Bart Sibiel on Brussels’ Marnix building

Onda Sonora co-founder, avid record collector and iconic DJ in Brussels and beyond, Bart Sibiel (1975) is also active as an architect with a strong fondness for brutalism. To kick of this new online series, we asked Bart all about his favourite Belgian building, the Marnix mastodon on Brussels’ Boulvevard du Trône / Troonlaan.

If you had to choose, which is your favourite building in Belgium?

Without a doubt the Marnix-building, former Bank Brussels Lambert (BBL), current ING-headquarters near the Trone metro station. Finished in 1960 and extended in 1989-90.

(c) Thomas Ost

Can you describe the building’s distinctive features?

Its most distinctive feature is its exquisitely executed pre-cast, load-bearing facade with stainless steel joints. Pre-cast concrete facades are quite common in Brussels but currently rather used as an excuse to replace them by bland mirror-glass office blocks. They’ve rarely been so well-conceived as here though, making wide open floors, not obstructed by any structural elements, behind it possible. Even though concrete is generally perceived as an inferior material, it fits in perfectly with the noble finishing, like the abundance of marble and travertine used for its esplanade or interior.

I once heard a story, not sure it’s true but love it anyway, that its position near and slightly higher than the royal palace is intentional so that baron Lambert, the king’s banker who commissioned the building, could look down on his client. A subtle reminder of who had the real power.

When did you first fall in love with it, and why? What appeals to you in it?

As you get older your appreciation of architecture goes from the purely aesthetic to a far more profound and layered interest. Nowadays, the way a building relates to its surroundings and its robustness (durability is a word I dislike) is far more important to me than what it looks like. I can even appreciate so-called ‘ugly’ buildings, as long as they work. On top of that am I an engineer and the ingenuity of  a construction can strike a chord. This building has it all, which is a very rare feat.

(c) Thomas Ost

 

What do you think about the architect that built it? What were their intentions?

Gordon Bunshaft was an American mid-20th century architect and important figure of the modernist movement. While active as a partner with renowned firm Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (SOM), he built many iconic buildings, mainly in his home-country. One of these, the Lever House, is one of my absolute favourites in New York. I once heard a story, not sure it’s true but love it anyway, that the Marnix building’s position near and slightly higher than the royal palace is intentional so that baron Lambert, the king’s banker who commissioned the building, could look down on his client. A subtle reminder of who had the real power.

 

In terms of architectural movements, where would you place the building?

It’s a thoroughly modernist building but with a design that’s in a way as classical as the older buildings on the other side of the ring road. Put on a pedestal and finished on top with a crown. The materials and engineering might be utterly modern, the structure of its facade makes it almost an historical Italian palazzo. So it’s typical for the office architecture of its period as it has its place among historical office buildings in Brussels like at Place Royale or Place des Martyrs.

(c) Thomas Ost

 

In what way do you think it is an important addition to the country’s architectural landscape?

It’s the finest example of both the use of pre-cast concrete as load-bearing facades in our country. It’s also the sole building by this architect of worldwide importance in Belgium, and one of the few outside the US. Together with, among others, the Glaverbel and Royale Belge buildings it’s one of the few post-war modernist buildings of this size and quality still relatively intact. A period only slowly getting the recognition it deserves and thus it’s likely to become an even rarer example over time.

 

In your view, how does the building symbolise Belgian architecture as a whole?

It seems a bit ambitious to use one building to symbolise Belgian architecture as a whole. It’s, in its way, a remnant of post-war construction in Belgium, and in Brussels specifically. Our capital’s architecture was characterised by a blind faith in modernism, with a complete disregard for the existing rich patrimony. It’s an attitude promotors still haven’t outgrown entirely, as we tend to demolish much of these remnants today, replacing them with new ‘contemporary’ buildings. Due to its quality and the way it has claimed its spot in the city, the Marnix building has luckily risen above that and safely secured its place in history. Ironically, it’s a testimony of Brusselisation’s pro’s and con’s.

(c) Thomas Ost

Other than the chosen one, which other three Belgian buildings / houses / constructions would you rank?

René Stapels’ d’Ieteren building, in Ixelles, is an even more extreme representation of 60s Brussels’ ideas and beliefs of what the future would look like. It’s less subtle and refined, but has enormous potential for a second life.

The original VUB campus buildings will always carry a special place in my heart. They sparked my love for brutalist architecture, as much as my education there confused me in my ambition to become an architect.

Currently I’m also very intrigued by dierendonckblancke’s designs. Their community centre in Beselare, or their school in Riemst, are amongst the most interesting buildings I’ve seen in quite a while.

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