Discover Art Deco in Wallonia: a journey through artistic time

Art Deco in Belgium. ©Marie Lambert, Vincent Rocher and Guy Focant

The Art Deco style took off before the First World War, at a time when the parchments and organic shapes of Art Nouveau dominated. It consists of a return to rigor: symmetry, classical orders (often very stylized), cut stone (without any picturesque effect)… The decoration, in general still very present, no longer has the freedom it had in the 1900s, but it is strictly supervised by its creators and is inspired by cubist geometrization. In Belgium, the Art Deco style emerged immediately after the First World War, when Victor Horta began designing the Palais des Beaux-Arts in Brussels in 1919.

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In the 1920s, in Wallonia, the so-called “modern” architectural production still maintained a taste for decoration. Focusing on the abstraction of line, Art Deco presents some quality achievements. The house is the stage for several formal experiments where the decorative intention remains evident. In Liège, Louis Rahier designed numerous houses in the Vennes neighborhood, while in La Louvière, Charles Emonts designed the house-studio of the painter Fernand Liénaux (1927). Other references, perhaps more exotic, are also found there. Thus, like the dome of the Koekelberg basilica, Byzantine influences spread to several religious buildings, particularly in Liège with the church of Saint-Vincent (Robert Toussaint, 1930) or the commemorative and religious complex of the inter-allied memorial in Cointe (Joseph Smolderen, 1937). Art Déco also developed in other ambitious projects: the Charleroi Town Hall (1936), designed by Jules Cézar and Joseph André, testifies to this new style, particularly in the treatment of the bell tower and the interior equipment.

Art Deco in Belgium.
Art Deco in Belgium. ©Marie Lambert, Vincent Rocher and Guy Focant

In these crazy years that joyfully shook Wallonia, cinemas and concert halls multiplied. Architect Jean Lejaer notably created several complexes where applied arts play a fundamental role. With experience in concert halls – he designed in particular the Charleroi Coliseum (which he later left in the care of Joseph André, 1921), then Verviers (1923, demolished) – Jean Lejaer designed, with the complicity of the ornamentalist Joseph Gérard, the Forum de Liège (1922) as a spectacular work of total art. More restrained and with a more political and social program, Philippe-Alphonse Vancraenenbroeck, leader of a generation of architects mainly active in the Borinage, signed the creation of the people’s house of Dour (1928), combining spaces for a meeting point, café and concert hall. in a complex where the interior design is handcrafted with its stained glass windows, moldings and geometric friezes.

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The Notre-Dame du Travail church in Bray (Binche). The Société nouvelle des Charbonnages du Levant de Mons, located in the town of Estinnes-au-Val, is behind the construction of the town of Levant de Mons. This coal mine was founded in 1920. In 1925, on his initiative, the Levant de Mons Housing Society was created. This cooperative’s purpose is “the construction, purchase, improvement, sale and rental of housing and economic housing, and the acquisition of land intended for urbanization”. Between 1925 and 1931, the cooperative society built eighty housing units. An old wooden barracks from the First World War is transformed into a church. In 1927, a terrible accident occurred in the coal mine: twenty-five miners died. The funerals of seven of them took place in the modest wooden church. After this tragic event, the church factory decided to build a house of God worthy of the name. To raise additional funds, Jean-Baptiste Bondroit, a parish priest, launched a national draw, the prize for which was a house. He traveled across Belgium to sell tickets and raise the amount needed to build the church. To make the money raised grow, he places it in a brokerage. Unfortunately, the latter went bankrupt and a second collection was organized, which yielded less money than expected. This accident will have repercussions on the structure and decoration of the church. For example, the construction of the presbytery was abandoned and the interior decoration became more sober.

Art Deco in Belgium.
Art Deco in Belgium. ©Marie Lambert, Vincent Rocher and Guy Focant

Abbot Henri Balthazar (1889-1954) is the author of this interesting religious building in the Art Deco style. The church was built entirely in reinforced concrete, covered with cladding. The elevation walls are made of lean concrete and the pillars, beams, uprights, sills, lintels, cornices, floors, gates, frames and vaults are made of reinforced concrete. There are few examples of religious buildings that so clearly show the use of this material. As for the roof, it is covered with large Hennuyères tiles. The Notre-Dame du Travail church is dedicated to Sainte-Thérèse de Lisieux. In the center of the portal, surrounded by two angels, Saint Therese is enthroned in the tympanum and, to the right of the entrance, a small oratory is dedicated to her. Countless geometric decorative elements remind us of her presence, the main one being the rose, which can be found stylized in architecture, furniture, blacksmithing and stained glass. The various high-reliefs carved into the concrete remind us that the church is intended for an audience made up mainly of minors. On each side of the entrance, a miner and his family welcome the believer. Inside, the apostles represented on the main altar (in the choir) have worn features that resemble those of workers. The other two altars also evoke, through the choice and treatment of images of saints and Jesus, the world of work. In one of them is Saint Barbara, its patron saint. These sculptures cast in concrete are the work of Joseph Gillain (1914-1980), later better known as Jijé for his talent as a comic book creator.

Art Deco in Belgium.
Art Deco in Belgium. ©Marie Lambert, Vincent Rocher and Guy Focant

The church of Saint-Aybert in Bléharies (Brunehaut). This remarkable building forms the center of the urban reconstruction project carried out after the First World War by architect Henry Lacoste in Bléharies. The Saint-Aybert church is located away from the town square, which reinforces its presence in the heart of the village. The result of several preliminary projects created in collaboration with the architect Louis Madeline, the current sanctuary was built by businessman Maurice Vandeghen according to a design by Henry Lacoste in 1924, and the blessing took place on October 16, 1926. It is doubly interesting, due to the innovative architectural projects implemented , on the one hand, and by adapting the ideas of the liturgical renewal initiated by Dom Lambert Beauduin, on the other.

A vast building with a single nave, the church presents itself as a global work of art, including decorative elements and furniture designed by Henry Lacoste and several masters and art workshops on both the facade and the interior.

The interior offers an effect of lightness in the vast space punctuated by reinforced concrete diaphragm arches designed by Hennebique. The light is provided by the numerous triangular skylights planted on the roof and the tall windows, all decorated with stained glass from Paul Leclerc’s workshop. While the arches are painted white, all the walls and floors play with contrasts of colors in brick, polished cement and bright colors that are reflected even in the fixed furniture — communion bench, both pulpit, baptistery, confessionals and tabernacle —, also drawn in concrete. The ensemble, both sober and extremely decorative, still constitutes a rare example of 20th century religious architecture.

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