Discovering the Koekelberg Basilica, with a Belgian architect as a guide

by Nadia Everard*

Koekelberg’s Plateau overhangs Brussels and has such a great situation that Leopold Ist King of the Belgians (1790-1865) wished to build there his royal residence. But his successor Leopold II (1835-1909) had something else in mind and saw rather there a great pathway up to a new Belgian Pantheon. However the governing Catholics rejected the project which was in their view far too secular.

On the occasion of a visit to the French President Emile Loubet in Paris in 1902, Leopold II King of the Belgians visited the almost finished Sacré-Coeur of Paris. On his way back to Belgium, he had the idea of building an even bigger basilica dedicated to the Sacré-Coeur of Jesus in the hearth of Brussels and taking the opportunity of the 75th anniversary of the Belgian Independence, the construction began. It has to be seen within the context at the time, when a fierce cultural battle was raging between the two capital cities, leading the painter Antoine Wiertz to his famous maxim “Bruxelles Capitale, Paris province” (Brussels as the Capital, Paris as the Province, 1840). Yet, Koekelberg basilica is mainly born from the wish to give Belgium its national semi-secular, semi-religious pantheon.

Moreover, the Koekelberg Basilica was aimed at rivalling Brussels Law Court’s size and being the town’s third mount – the religious one, after the mount of Justice and the Mount of Arts – at the west end. At the time, it was the second biggest edifice in the world (100m high, 141m long, 107 large) and it is today’ fifth church in size.

As the basilica’s planners were rooted in a Christian tradition, they wanted to build a true place of pilgrimage and at the beginning, the Louvainist architect Pierre Langerock imagined a neo-gothic Basilica inspired from the architectural and theoretical style of Viollet-Le-Duc. The 12th October 1905 the construction began with its huge foundations. But after the King’s death, the construction slows down and in 1914, the First World War puts it a definitive stop. In the conflict aftermath, the project is found irrelevant and considered as far too expensive and out-of-date. Therefore in 1920, a call for a new project is launched and Albert Van Huffel for Gent is designated as the new architect.

At the far end of majestic walkway planted with trees, there it stands, Koekelberg Basilica, glaring at whoever’s approaching.

The huge Sacred-Hearth national basilica is the culmination of an ending era which used Twentieth Century styles and techniques without renouncing to its traditional bias. It shows religion hand-in-hand with classicism, together in one basilica whose dome faces as if it was confronting Brussels no less imposing Courthouse, symbol of secularism. Despite their differences, those two monuments are both the unloved children of the capital City.

Koekelberg basilica embodies values from another age such as patriotism, mass pilgrimage and the Sacred-Hearth adoration, although its architecture is curiously far from yesterday’s standards with its refined spaces, byzantine inspirations and interior’s rawness. It appears cheerless, ascetic to the visitor’s eye and that’s precisely what shall be called religious Art Déco (whose name was only born in 1925 during the “Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes” in Paris). Albert Van Huffel is determined to give his basilica a structural frame in concrete which was, at that time, the cheapest solution. Using concrete for structure allowed to free the great nave and therefore facilitated the circulation and participation of the worshippers during celebrations. As a modern architect, Van Huffel aims at submitting the basilica’s architecture to an intern organization, the only constraint being the Latina cross form and the domes in a Byzantine style. The singularity of Koekelberg basilica comes from its double function. First the Basilica had to host at least 5 000 worshippers (finally raising to 20 000) for the large ceremonies and processions as well as filling the role of a parish church. The architect therefore designed a Basilica which is in complete rupture with the classic centered plan architecture and which is composed with several flexible spaces. The hearth of the Basilica consists in a high altar with a huge Baldachin under a wide dome.

When Albert Van Huffel died in 1935, shortly before the inauguration of the Great Apse, the continuation of his work was assigned to Paul Rome, engineer and architect. He changed only one part of the edifice, certainly not the least significant, the Dome. The latter was finished the 10 November 1970, one day before its inauguration, at the occasion of the nomination of the cardinal Joseph Suenens.

The basilica’s basic form, a Latin cross, reminds us that its architecture is inspired by classicism. The central nave bordered by side aisles leads to the hearth with which are connected the two parts of the transept, ending each with five radiating chapels. Where the two axes of the cross intersect, rises on four pillars a 90 meters high dome.

This edifice releases an obvious unity born from desire to combine pure form with interior richness and which reflects the “ornamentation”. Those compact masses coexisting in harmony with sober lines create both clarity and unity. Those elements are typical from the Art Deco architecture. In fact, the Basilica’s soul resides in its materials. Without the use of terracotta and facing bricks, the warm atmosphere that characterizes its interior wouldn’t exist. Terracotta is a typically Belgian product of ceramic made with clay. Its use is mainly due to the fact that produced on an industrial scale, this moulded brick was far cheaper than any other material. Terracotta is used inside to favour light games and in this case, it also plays the role of formwork for the concrete which is poured inside. However, this didn’t go according to Van Huffel plans who neglected that the two materials didn’t for instance react the same way to temperature changes and therefore created cracks. Moreover, the delicate and diverse shades of orange-yellow, light pink and gold aren’t much visible.

Each year, Brussels sees 3 millions of tourists crossing its streets, of which only 80 000 stop at the Koekelberg Basilica, meaning that the latter merely attracts 2.6% of the whole touristic flux. The reasons of such a lack of interest are diverse. First, there’s obviously its ex-centered location, nearing the sadly famous Molenbeek neighborhood that can’t be reached on foot from the city Centre. Moreover the Basilica belongs to the Koekelberg district, which is currently subject to “urban revitalization” (as shown on the following map) aimed at deprived neighborhoods, meaning that the Basilica’s environment is far from being a touristic heaven.

Therefore a question arises: why such a fabulous manifest of Art Deco attracts only 2,6% of Brussels tourists today? The fault partly lies with the architects and glassmakers. In his schemes, Albert van Huffel decided to separate the Basilica in two parts: one for the ceremonies and the other dedicated to processions. The boundary takes the form of a huge baldachin which blocks the sunlight inflow coming from the side aisles the dome. Taking up the torch, Paul Rome changed A. Van Huffel plans and replaced the intended glass panels of the dome by copper panels because he feared that they would fall under their own weight. The lighting would therefore not be zenithal but lateral, even though the windows don’t offer a sufficient light inflow to illuminate the hearth. Besides, a dome is often considered as the symbolic eye of God and should therefore draw one’s attention upwards but in this case, it is made of concrete and blue terracotta which is far from the idea of divine transcendence. Nevertheless, it brings a strange kind of brutality and darkness which enlarge the already wide edifice by plunging its edges into the obscurity. No matter how small, these changes have deep consequences on the whole project which, being already dark, becomes even more obscure.

To my view, light in a church is as essential as a beating hearth in our chest; it’s an almost physical need in order for faith – others may call it emotion – to win over worshippers’ minds. In Koekelberg basilica, though, light and its glimpses are obscured for the foregoing reasons and that creates a singular atmosphere. So yes, I would say it’s a pity that Paul Rome changed A. Van Huffel schemes because if he didn’t, Koekelberg basilica would have been stellar and surely far more visited.

As described, Koekelberg basilica suffers from an obvious lack of visibility which is due to a poor communication, location and, above all, mistakes in the very basis of its conception. Some simple moves could therefore revive its lustre such as opening a skylight in the dome as it was initially planned, improving the overall artificial lighting or removing the baldachin from the hearth. Besides, the space could be used for events such as Christmas, conferences and exhibitions, instead of being empty all day long. Some of them could help promoting the basilica’s art heritage and therefore attract a wider range of tourists. In this regard, infrastructures should be put in place, walks around the three Brussels mounts for instance, alongside a media promotion.

Bibliography

-    S.BUAM, historique activité membres, édition la Cité, p.33-34

-    Koekelberg basiliek /monument art Deco, édition Art Deco

-    La technique des travaux, L. Novgorodsky, p. 241-257 mai 1938

-    Archive d’Architecture Moderne (AAM), Dossier 115, Documents graphiques dessiné par Paul Rome, 1959 (plans, coupes,…)

-    www.basilicakoekelberg.be

-    www.brugis.irisnet.be

-    http://www.sunearthtools.com

-    Guided visit of the Basilica of Koekelberg, biennale Art Nouveau, 17 octobre 2015.

*FRH Member Nadia Naty Everard was born in 1998. She is an old Belgian architecture student. She ha completed my bachelor’s degree at ‘La Cambre Horta’, within the ‘Université Libre de Bruxelles’. She currently lives in London.  Her deep interest in architecture led her to visit, photograph and draw numerous places and spaces in the world mostly in France, Italy and Russia.