That time we…Took a closer look at the local legacy of architect Jacques Cuisinier

We continue our trip down memory lane with a profile piece on Brussels architect Jacques Cuisinier, most famous for his towering Brusilia building in the city’s Schaerbeek neighbourhood. In this five-page feature published in our November 2014 edition, writer Bart Sibiel and photographer Veerle Frissen look at the city’s odd architectural landscape, and how Cuisinier’s iconic tower was an integral part of it. As we said at the time in the piece’s introduction:  “Brusilia stands as a perfect example of the tortured relationship locals have with their city’s bricks and mortars heritage. At first they couldn’t stand it, then they learned to live with it. Today, they embrace it, celebrating it as an integral part of Brussels’ history.”

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Brussels is rarely afforded a distinct architectural style or architect. There’s the mid-19th century urban transformations of Victor Besme, Joseph Poelaert and Hendrik Beyaert and, of course, the Art Nouveau creations of Victor Horta, Henry Van de Velde and Paul Hankar. The only other constructional movement closely associated with Belgium’s capital is that of the Brussellization. A period of harsh, radical interventions and incursions into the city’s urban fabric, the movement based its constructions on a purely economic interpretation of the Modernist ideals as well as an on unconditional belief in progress – or at least some form of it. The names closely connected to this era are not those of architects but, rather, of real estate magnates such as Charly De Pauw, Ado Blaton or politicians like Paul Vanden Boeynants, whose mark on the city was left through a series of ill-conceived and ill-reputed constructions who did more for their ringmasters’ bottom-lines than for the city’s overall architectural cohesiveness.

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Today, with the collective trauma of these operations well behind us, time has healed some wounds. Gradually, our relationship to the city’s architectural landscape has grown fonder, with somewhat of a pride in its messiness even being detectable. Truth is, we’ve finally, it seems, learned to live with our past and the architectural peculiarities it has left us with, accepting some, radically renovating others and downright demolishing the worst. Lately, there’s even been somewhat of a renewed interest in some of the most curious of these buildings and the colourful characters behind them. And, as one of the very public figures of Brussellization, the architect Jacques Cuisinier and some of his most prominent buildings sit a the forefront of this recent revival.

A flamboyant, larger-than-life personality, Cuisinier was an outspoken figure, a high society dandy who loved all things sophisticated, luxury sports cars being his main means of transportation. He emulated the rich lifestyles of his friends and patrons – De Pauw, Blaton and Vanden Boeynants – although as he quickly found out, that wasn’t enough to cement his legacy. On the other hand, his most recognizable architectural expressions – amongst them, the now demolished International Rogier Center, the Brusilia tower, the residential complex La Magnanerie and the now unrecognizably transformed Charlemagne building – elevated the Cuisinier name and style beyond the gossip pages, firmly placing it at the heart of the city’s architecture elite of the time. His imprint became known for combining the economically-driven commissions of his patrons with some of the ideas championed by Le Corbusier and Gropius, a style he referred to as ‘drawing with a supple pencil’. Higher profile commissions followed, as did an added sense of recognition, both from peers and critics alike.

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Once the swinging 60s fizzled out and the harsh 80s kicked in, life for Cuisinier became far less scintillating. Bad investments, fiscal negligence and a collection of Matisse, Picasso and Monet paintings that turned out to be fakes resulted in personal bankruptcy. And despite help from his old friends and patrons to keep him and his projects afloat, his work never reached the same heights again, as the Hotel Meridien, an architectural farce facing Horta’s central train station and which was his last creation, testify to. Another sad, somewhat ironic climax to his decline was the fact that many of his buildings underwent the same ruthless treatment that Brusselization earned its bad name with. His proudest achievement, his Magnus opus, the International Rogier Center, was demolished in 2004, ending Cuisinier’s reign over the city’s downtown area. The building complex – which housed apartments, a theater, shops and a lush rooftop bar – stood as a physical embodiment of Belgium’s firm belief in the future as also displayed at the Brussels world fair which happened the same year the building was finished, in 1958. This truest Modernist expression of Cuisinier’s is now replaced by a bland tower only notable when its façade is used as a giant light display.

Waving the flag for Cuisinier’s legacy today is the Brusilia tower, standing proud and tall above its middle-class surroundings. Overshadowing Schaerbeek’s sprawling Josaphat park, its name makes clear Cuisinier’s fascination with Oscar Niemeyer’s iconic architecture that gave the Brasilian capital its face. And, true to form, Cuisinier didn’t simply design a residential tower but, next to the 34 floors of apartments, added a supermarket, a carwash and a gas station to the complex. Given the low-rise of most of the very Brussels townhouses that surround it, the tower sits rather heavily in the middle of the neighbourhood and is hard to avoid. Indeed, take a walk around its streets and, somehow, wherever you look, the tower seems to stare right back at you. And, despite being far from universally-loved, it does exert a certain attraction on a specific kind of people.

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Take, for example, the story of the couple who, the year the tower was built in 1971, decided to live on the top floor of what was, at the time, considered a rather intriguing edifice. At the time, this new vision of modern living lured many to its floors and although some thought the building was aimed at the wealthy – like the newly built UP-site tower near Tour & Taxis which recently surpassed Brusilia as highest Belgian residential tower – whilst others considered it to be social housing (because multi-unit housing of this size usually are in Belgium), it is neither. Originally it was intended, as an original sales prospectus proves, as classy, high-end flats, but it was soon downgraded to meet the market’s wants. The fact that the apartments have always been and are still owned by middle class people probably contributed to its stable occupancy. Owners didn’t want or couldn’t move when the neighborhood deteriorated.

In recent times, a change of guard has slowly been taking place, with a new set of families, attracted specifically by the building’s Modernist ambitions, taking up residence in the building. Many of these newcomers are architects, rarely past their 30s, with a limited budget. And, if they weren’t particularly fans of Cuisinier’s work before moving in, they’re definitely converts now, as a recent exhibition they organized and the guided tours they offer attest to. They’ll talk to you at length about the building’s spectacular, 360-degree views enjoyed from its top floor, the adaptability of its units and its location next to one of the city’s major green arteries. Over the years, owners have made this building their own, changing their apartments to fit their needs. Yet, despite some having been stripped to almost loft-like proportions, they’ve kept the architectural intention and expression of its architect still very much alive. Granted, Le Corbusier’s Unité d’Habitation this isn’t, but it was a step in the right direction. If anything, the Brusilia tower is the perfect example of what Brussels is probably best know for, that idea of “Making the best of it,” something Cuisinier managed to exploit in expert fashion.

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