United Music of Brussels

United Music of Brussels was a day of music to launch a new season of classical music, and I heard it announced over the public transport address system

At the tram stop - house gable cartoon central Brussels“What are we going to do this weekend,” she asked.

I’m usually stumped by this question but not this time.

“Listen,” I said. Over the tannoy a message was being delivered in English. This weekend… United Music… Belgian National Orchestra… BOZAR… La Monnaie… Bourse…

“That’s what we’re doing!”

“What?”

“Listening to United Music,” I improvised. “It’s a promotional day for the Belgian National Orchestra and the Royal Theatre. The beginning of the autumn season. Musicians, singers, dancers – short concerts – all afternoon in different locations. There’s more information on-line!”

“Are you sure about that?”

The Internet can answer all your questions

It’s never easy to find information about what’s on in Brussels if you don’t read French. Even if you do read French, I think it’s probably a challenge. Belgium seems about 15 years behind Sweden in terms of Internet usage and Internet literacy. I remember how it used to be. We were just as starry eyed and innocent. Just as clumsy.

Many Belgians – individuals as well as institutions – clearly want to believe that the Internet can answer all your questions. Everyone is always making promises about how you can find so much on-line. How you can book tickets or appointments on-line. How you can easily transfer money from one bank account to another on-line. How you can check deliveries or send messages on-line.

Mmmnnno. Not really. But I remain hopeful.

This offer is unrepeatable
This offer is unrepeatable

It seems the Belgian advocates of the Internet haven’t quite grasped – yet – that design is not all. For people to take advantage of services on line, someone needs to write the software to enable the service actually to work. That if someone is to be able to get correct information out, somebody else needs first to put that correct information in. And to put it in, in such a way that getting it out is both logical and easy.

I think the truth is, most Belgians really prefer the personal touch. Face-to-face contact, human interaction, these are the things that add value to Belgian society, not digital interconnectivity and virtual reality. Which is very endearing.

Information dearth

Everything would happen in the afternoon, we learned from various sources. At 2 pm. Or maybe 2.30. But where? That remained a mystery.

Hoarding on Rue Ravenstein, Brussels
Hoarding on Rue Ravenstein, Brussels, just opposite BOZAR ticket office

Because we knew that BOZAR were involved, we took ourselves there first. BOZAR is the jokey local name for the Palais des Beaux-Arts in the centre of Brussels. (Beaux-Arts sounds like BOZAR.) The three people staffing their ticket office were sure they knew they’d heard about the event. Absolutely. Didn’t they have some brochures about it? Over there in that rack? No? Oh well they had had some brochures.

Two of them went into the storeroom behind the scenes to check. The sound of cardboard boxes being torn open, but, sadly, no. They didn’t have any left. We are desolate. Sad emoticon. They couldn’t suggest a place we could go to get more information, but we might find some brochures left in the racks at the entrance to the art gallery across the road.

We looked, but no.

So we walked down into the Grand Place and went into the tourist information centre there. The young man we spoke with said, Yes! He’d also heard something about the music event. Though he too was desolate. Are there brochures? We have no brochures. Wouldn’t you prefer to listen to the dance-band/oom-pah performance going on in the square?

We said thanks, but no thanks. He couldn’t make any suggestions about where we could go to find more information either.

United Music at the Bourse

United Music brochure and mapWhen Mrs SC and I were wrestling with the information dearth on-line, she’d stumbled across something… (Her command of French is several orders of magnitude better than mine.) Something about a concert in the Saint-Géry Market Hall. Meanwhile I remembered that I’d heard something about the Bourse in the original announcement. For want of any more reliable information, we walked down to the Bourse and thought we could go on to Saint Jerry’s after.

It turned out that the Bourse was exactly the right place to go.

Here there was a little band playing under a tent and young people in T-shirts advertising the United Music of Brussels giving out the very brochures we had heard so much about. Brochures that included maps of the city showing the different venues. At first glance they were perfect. Just what we had been looking for.

There were sixteen different venues scattered across the town with small groups performing concerts of all sorts.

The Tanners’ Studio

United Music of Brussels Philip Defranque, tenor
At the Tanners’, tenor Philip Defranque,

Glancing through the brochure Mrs SC saw The Juliet Letters. That was for us! A place called Atelier des Tanneurs, so we took ourselves there.

Do you know The Juliet Letters? It’s a song sequence for a string quartet and a strangulated voice. A co-production by Elvis Costello (punk hero) and The Brodsky Quartet (classical music heroes). The singer at the Tanners’ Studio was the Flemish tenor Philip Defrancq. I thought he was pitched a bit high till I got home and listened to Elvis Costello’s performance again and realised – Defrancq nailed it.

United Music of Brussels: In the Tanners' Studio
In the Tanners’ Studio – the string quartet and tenor perform The Juliet Letters

On the way to the Tanners’ Studio we discovered that the map in the United Music of Brussels brochure was not really as accurate as it might have been. However, with a certain amount of guesswork and asking the way, everything worked out. Not only did Defrancq sing a couple of The Juliet Letters, he also sang an aria by John Cage (brilliant and weird and involving at one point the singer gargling with water).

The Tanners’ was an interesting space – presumably a former tanning factory though there was no evidence of the industrial process left. Just a two story interior space with a wrought-iron or cast-iron colonnade and a bridge across the middle. Acoustically rather good.

The swimming pool at Jeu de Balle

Which was more than you could say about the next venue.

From the Tanners’ we took ourselves to Les Bains de Bruxelles. An interesting experience in itself, just trying to find it. I’ve heard about this public swimming pool. It is an architectural feature, not least because of the pool itself – on the second floor of the building with views from the window out over the town.

United Music: Panorama of Jeu de Ball swimming pool
Panorama of Jeu de Ball swimming pool (Les Bains de Bruxelles)

The performers had a stage at one end of the pool in front of the windows and a drummer and a violinist played while a woman danced a wild modern ballet.

United Music: Jeu de Ball swimming pool performanceThe acoustics were – interesting perhaps is the kindest word. There were a lot of echoes and a lot of foot stamping as well as drumming. But it was an experience to sit there on the tiled benches enveloped in a faint cloud of chlorine to watch and listen. There was quite a crowd at this venue – possibly because of the building rather than the performance.

The lap of victory

At the end, after the performers had taken their bow and the applause, they dived into the pool. Well, the dancer and the violinist dived; the drummer jumped. And they swam the length of the pool to even more applause. The dancer and the violinist racing one another (the dancer won.) The drummer kept his glasses on and did the breaststroke and came in last. Mrs SC and I reserved our special cheers for him.

Halles Saint-Géry

United Music: The pianist at Saint Jerry'sAfter that we took ourselves to the Saint Jerry Market Hall and were in time to hear the United Music’s concluding performance. A pianist played in the main hall and a choir sang in the market’s upper level. As it turned out, the choir were from the Belgian National Theatre, La Monnaie. The venue was crowded and the choir were a bit of a surprise as they were dressed like the rest of the audience. We only realised who they were when they started to sing. It was a good way to end the day.

In all we saw and heard three concerts (plus a little bit at the Bourse). And I’m not sure we’d have managed more than one more even if we’d had the brochure-map and got into town for when the whole event actually kicked off at 14.30.

United Music: Members of the choir of La Monnaie National TheatreBesides, we had all the pleasure of our initial face-to-face human interaction with the good people in the BOZAR ticket office and at the Grand Place TI centre.

More than the music, the exercise was interesting for the opportunity to see the different venues. To see parts of the city we might not otherwise visit. I’ve kept the map and will, later, try to see some of the other sites.

Afterwards Mrs SC and I took ourselves to the Cuban restaurant La Cantina on Rue du Jardin des Olive for our evening meal. (And she continued her dogged search for the perfect iced-coffee.)

United Music: Panorama in Halles Saint-Géry
Panorama in St Jerry’s (Halles Saint-Géry)

I wrote this entry for the #Blogg52 challenge.

The Horta Museum

I’m standing outside the town house of Victor Horta on a Sunday afternoon. Even though it’s a Sunday afternoon, there is a small crowd of us waiting to be let in and we’re waiting because the house is full of visitors and the Horta Museum has to limit numbers. It’s a small house and there are a lot of eager visitors.

I tried to visit last week, but the people running the house wanted me to leave my camera in the reception. As I wasn’t prepared to do that, I postponed my visit instead. Now I’m back – no camera, but I have my trusty recording device – except I still haven’t learned how to use it properly and the 30 minutes or so of recording I made in the house is almost unusable. Oh well, better luck next time.

Art nouveau detailsArt Nouveau (or, if you prefer, Jugendstil) – you cannot escape it in Brussels. It’s in the stained glass of door lights and window panels, it’s in the intricate ribbons of balcony railings, it’s in the twisting forms of decorative house numbers and the willowy women featured in fresco facades. You even see it reproduced as graffiti, in the ironwork of some bus shelters and in the transfers decorating the doors of Brussels buses.

The man responsible for this – or at least the man who is credited with first introducing Art Nouveau into Brussels architecture – is Victor Horta. Whose town house I have just got into.

Excuse me while I pay the €8 entrance fee and buy a guidebook – €12.

Letters for HortaVictor Horta was born in 1861 into an artisanal-class family in Ghent. His father was a cobbler – a bespoke shoemaker perhaps, but still a working craftsman. The family must have had aspirations, though, and seen potential in their son. They paid for him first to attend music school to learn to play the violin. He was sent down for bad behaviour. Nothing daunted they tried again. The boy had once expressed an interest in building, so they paid for him to attend the Ghent Académie des Beaux-Arts to study architectural drawing. This time he behaved.

He completed his studies and, when he turned 17, left Ghent for Paris. Here he worked for an architect and designer in Montmartre. In Montmartre he was at the epicentre of modern art, and in 1878 in Paris he must have see the fantastic achievements of modern iron and glass technology on display at the Exposition Universelle. All of this would feed into his work and find an echo in his house, when he came to build it.

The house and Horta’s office and studio were built on adjoining plots in 1898 and Horta lived and worked here for 16 years until the Great War drove him from Belgium. When he returned after the war was over, he sold the house and studio separately and both buildings then seem to have led mundane lives as middle-class homes until 1961 when the municipality of Saint-Gilles bought the house. In 1963 it became the first listed Art Nouveau building in Brussels and in 1969 the first incarnation of the Horta Museum opened here.

Art Nouveau influenced doorSo, past the cash desk and leave the dining room on the right – it’s too full of people at present – and up the stairs to the first floor landing. This is an impressive space. The guidebook tells me it is equal in area to the space taken by the stairwell. It has windows opening on to the street at the front and no back wall separating it from the stairwell so the light from the street fills the space and reaches across to the dining room half a level down and at the back of the house. This space is made possible by using a iron frame – inspiration from the Paris Exhibition perhaps.

To one side are doors leading through to the reception room (with display cabinets) and Horta’s office – furnished now as a drawing room. The reception room and the office are in the studio, the building next door.

When the old studio came up for sale in 1971 it was also bought up by the Saint-Gilles municipality, and in 1989 plans began to be laid to restore the two buildings and turn them into a single museum. Plans that – according to the guide book – “will be completed in 2014”. Well, it’s 2015 now and the restoration is clearly not complete, but it’s pretty good.

Horta Metro graffiti womanI suppose that while some people in Brussels are proud of Victor Horta and his works, other are less impressed – perhaps just because there is so much Art Nouveau (and faux Art Nouveau) in the city. In the same period that Saint-Gilles was buying the Horta home and creating the first Horta Museum, the city of Brussels was undergoing the same rush of modernized brutalism that London, Stockholm and other European cities were also enjoying. Out with the old, in with the new – especially if the new was utilitarian, concrete and dense. Notably, Horta’s first public space, the Maison du Peuple/Volkshuis (commissioned by the Belgian Workers’ Party and opened in 1899), was demolished in 1965.

But the dedicated and determined staff of the Horta Museum and the Amis du Musée Horta (founded 1982) carried on and gradually the tide seems to have turned in their favour.

Most of the furniture in the house appears to have been sourced from other places or collections. Little is original to the house, although they have managed to track down a few pieces. I suppose Victor Horta sold off most of the furniture, or took it with him in 1919, but I’m guessing he didn’t take the fitted wardrobes in the second floor dressing room. Off the dressing room are a bath (with gas fired boiler and shower) and a toilet. I’d like to believe they’re original too. Also, in the bedroom, the urinal hidden in a bedside cupboard.

Art Nouveau house numberOne of the important influences on European Art Nouveau came from the English Arts and Crafts movement, and the Horta Museum includes wallpapers and furniture covering with a distinctly William Morris look about them. Another influence (and on the Arts and Crafts movement too) was oriental art, and the house is decorated with wall hangings, prints and objects from China and Japan, as well as for example modern woven silk wall coverings made to Horta’s original design.

Up the stairs again and we find the bedroom – suit really – designed for Horta’s only child, Simone. Her bedroom opens on to a roof terrace with views over the back garden and way across the roof-tops and gardens of the surrounding houses. The dressing room next door – also at the back of the house – has a sliding door that opens into a small greenhouse (with another door to the terrace).

This was the part of the house I most liked. Bright, light, green. I could live there. Across the stairwell at the front of the house is a guest room. Not bad, but not nearly as attractive.

The guidebook also describes the servants’ quarters. There is a separate servants’ staircase (which I glimpsed through one door left ajar), and there are kitchens and servants’ rooms too, but these were not open on my visit. Nor was Victor Horta’s studio with its high, wide windows which you can see from the street.

It seems the Horta Museum has acquired the building on the other side of Horta’s residence – nothing to do with the architect – and is gutting it preparatory to moving the reception, cloak room and bookshop there – and perhaps adding a lift for disabled visitors. I can’t say, but it seems to involve work on the servants’ area as well. Maybe I’ll pay another visit next year and see how far they’ve come.

There’s a lot more to say about Victor Horta, but I think I’ll draw a line under this piece now. It was fun to visit the Horta Museum – even if I couldn’t see all of it – and I would recommend it to anyone with half an interest in architecture or Art Nouveau. Open Tuesday to Sunday inclusive (except for public holidays) 14.00-17.30. It takes about half an hour. The home page promises “Guided tours by appointment, booked one week in advance… [in] French, English, Dutch, German and, possibly, Italian and Swedish.” But when I asked, buying my ticket, I was told there are guided tours only in French and Dutch. I don’t know how to interpret that.

Apparently you can also hire the dining room for private dinners or cocktails for €2,500. Don’t all rush at once now!

Horta metro station graffiti

Details

Of all the cities that I have lived in, Brussels seems to have the most varied architecture, revealed not just in the shape of the buildings but in the details and decoration.

Before we moved here I had no unified image in my head of the city, though I had visited three or four different times when I had been involved in EU schools projects. Each of those visits must have been to a different quarter of the city because each was so different from the others. One visit must have been to the European quarter because I have memory of tall buildings sheathed in mirror glass, another must have been to a district where there was a strong French influence on the buildings – somewhere fairly central but not so modern. A third memory is of slabs of brutalist concrete, which I think now must have been the campus of the Free University of Brussels. My fourth visit must have taken place in December and coincided with the Christmas market in the Grand Place because I remember a freezing mist and lots of tawdry decorations.

House with balcony - ForestLiving here and walking the streets I’m beginning to get a better grasp of how Brussels has grown and developed. I think it must always have been a very wealthy place, but also a place of considerable individualism where the outward impression its citizens wanted – perhaps still want – to give to others has been important.

In Sweden architecture tends to be either very “classical” or very time specific. Classical means made from wood and painted in a narrow range of colours among which Falu red and yellow ochre predominate. This contrasts with the stone and later concrete buildings from the late 1800s onwards which tend to be much more influenced by international architectural trends. But one thing is very particularly Swedish – all buildings built at more or less the same time resemble one another closely. In more modern decades, whole quarters seem to have been built according to the same design even when erected by different builders. Swedes, it seems, do not wish to have their houses look different from their neighbours’.

Even in Britain, where you do see a deal more variety, and where people often pride themselves on making their gardens unique or painting their front doors and window frames a distinctive colour, it is still most common to see parades of houses that all look basically the same.

Not so in Brussels. Here it is much more often the rule that each house is designed and built independently of its neighbours, even when it shares dividing walls with them. It is unusual to see even two neighbouring houses that share a pattern. Many houses, even ones that look quite modest sport a stone inscribed with the name of an architect and the date of construction.

Wooden door in YxellYou’d think this would make for a confusion of styles, but in fact it seems to harmonise rather well. Possibly because all the houses in any given quarter are more or less the same height and have more or less the same frontage, possibly because even though different architects may have designed each house, they often follow a similar period style or – in the case of modern replacements – have been designed with sensitivity to the neighbouring styles. However, even ultra modern blocks filling gaps in the city’s streets often feel comfortable in their place. It’s only the huge residential blocks that have gone up in certain areas to accommodate diplomats and Eurocrats that seem out of place.

Fortunately these monster buildings do not make up more than a fraction of the Brussels housing stock, and it is the low rise townhouses that predominate in both wealthy and less well-off areas.

The architectural design of so many buildings is not only to be seen in the structure of the buildings, but also in the way they have been decorated. Even if I didn’t know that Wallonia used to be an important ironworking region, I would certainly be able to guess that somewhere around here there must have been a tradition of ironworking because of all the cast-iron features used to decorate Brussels houses. From the grills on the doors to the balcony balustrades, from the coal hole covers to the fan lights, the ironworking details are fascinating.

Visiting the Royal Museum of Fine Art and peering at the background details in many of the paintings, you get the impression that Belgians have always enjoyed focusing on funny little details.
Mary Magdalen and squirrel

Of course, funny little details and architectural flourishes make for a more interesting environment, but they aren’t necessarily either practical or ergonomic. I do sometimes feel it would be nice if Belgian architects (and indeed English architects) were to spend more time thinking about insulation, plumbing and heating – as their Swedish counterparts do. But you can’t have everything, I suppose.


This article was written for the #Blogg52 challenge.