn't understand my ideas and inspirations. Only after walking around the Berlaymont a bit did I begin to notice the neighborhood where it stood; it was a mix of classic houses together with new buildings in steel and glass and further on much taller skyscrapers. I understood that that neighborhood must have been very beautiful and original in the beginning and then slowly, perhaps also due to the presence of the European Commission building, it was "modernizing". Fortunately on one side there were still several blocks that respected the classic design but I immediately perceived that the Berlaymont had certainly gutted a neighborhood and I could see it by looking at the entrance side. In fact, from an intersection, I saw the Berlaymont and the classic houses in front perceiving the grandeur of the building. In reality it was immense and who knows how many blocks they had demolished to build that building. When I realized this I had a moment of perplexity and the tour around the Berlaymont was like a metaphor and a sort of path towards maturity. I went to see a modern opera but I ended up being worried about classical buildings. There I saw a bit of the excessive power of the strong over the weak where power was represented by politics, an institution for which I don't have the slightest respect. The metaphor ended just when I saw the entrance door in person which, in order not to attract attention, had been built in modest dimensions. In fact when they framed politicians as they arrived at the palace, the image was always fixed on the entrance, thus avoiding any perception of the grandeur of the building. Today, as in that moment, I am increasingly convinced that buildings like that are only good for doing fine art photography and that was what I unknowingly did that day. I have no intention of causing controversy or stooping by talking about politics; an entity of a few individuals that imposes itself on the masses by claiming to know the qualities and will of every single citizen. Pay attention to it; every problem in real life always originates in political choices, this is enough to declare it as a failed entity!
Personally I don't have a particular predisposition for night photos, so I do this activity very little, especially when traveling. The fact is that I like to shoot freehand, without a tripod let's say in a more wild way and most of the time if there are not very well lit monuments, the photos don't come out well. It must be said that with modern cameras you can get incredible results even freehand but in general it was a practice that had never left me sufficiently satisfied. However, walking through the “Grand-Place” at night I could notice that all the buildings had a very shiny light and were beautiful. The night lighting gave the buildings different shades and, moreover, it seemed to me to be a much stronger and richer light than those normally seen. That night view gave me the right motivation that led me to give it a try, the result didn't matter. So just on the last night going to dinner I brought the camera and after finishing I wanted to dedicate the last homage to Brussels.
At night all the buildings in the Grand-Place were totally yellow but a golden yellow, a unique effect. This color was reflected on the pavement giving a dreamlike nuance to the entire square. For some strange reason my attempt was rewarded because I took photos that came out sharp and without blur despite the shutter speed being slow. Even today I can't explain how it happened because subsequently, always with the same photographic equipment, I was no longer able to obtain similar results. I wanted to take this as a prize given to me by the city, by the souls of those who actually built it and not by those who administer it today. Brussels was a trip born from a sixth sense, not planned but only dreamed of in childhood. Circumstances brought me there out of curiosity but the city made me reflect and I had a vision that opened my mind even further. I started writing this post with the intention of making something as meaningful as my experience during my visit to the city and I ended up writing the longest post ever. In a certain sense Brussels was the holy city for me, which made me reflect in an indirect way and to which I say "thank you" with this post.
Pictures: Antonio Malara
Camera: Fujifilm XT-3