Dieter Van den Storm is a design journalist, creative director at Biennale Interieur Kortrijk and project manager at Bozar. After having spent a few years in Molenbeek, he’s moved to the other side of the canal and the area around North Station, a cityscape especially notorious for its hookers and transvestites. But there’s much more to the neighbourhood than that, as Dieter tells us. Even if it’s not chock-full of trendy bars and restaurants, it’s got a lot to offer, particularly if you’re into culture, architectural history and gritty inner city charm.
The reason I moved to this neighbourhood is actually because of the Flemish architect Eugeen Liebaut. I really like his work and when I heard he was building something new – his first and only work in Brussels – I immediately looked it up. I like his style because it’s contemporary yet on a human scale. And I was lucky: there was still one apartment available, the last one, and I took it right away. It looks like a loft but it is not a loft. It’s a very mixed crowd in this neighbourhood, especially around the enormous so-called Amelinckx apartment buildings. It’s like a small version of the world. It’s culturally rich, and of course the architecture! The Amelinckx buildings were part of the Manhattan Plan near North Station – all the towers you see around there are part of it. It was meant to be a little New York. There is also the Citroen Garage which was built in the 30s by André Citroen, a huge corner building with five floors. It used to be one open space; so when you entered the garage the cars seemed tiny compared to the space. In the ’30s cars were a luxury product and the building reflected that. Later on in the ’70s they actually built floors. But the building is still beautiful.
A very special feature of the neighbourhood is the animal farm, a real farm in the middle of the city. Many people think it’s just a park. It’s right in front of the Citroen Garage. There are donkeys, chicken, goats… It’s very strange. Once I was sitting in my living room and there was no traffic and all of a sudden I saw a sheep running down the street! The farm is only open during the week and I think it’s especially for schools; some kind of city project to teach children where milk comes from. In the summer when it’s hot you have this typical farm smell which is funny to have in a city. The street where it’s located is called Heliport, and there used to be a helicopter airport. In ’53 it was built and lasted until ’65. The farm is built on the former helicopter space.
Last year Frédéric Nicolay opened the Flamingo bar; he’s the man behind Café Belga and Potemkine. We finally have our own Nicolay product in the area. The Flamingo is really good for the neighbourhood; it brings people together. We don’t have to go all the way to the centre anymore and can just go across the street to have a drink. It’s the kind of place that could easily become your daily hangout spot. It’s very nice. And it’s huge. The building is art deco and they renovated it with a lot of effort. I like to go there in the morning for a coffee or for brunch on a Sunday morning. I have to say that the Flamingo is really what the area needed. There was nothing: no nice bars, no cafés. Just some bars where the hookers and transvestites go. The hookers are still there, but that doesn’t disturb me at all. It creates a strange atmosphere, one that reminds me of the movies of Spanish director Pedro Almodovar. They also say the Flamingo is the most northerly bar in Brussels.
Not a lot of people know this but behind the Flemish theatre there’s a statue by Belgian artist Wim Delvoye; a big truck made out of metal pieces from cathedrals. He did a whole series. A lot of neighbours protested against it because they thought it would be too dangerous for kids, but you can’t touch it; they put a fence there for protection. The city also just created a new square in the area which doesn’t have a name yet. They thought about having a big water surface with a tram running through it but it doesn’t work at all. I sometimes don’t get Brussels. This is so far-fetched. It was obvious it wouldn’t work. When the tram has a problem and needs to stop, people will get wet. Right now it’s just a dirty empty space.
The only place where I go for food in the area is Bar Bik. The interior is perfect and you can have a good chat. It’s rather small with a lot of wooden furniture like wooden benches and good lighting. The menu is great too. They have Asian dishes, French dishes, and especially Flemish ones. The owners are Flemish and my favorite dish (I think it’s not on the menu anymore) are black and white sausages, usually served with apple sauce and potatoes. They try to be innovative with traditional Flemish dishes. It’s delicious. The interior reminds me a bit of the Flamingo bar. Both are cozy but at the same time young and contemporary. You have to make a reservation; it’s very popular and not open at weekends. A lot of people go there for lunch meetings or to have a small snack before going to the theatre at eight, because Brussels’ three major theatres are located in the area. I used to go a lot to the National Theatre, but due to the programme I’m more often at the Kaaitheater these days.
I’ve been living in Brussels for 12 years now and I’ve stopped being naïve. You always think things are changing, and they are, but it takes a lot of time. Everything is growing gradually. Just look at the canal zone; things are changing but it’s taking a very long time. I welcome these changes very much because they make the neighbourhood a more social place. I don’t want to put pressure on Flamingo bar, but its arrival was so important for the neighbourhood and brought about a very notable change. It’s a place where people meet and you can see your neighbours outdoors, and not only in the hallway of your building. It’s amazing how a private initiative like this can bring about such a change. The city should react to that.Animal farm Quai du Batelage 21 Schipperijkaai Flamingo bar Rue de Laeken 171 Lakensestraat National Theatre Boulevard Emile Jacqmainlaan 111 theatrenational.be Kaiitheater Square Sainctelette 11 kaaitheater.be Bar Bik Quai aux Pierres de Taille 3 Arduinkaai Wim Delvoye Statue Quai au Foin 40 Hooikaai