The "Art Nouveau" Neighborhood in Antwerp, Belgium, Should be More Famous Than it Is
Plus, does this city *really* have the world's most beautiful train station?
While visiting Antwerp last month, a Belgian friend encouraged Brent and me to visit the Zurenborg neighborhood to see its art nouveau houses.
“You have to go,” she told us.
The Zurenborg neighborhood? I’d never heard of it. And I only vaguely knew what “art nouveau” was.
But Brent and I made a point to walk to Zurenborg, which wasn’t far from our apartment, and is only three kilometers from Antwerp’s Old Town.
And it was fantastic! We couldn’t believe the neighborhood wasn’t world-famous. On the afternoon we visited, we were the only tourists.
In fairness, there’s a lot of fascinating and/or beautiful stuff in Antwerp. But the Zurenborg district still seems special.
It was developed between 1894 and 1906, the result of people leaving the older and then chaotic and run-down central area in search of a cleaner, more orderly life.
Yes, the well-off have been fleeing for the suburbs for a very long time.
The area had a specific “urban plan”: the larger northern half was basically row houses for the middle class, but the smaller southern portion was to be home to the wealthy, which soon began competing against each other to build the finest and most architecturally interesting homes.
This is the scenic part we visited, and it’s an astonishing collection of buildings constructed using a very eclectic range of architectural styles: Tudor, Neo-Gothic, Greek Revival, neoclassical, and — of course — art nouveau.
Despite its French name, art nouveau didn’t start out as a creation of the French or Belgians. The art nouveau movement began in England in the mid-1800s when the Arts and Crafts movement — a collection of artists, architects, designers, and craftsmen — rebelled against the Industrial Revolution and its mass produced goods that valued quantity over quality.
That Arts and Crafts movement sought a return to hand-craftsmanship and to elevate the importance of design and aesthetics in the public mind. The movement’s advocates also sought to break down the distinction between fine arts and applied arts, especially those used in interior design.
Art is art, they said, whether it’s the Mona Lisa or the floral wallpaper hanging in your parlor.
These ideas quickly spread to France and Belgium, where people expanded on them in architecture, painting, and more. The first use of the term “art nouveau” was in the Belgian journal L’Art Moderne in the 1880s, and by the 1890s art nouveau was having a huge impact across the world.
Art nouveau quickly came to mean an emphasis on openness and movement, using “modern” elements like glass, steel, and ceramics, and design elements from the natural world, like plants and flowers. The color palette was primarily pastels.
As chance would have it, the rise of art nouveau was the exact moment those wealthy people were building their homes in the Zurenborg neighborhood, especially the ones built along Cogels-Osylei — pronounced Co-zhel Oo-zy-leh — Transvaal, and Waterloo streets.
Together, these three streets create a “golden triangle” of art nouveau architecture — along with plenty of other stunning styles that were popular at the time.
In fact, there are so many different styles along these streets, you might think they might clash. But they don’t — maybe because they all tend toward the lavish and/or ostentatious.
The most famous homes were produced by Belgian architect Joseph Bascourt, who was so prolific he designed twenty-five of Zurenborg’s buildings. He was known for his eclecticism, which often resulted in mixing different styles together — more than just art nouveau.
Bascourt’s most famous works were arguably the collection of five houses at Cogels-Osylei, 17:
The house in the lower left, above, is known as “De Zevensterre,” or the Seven Windows, and is built in a Gothic/neo-Flemish Renaissance style, while the others range from neo-Romanesque, to neo-Baroque, to Tudor.
A collection of houses on Waterloo Street is known as “De Tijd,” or Time. They are built with bricks of contrasting colors and each is named for a time of day including “Ochtend” (Morning), “Dag” (Day), “Avond” (Evening) and “Nacht” (Night).
In this case, the use of pastel colors, curves, arches, and sculpture, along with images of birds, flowers, and other natural elements are definitely key aspects of art nouveau.
Another collection of four houses on opposite corners of an intersection represents the four seasons, in another nod to nature.
Ironically, my favorite art nouveau house in Antwerp isn’t located in Zurenborg. It’s a short walk away, in the Zuid neighborhood.
The corner balcony is built like a ship!
It dates from 1901 and is now a very famous building — quintessential art nouveau — designed by Belgian architect Frans Smet-Verhas for shipbuilder P. Roeis. Named “The Five Continents,” the moniker was Roeis’ tribute to his prowess as a successful merchant with a shipping company that spanned the globe.
The building has five windows on the loggia, each representing one of earth’s inhabited continents. And it isn’t actually one building, but four interconnected ones, though, sadly, one was torn down in the 1970s.
Antwerpians didn’t much care for the name “The Five Continents,” and quickly started referring to it as “Het Bootje,” which is Dutch for “the Little Boat.”
But I do think Roeis had the right idea, building such a colorful, whimsical building to help brighten Antwerp’s long, dreary winters.
This is a good spot to mention what is perhaps Antwerp’s most famous piece of architecture: Antwerpen Centraal, the central train station. It’s widely considered to be one of the most beautiful train stations in the world.
Brent and I had heard something about the station, but when we stepped off our train in Centraal, we weren’t prepared for just how beautiful it is.
Naturally, I immediately began taking pictures.
Centraal’s style is primarily Neo-Renaissance, but also includes art nouveau, Neo-Baroque, and even Roman — the dome resembles the Parthenon.
But it’s not surprising Centraal would be so eclectic given it was built between 1895 and 1905, the same period as the homes along Cogels-Osylei.
Built by Belgium’s King Leopold, Centraal was meant to reflect Antwerp’s — and Belgium’s — growing wealth and stature in the world.
But it should be noted that much of this wealth came from the country’s incredibly brutal exploitation of poorer countries, most notably the Congo.
How should our modern understanding of colonialism affect our appreciation of the buildings and other infrastructure that resulted directly from it?
To my mind, it does temper the beauty of these structures a bit, but it doesn’t diminish it entirely — at least not if we commit ourselves to undoing the legacy of that terrible past.
On a cheerier note, I’ve got more pictures of Antwerp’s architecture to share. If you’re interested in seeing them, follow us on Substack’s new chat feature. It’s sort of like Facebook or Twitter — but without the evil billionaires.
Michael Jensen is a novelist and editor. For more about Michael, visit him at MichaelJensen.com.
Love love love that corner balcony that's a ship!
The "Golden Triangle" photo is one of my favorites <3 I'm sad we missed this neighborhood when we were in Antwerp for the day. We did love the train station.