© BOZAR Archives
RADAR

An exceptional architectural icon defies the flames

On 18 January, the Centre for Fine Arts was severely damaged by a fire that broke out on the building’s roof. BOZAR is determined to restore Victor Horta’s magnificent monument as soon as possible, and to ensure that this exceptional venue, and its rich history, will continue to play its rightful role in our country’s cultural life.

The best of art, accessible to all! This watchword, or better still, a social mission, is part of BOZAR’s DNA - not only in its programming, but set in the very stones of its edifice. From the very beginning, the Centre for Fine Arts has strived to make culture accessible to all, and to embody that goal through its architecture.

The Henry Le Boeuf Concert Hall under construction © Horta Museum Archives, Saint-Gilles
The Henry Le Boeuf Concert Hall under construction © Horta Museum Archives, Saint-Gilles
“I have been closely following Horta’s work for almost a year now, he has devoted himself body and soul to his work, and the changes he makes to the plans are most interesting and demonstrate his great talent.”
Henry Le Bœuf in a letter to Adolphe Max, 16 November 1923

From dream to reality

The conception of that dream goes back to the mid-19th century, when, in 1865, Adolphe Samuel launched a series of Popular Concerts. He wanted to organise concerts of high artistic quality - usually reserved to the elite - that everyone could enjoy,. A few years later, the idea began to emerge for a venue in Brussels to accommodate artistic life in all its forms, though it was not until 1913 that the Mayor of Brussels, Adolphe Max, at the request of King Albert I and Queen Elisabeth, considered the design of a “temple dedicated to Music and the Arts” between Rue Royale and Rue Ravenstein. Due to the outbreak of the First World War, the project was put on hold until 1919, when Belgium’s most famous architect, Victor Horta, was chosen to design the building by the Minister of Public Works, Édouard Anseele.

The Sculpture Hall (now Horta Hall) under construction, 1927 © Horta Museum Archives, Saint-Gilles
The Sculpture Hall (now Horta Hall) under construction, 1927 © Horta Museum Archives, Saint-Gilles

Architecture builds multiple connections

When the Senate refused to support the government’s request for funding, the project’s backers, led by Adolphe Max, appealed to leading figures in civil society to bring the initiative to fruition. First and foremost among them: Henry Le Bœuf, a banker and great music lover. Headed by the newly created Société du Palais des Beaux-Arts, which took over the mission from the State, this exceptional combination of private support and public bodies working together for the general interest has, from that day on, been the hallmark of the Centre for Fine Arts. And the building itself is maybe the most striking expression of this idea: standing on an irregular plot of some 8,000m2, it was built by creating a physical link between the ‘lower’ and the ‘upper’ city, and also included shops on Rue Ravenstein in order to stimulate local economic development. This combination of physical, cultural, social and political constraints forced Horta to revise his project several times. 

The festive opening of the exhibition rooms, 4 May 1928 © BOZAR Archives
The festive opening of the exhibition rooms, 4 May 1928 © BOZAR Archives
“As soon as you enter, all is surprise and wonder. A surprise, because as soon as you pass the angled stairs from Rue Royale down into the exhibition galleries, these unfold before the unsuspecting visitor, open out and extend perspectives that are radiant with light and tickle the imagination, like avenues leading away from a sacred wood where the muses gather. A wonder, because the architectural proportions and the decorative ornamentation of this temple, where all the arts, after painting and sculpture, will soon have their own altar, contribute to the desired goal with a quite admirable confidence, taste and grandeur.”
from a report on the inauguration of the Centre for Fine Arts in La Flandre libérale, 5 May 1928

A monument full of history

The building was inaugurated on 4 May 1928, and fully completed the following year. Designed in a sober and pared-down style that emphasised its geometrically-shaped spaces, it included a large concert hall, whose architectural lines were strictly subject to the laws of acoustics; on the lower floor, a chamber music room and a conference room; at the level of Rue Ravenstein, a foyer opening onto a monumental hall for sculpture and another reserved for the decorative arts; on the upper floor, accessible from the Rue Royale, several rooms reserved for painting exhibitions, connected by a grand staircase to the sculpture hall. Multidisciplinarity – which was soon extended to theatre and cinema - was, so to speak, integral to the creation of the Centre for Fine Arts.

Modigliani Exhibition, 1933 © BOZAR Archives
Modigliani Exhibition, 1933 © BOZAR Archives

From Toscanini (1930) to Boulez, from Lotte Lehmann (1931) to Cecilia Bartoli, from the paintings of Braque (1936) to those of Gilbert and George (2010-2011), from the sculptures of Bourdelle (1928) to those of Picasso (2016-2017), the Centre has hosted countless masterpieces, artists and creations that have forged its international reputation over the years.

Thelonious Monk, 1963 © BOZAR Archives
Thelonious Monk, 1963 © BOZAR Archives

It also hosts major cultural events, such as the Queen Elisabeth Competition since 1937 (originally called the Eugène Ysaÿe Competition), or Europalia since 1969.

“This magnificent and unique institution (…) has completely transformed the once provincial intellectual climate, and has made Brussels a Mecca for the mind. There is no doubt that ever since its foundation, a profound transformation has taken place in society and standards.”
Charles Bernard, art critic, 1953

A witness to history

Its role in the life of the city has made the Centre a unique witness to major historical events – good and bad – of the past century. It was used for propaganda purposes by the occupying German forces during the Second World War, and turned into a place of hope of renewal upheld by the artists and students who occupied it in May 1968. More recently it has also been an important centre of commitment to the new European Union’s narrative approach.

A rock band prepare for a performance during the happening De Nederlandse Dagen, 8 June 1968 © BOZAR Archives
A rock band prepare for a performance during the happening De Nederlandse Dagen, 8 June 1968 © BOZAR Archives

As an integral part of a city district that includes the country’s major public, cultural and financial institutions, the Centre for Fine Arts offers residents and tourists alike a unique space for contemplating art, reflecting on society, anticipating the future, and participating in cultural encounters and exchanges.

“Horta uses a formal vocabulary of classical inspiration, combined with a fluid sculptural vigour, while the predominance of cubic elements lends it both modernist and archaic or exotic connotations, entirely in the spirit of Art Deco.”
Steven Jacobs, history professor at the University of Ghent, “Horta’s Megastructure: The Centre for Fine Arts, an Urban Junction”, in BOZAR LXXX, BOZAR BOOKS 

While we know that the recent fire will take a heavy toll, the damage it has caused only marks a momentary pause in the history of the Centre for Fine Arts, an institute that nevertheless promises numerous delightful events to its vast audience. 

Singing Brussels, 2018 © Wim Gelders
Singing Brussels, 2018 © Wim Gelders

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See also

  • An incredible saga

    A threat of silence hangs over the organ

    On Monday 18 January 2021, the roof of the Centre for Fine Arts caught fire. Although localised, the damage caused by the flames and the water used to extinguish them was significant. The organ – a musical and architectural gem set at the heart of the Henry Le Bœuf Great Hall – was one of the main victims, a new twist in the fate of this instrument whose dramatic history could provide the script for a television series. Devastated by a fire in 1967, it remained silent for half a century until its glorious reconstruction in 2017. We take a look back at the breathtaking saga of this pillar of our musical heritage.

    — published on
  • The Henry Le Boeuf Hall and its history

    Entirely designed by Victor Horta, the Henry Le Bœuf Hall offers a visual harmony and acoustic quality recognised by music legends worldwide. Inaugurated on 19 October 1929, it was later named after the businessman and banker who contributed actively to musical life in Brussels and in particular to the creation of this music mecca. In its 90 years of history, it has welcomed some of the world's very best artists. Here is a brief portrait of this mythical venue that was sadly damaged by fire on 18 January 2021. 

    — published on