Before looking at the Bank’s oldest façade in detail, a few more words on the Hôtel of the Governor itself. The Old French word, “hôtel” has been used since the 18th century to signify the urban residence, temporary or permanent, of a person of high rank, in this case the Governor of the National Bank of Belgium. The statutes of the Bank stipulated that the Governor should live in the capital; in return, the Bank was to be responsible for the cost of furnishing and maintaining his town residence.
After a brief spell in a rented building on the Montagne aux Herbes Potagères, followed by a slightly longer stay in a Hôtel bought by the Bank on the rue Royale, work on the present site on the rue du Bois Sauvage began at the end of 1860. The Bank decided to move into the building in two stages: in 1865 the banking and administrative services moved in and two years later they were joined by the Governor, together with his family.
The long tradition of residence at the Hôtel finally came to an end in 1957. It is true to say that not all Governors found the building equally well suited to family life. Certain Governors preferred to spend their free time at their own homes. Not that the Hôtel has remained empty and abandoned since 1957, however. It remains the Bank’s official residence, and used for official functions and receptions.
The Bank held a competition for the commission among a small number of architects. February 1860, the Board decided to award the commission to the Belgian architects Hendrik Beyaert (Kortrijk, 1823 – Brussels, 1894) and Wynand Janssens (1827-1913). The influence of the “classicising” spirit of the Parisian Ecole des Beaux-Arts can be seen in the strictly symmetrical composition of the street front. But Beyaert is also one of the leading figures of Belgian eclecticism. This movement with its deliberate recycling of historical architectural elements, and its equally deliberate stylistic borrowings and mixings was in vogue in the West from the 1860s to the 1920s.
When, in 1859, the National Bank acquired a group of buildings on the rue du Bois Sauvage the city of Brussels badly needed to redevelop in response to changing demographic factors and the new imperatives of planning and hygiene. The site chosen for the Bank, halfway between the commercially developing districts and the centre of political power, exactly reflects its position both as a rapidly-expanding enterprise and an instrument of the state designed to underpin the economic and financial development of the nation.
In eclectic architecture, the choice of the most “appropriate” style depended on the historical allusions or moral virtues which the building was supposed to convey. Bank architecture, whose flowering coincided with that of the eclectic movement, tended to invoke the late Middle Ages, or the Italian Renaissance, periods when bankers such as the Florentine de Medici rose to rank alongside princes in the social and political order. Athough Italian references are not present in the Hôtel’s façade, it seeks, like almost any other bank building, to invoke images of security, confidence and power.
Most of the structure is conceived in load-bearing brick or stone masonry. The street façades, and the public and private entrance halls are faced in white stone. The façade on the rue du Bois Sauvage clearly bows to the supremacy of the Fine Arts in its use of symmetrical jetties and its respect for the sacred canons of classical proportion, such as the “golden section”. For the rich ornamentation Beyaert was largely borrowing from the classical vocabulary of the Fine Arts: festoons, rosettes or palmettes. Through his conception of the Hôtel he emerges as one of the most remarkable exponents of the Second Empire architecture and decoration, with its characteristically opulent blend of gold and rich colour. Everything from the tiniest details of tables, sideboards, pokers… was conceived and elaborated by Beyaert.
The Hôtel’s façade is stictly symmetrical in composition, extending between two jetties surmounted by pediments. It is enlivened by the introduction of caryatids – female statutes acting as columns and appearing to support the pediments. These four caryatids symbolise Commerce, Industry, Agriculture and Fine Arts, “the principal sources of public prosperity” according to the decorative programme presented by the architects to Governor de Haussy in May 1863. The caryatids as well as several other decorative elements were not included in the initial plan. The allegories of Commerce and Industry above the Governor’s private entrance, nowadays also the entrance to the Museum, are sculpted by the sculptor, medallist and engraver Léopold Wiener (Venlo (Nl), 1823 – Brussels, 1891). The ones above the former public entrance are executed by the sculptor Egide Mélot (Antwerp, 1817 – Schaarbeek, 1885). Later on in his career E. Mélot was also engaged in the decoration of, amongst others, the Brussels Stock Exchange and the Royal Conservatory of Brussels. The seven bays between the two jetties are surmounted by the arms of the particular province; in the place of honour (over the windows on the jetties), beneath the royal cipher, are the escutcheons of Brabant and Antwerp, the provinces in which the Bank had its main branches. Between the windows, in the upper band, run cartouches illustrating moral and economic themes with trophies dedicated to justice, military glory, textiles, mining, metallurgy and navigation. Some of these themes, like navigation and justice, can also be found in the panelling of the general assembly room.
The pediments also form a double composition dedicated to the glory of the national economy. The sculpture surmounting the entrance to the Hôtel is organised around a representation of a hive, symbolising a busy, hard-working community, flanked by a locomotive and a dynamo, images of the most recent and brilliant flowerings of native Belgian genius. The hive, in combination with a cornucopia, reappears in the ceiling decoration of the governor’s office. The second pediment employs maritime imagery with a ship’s prow and references to Belgium’s chief maritime and river ports – Antwerp, Ostend, Ghent and Liège. The pediments are each topped by female allegories of Peace and Work. The production of the statues, sculpted in hard Savonnières stone, was commissioned to Edouard Fiers (Ieper, 1822 – 1894).
Although the overall structure of the building is plain enough, the eye soon gets lost among the abundant sculptural decoration, featuring opulent vases, shells, rosettes and friezes as well as numerous symbolic and allegorical elements.
Similar stories in masonry are told by many other Brussels’ street fronts. Maybe a tip for one of your future town walks.
- Danneel M., Logie C., Pluym W., Randaxhe Y. & Victoir J., The Hôtel of the Governor of the National Bank of Belgium, Antwerp, Pandora, 1995.
- Victoir J. & Vanderperren J., Hendrik Beyaert. Van Classicisme tot Art Nouveau, Deurle, Uitg. De Dijle, 1992.