The word “heritage” keeps cropping up in 2018… Indeed, this is the ‘European Year of Cultural Heritage’, with initiatives launched in different countries to encourage Europeans to get inspired by the meeting of past and future. Within this context, “United Music of Brussels” is giving you the opportunity to (re)discover the city by exploring its buildings, its past, its hidden treasures. But also to immerse yourself in the electrifying vitality of one of the most cosmopolitan capitals in the world, where new original projects and an infinite number of artistic and creative encounters come to light each and every day!
On 8 September, you can experience it for yourself. The Galeries Royales Saint-Hubert will be the nerve centre of the event, hosting many concerts and performances, in a glorious historical setting with a fascinating history while, in the vicinity, small architectural gems await you. The time has come to tell the story of these special places, before inviting you along to a unique musical adventure on the big day.
Belgium was a brand new country when young architect Jean-Pierre Cluysenaer designed his monumental covered double gallery in 1837, based on smaller Parisian models. Neo-classical in inspiration, the project combined references to the Italian Renaissance with new techniques in glass and metalwork to create a complex that was revolutionary for its time. At this time Belgium was experiencing a real industrial boom: the social divide was growing between the rising bourgeoisie, who had settled in the south and east of the city, and the workers living in the north and centre of the city. The creation of a shopping street in the heart of this medieval neighbourhood of ill repute was designed to clean up and modernise the city centre, but also to create a link between the upper and lower town of Brussels by revitalising this strategic area which, up until that point, had been difficult to access.
The project, which required painful expropriations and the demolition of around fifty houses, was supported by the public authorities, and financed by private investors through the creation of a limited company in 1845. From that moment on, construction work went ahead, and just 18 months later, in 1847, King Leopold I inaugurated the site: two naves of a total length of 213 metres, with an incredible 18 metre-long glass canopy, with more than seventy shops and a hundred apartments.
From the outset visitors flocked to the Galeries Royales, and their popularity grew with the opening of luxury boutiques, cafés, restaurants, theatres and cabarets. Passers-by and tourists alike would take refuge from the Belgian weather for a few hours in what soon became known as “the umbrella of Brussels”, with the galleries originally charging an entry fee. From 1847, the Théâtre des Galeries Saint-Hubert put on a programme of comedies, drama and vaudeville. As for the Café de la Renaissance (now the Taverne du Passage), it was the headquarters of the ‘Artistic and Literary Circle’, frequented by figures such as Victor Hugo, Alexandre Dumas, Baudelaire and Verlaine. A little further along, a room belonging to the Chroniqueur – a newspaper that had offices in the Galerie du Roi –hosted the first Belgian public screening of the Cinématographe Lumière, just a few weeks after it had screened in Paris.
Finally, the current Théâtre du Vaudeville took the place of the old covered flower market: it was inaugurated in 1884 as a café-concert called the ‘Casino Saint-Huber’, later renamed the ‘Bouffes Bruxellois’ and artists such as Juliette Gréco, Bourvil, Raymond Devos and Fernand Raynaud graced its stage! As for the shops, how can we not mention Jean Neuhaus, who at the start of the 20th century invented the famous chocolate ‘praline’ at number 23, Galerie de la Reine? While at number 31, the famous Delvaux leather goods store opened its doors to devotees of a new sport: shopping…
A few steps away from the famous gallery, the route takes you past the Galerie Bortier, another creation by the same Jean-Pierre Cluysenaer, more intimate, but also very striking in the way it combines neo-Renaissance style with the ingenious use of glass and steel. Together with the current Salle de la Madeleine, it used to form a vast ensemble, the Marché de la Madeleine, one of the first covered markets in Brussels, inaugurated in 1848. Just a stone’s throw away, step into the Chapelle de la Madeleine, a small Gothic church that has welcomed the faithful since the 15th century. At the time, it hosted the altars of the different corporations of the city (bakers, tailors, armourers). Over the years, it was put to many uses (as a Reformed church and a school of the City of Brussels) and rebuilt many times. In the 1950s, at the end of the vast construction project of the North-South railway junction, the church was given a massive renovation, with the addition of the beautiful baroque façade of the Chapelle Saint-Anne, a survivor of the bombing of 1695.
Time for one final covered gallery? Then head for Galerie Ravenstein, which takes you from the Central Station to the Centre for Fine Arts. Inaugurated in 1958, and recently listed, it is the work of Philippe and Alexis Dumont and inspired by the international style. An original extension to the tradition of covered galleries, it is lit by myriad eye-catching glass tiles. As you pass, why not enter the door to the Belgian National Orchestra’s rehearsal hall, which is welcoming you for percussion concerts on 8 September!
The magnificent Théâtre de la Monnaie, rebuilt by Joseph Poelaert in 1856 following a fire, needs no introduction, nor does the incredible art deco work of Victor Horta and his ‘Maison des Arts’ completed in 1929. But between these two temples of music, “United Music of Brussels” invites you to explore other astonishing places and to combine architectural discovery and offbeat concerts. A church which is discretely resisting the passage of time, a cinema, a private apartment, a mysterious basement… so many opportunities to share a living cultural heritage, a source of fascination… and even wonder!