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The National Bank of Belgium and its modern architecture

The Brussels North-South connection is celebrating its 60th anniversary in 2012. The long-awaited railway link between the stations of Brussels South (Midi) and Brussels North was inaugurated on 4 October 1952 by the young King Baudouin. For Brussels, the North-South connection seemed to be heralding modernity, an impression which was confirmed as the State further devoted itself to transforming Brussels into a real metropolis. The Mont des Arts was renovated and would henceforth accommodate the Royal Library. Around the same time, the Ravenstein Gallery and Lotto Tower were also built. It was in this context that the National Bank had a new building constructed for its offices in the Boulevard de Berlaimont.

At the end of the 19th century, Parliament approved the decision to develop a railway link between the city’s southern and northern districts. The definitive implementation of the project started in 1935 with the expropriation of several parcels of land. This created an environmental vacuum in the Bank’s immediate vicinity. The then Governor Georges Janssen saw this as a chance to solve the lack of space the National Bank had been coping with for years, and he seized this opportunity to draw up a plan which not only provided for new offices, but also for the construction of new printing works. The architect commissioned to design these buildings was Marcel Van Goethem.

The original building plans were approved in January 1940. They involved two separate main buildings which would be connected by an underground cellar system. The design also provided room for an underground shelter, thus ensuring a swift evacuation through the subterranean passage which linked up with the North-South railway connection. Due to the threat of war, the building of an air-raid shelter became increasingly urgent. However, in May 1940, after the invasion by Nazi Germany, it was decided to postpone the completion of the plans until a later, more appropriate time. Finally, after the war, it was decided not to build a shelter after all.

The National Bank of Belgium's main building [1]In 1948, the construction of the new building started. During the war, architect Van Goethem had further elaborated his plans for the new National Bank, and at the same time, he had thoroughly studied the design of other national banks such as that of the Bank of England and the Banque de France. In Van Goethem’s original plan, the architect opted for demolishing the old Hôtel du Gouverneur, designed by Hendrik Beyaert, and using the vacant space to extend the head office. In his vision, the back of the Bank ought to have resembled “comb teeth”. Eventually, it was decided to save the old part of the Bank from demolition.

It took no less than 10 years to build the new head office, with construction work carried out in different phases so as to allow the employees to continue their tasks throughout the project. Because of the building’s special location, a number of problems soon arose during the design process. Because of the considerable unevenness of the plot, the fact that the new building was to a large extent situated above the tunnel of the North-South connection and the character of the soil on which it was being built (partially quicksand), Van Goethem, together with the engineers and contractors, had to take the necessary precautions against subsidence. Furthermore, solid insulation had to be installed as a buffer to the sounds and vibrations caused by the North-South connection.

The final result was a huge, monumental building covering the entire length of the Boulevard de Berlaimont (about 200 metres). Moreover, there were visible signs that Van Goethem had paid special attention to security in his design. For instance, the building had only one main entrance, protected by an iron grate.

The southern rotunda with the [2]Many consider the National Bank’s building to be a paragon of modernism. Its front displays a great simplicity without losing any of its grandeur. Among other things, this grandeur which the building of the National Bank had to display as one of the country’s major financial institutions, was created by the immense colonnade adorning the front. The various pillars lent the building a reticent character, so that the architecture would inspire trust and security among the general public. At the same time, the pillars were constructed in such a way as to let a huge amount of light to penetrate into the building and to make the front, with its interplay of light and windows, more visible. At both ends, the large colonnade was completed by two rotundas. Next to these “blank walls”, Van Goethem’s design links up imperceptibly with Beyaert’s building. In order to break the monotony of these rotundas, a bronze statue was installed at both sides. On the south side, we see a “seated woman”, sculptured by Georges Grard, whereas on the other side, there is the statue of a “kneeling girl”. Along with the Grard statue, this work by Charles Leplae has become one of the National Bank’s symbols.

The National Bank's entrance with M. Rau's aluminium figures [3]

The National Bank’s entrance with M. Rau’s aluminium figures

The austere style chosen by Van Goethem implied that a profusion of decorative elements was inappropriate for the front of the NBB building. The few decorations installed are all by Marcel Rau, the man who – from the 1950s to the 1970s – inspired the look of many Belgian coins. The walls of the two rotundas at both ends of the building were decorated with sculptured medallions. These references to numismatics represent the various trades. Above the main entrance, a number of aluminium figures were installed.

Originally, the Bank’s new building caused a lot of controversy and it divided public opinion. People reproached the Bank for a megalomaniac attitude, a view that was enhanced by the huge building costs for the new head office. Today, we see that the protest was only a fleeting phase and that the Bank now attracts the attention of everyone who is passing the building.

Veronique Deblon
Museum guide

BIBLIOGRAPHY
‘La jonction Nord-Midi à Bruxelles’, brochure published by the Office National pour l’achèvement de la Jonction Nord-Midi and the Société Nationale des Chemins de fer Belges.

M. VAN GOETHEM, Immeuble de la Banque Nationale à Bruxelles, in: Rythme, no. 15, June 1953, pp. 6 – 13.

Marcel Van Goethem, architecte D.P.L.G. Oeuvres et études, 1940 – 1959, Brussels, NBB, 1959.

P. Kauch, De gebouwen van de Nationale Bank van België in Brussel, NBB Review, 1964, N°2-3.