- Museum of the National Bank of Belgium - https://www.nbbmuseum.be/en -

Marcel Van Goethem: the National Bank’s 20th century Beyaert

In 2013, no fewer than 31 641 people visited the Museum on rue du Bois Sauvage. As you maybe already know, a new museum will shortly be opening its doors on the boulevard de Berlaimont. February’s Spotlight/Object of the Month is therefore being dedicated to the building that will house it and to the work of its architect, Marcel Van Goethem.

Portrait of Marcel Van Goethem [1]

Portrait of Marcel Van Goethem
© Sado, Brussels

Marcel Van Goethem was born in Brussels on 7 June 1900. He began his studies at the Brussels Académie des Beaux-Arts (Centre for Fine Arts) and then went on to France where he continued his training at the Paris École des Beaux-Arts and emerged with a diploma at the age of 25. Upon his return to Belgium, he worked for many years as an associate alongside architect Alexis Dumont with whom he designed various buildings, both public and private. Noteworthy among these are the Royal Dutch Shell offices on rue Ravenstein which were completed in 1934 and the building housing the premises of insurance company Assurances Générales de Trieste on the same road, which was inaugurated in 1936.

The Assurances Générales de Trieste building by M. Van Goethem and A. Dumont. [2]

The Assurances Générales de Trieste building by M. Van Goethem and A. Dumont.
© Malvaux

On top of his job as an architect, Van Goethem also devoted some of his time to teaching. He was a professor of architecture at the Saint-Josse École de Dessin from 1929, before taking over as the Principal from 1937 to 1945. He was also a member of the examination panel for the Brussels Académie royale des Beaux-Arts. In addition, he became a fellow at the Université Libre de Bruxelles in the Faculty of Applied Sciences a few years later, in 1948.

It was in the early stages of thje Second World War, on 1 February 1940 to be precise, that Marcel Van Goethem was appointed as the National Bank of Belgium’s architect. The new buildings nevertheless started to go up from 1946, as the project had been delayed by WWII. The building constructed during the second half of the 19th century had actually become too cramped to meet the needs of the central bank. It just so happened that, when the idea of a rail link between Brussels North and South stations began to materialise, it became necessary to start digging right to the foundations of the edifice. For this purpose, office blocks were expropriated and the Bank seized the opportunity to make up for the lack of working space and to build a new Printing Works.

In the midst of this project, Van Goethem made several study trips to England, Switzerland, Scandinavia and the United States. He also took the time to gather the latest information so as to broaden his architectural work to include all the technical improvements that enjoyed a huge boom at the end of the war. Noteworthy among these are the aluminium guillotine panel windows, the mobile partitions, the high-speed lifts with automatic doors and even the air conditioning and fluorescent lighting built into the ceilings.

Counter hall in the National Bank of Belgium. [3]

Counter hall in the National Bank of Belgium.
© Museum of the National Bank of Belgium

On the ground, the first stone was laid on 20 January 1948 and construction work lasted for more than ten years. That in itself was an amazing feat considering that the best part of the new buildings went up on the site of the old structure that has now been almost entirely demolished. Furthermore, the construction services did not stop work for one single day over the whole period.

The characteristic feature of this monumental work of art is its clear structure. It has tall and slender stone pillars adorning the front façade. As was the case with some of his other productions, Van Goethem worked closely with engineers to ensure the stability of these columns in the face of wind pressure. Aesthetically speaking, these pillars look a bit like railings enclosing the building while still letting the light in.

North and West façades of the head office of the National Bank. [4]

North and West façades of the head office of the National Bank.
© Museum of the National Bank of Belgium

Moreover, the building had been designed in a way that would ensure the security of the premises. It is for this reason that, despite the sheer size of the construction, there is only one single entrance for the public. The railings running round the building were put there for the same purpose. Lastly, it was in the same perspective that the decision was taken to split the Bank’s administration away from the banknote printing works, located on opposite sides of the boulevard de Berlaimont. The two blocks are nevertheless linked by a 32-metre-long underground passage.

On the ornamental side of things, the front of the building housing the administration is adorned by figures set above the public entrance. These méreaux, raised symbols depicting various different occupations on the north and south rotundas, were produced by the same artist, namely Marcel Rau. Each end of the façade is marked by the two huge sculptures of women, the work of Georges Grard in the case of the statute named Sitting Woman on the south side while the Kneeling Girl at the north end was created by Charles Leplae.

Charles Leplae's Kneeling Girl. [5]

Charles Leplae’s Kneeling Girl.
© Museum of the National Bank of Belgium

However, Marcel Van Goethem’s career did not stop there. In 1953, he became assistant to Paul Bonduelle, chief architect of Expo ’58, the Brussels World Fair in 1958. He took over from him in 1955 and was thus the man behind the architectural organisation of this major exhibition. Van Goethem wanted architects from all over the globe to be able to use the Expo ’58 as the world’s biggest-ever “test lab”. He did not put his name to any one production, but instead endeavoured to coordinate efforts as best as possible and tried to understand the problems faced by everyone. He thus made it possible for 500 architects, engineers and decorators to work in the least harsh possible conditions.

At that time, Van Goethem had the job of drawing up the plans for the Hôtel des Monnaies, the Royal Mint, after the Ministry of Finance had decided in 1957 to get a new building erected where the currency could be minted by the Treasury Services. The plan was therefore to construct the building close to the Bank’s headquarters and a site on the Boulevard de Pachéco was chosen. As for the choice of architect, given the interlinkages between the different establishments, it seemed logical to entrust Van Goethem with the task. Yet in the end, this building project could not be carried out according to the planned schedule since the public authorities had to cut the funding.

Finally, it should be noted that the architect was not just a lecturer at the U.L.B, but he was also the man masterminding the plans and the construction work on new university buildings like the grand Paul-Emile Janson hall inaugurated in 1958. Part of the challenge consisted in building as quickly and economically as possible an auditorium seating 1,500.

Stéfane Antoine
Museum Guide