Eye on Architecture:
Villa Empain in Brussels
Villa Empain, at the edge of the Sonian forest, is one of the best-preserved examples of Brussels architectural and art deco heritage.
The villa, designed by the Swiss architect Michel Polak, was completed between 1930 and 1934, and built for baron Louis-Jean Empain, the son of the wealthy industrialist Edouard Empain, who made his fortune in the railway business.
Polak mastered the modern architectural styles of the interbellum period perfectly, and had an ability to combine elements of art deco, classicism and modernism in his designs. For baron Empain, he focused mainly on art deco.
Surrounded by foliage, the villa, with its symmetrical tiered stucco façade, is impressive and regal, with a gold-rimmed entrance and windows.
The black steel gates in typical art deco ironwork bear patterns that recur in the interior: on windows, skylights and balustrades, and on the marble floors.
In the backyard, a sizeable swimming pool dominates the view, flanked by two classically-inspired colonnades. It was a fitting residence for the wealthy heir. But after a near-death experience only a few years after he moved into his villa, baron Empain decided to live his life more soberly, and dedicated himself to charity. He gifted his villa to the Belgian government, so that the nearby La Cambre art school could make use of it. Henry Van de Velde and Herman Teirlinck, who were directors of the school at the time, were tasked with setting up a decorative arts museum there. They staged plenty of exhibitions, even during wartime years, until the German occupier claimed the villa in november 1943.
After the war, the villa was rented out to the Soviets as an embassy under Paul-Henri Spaak, but baron Empain disputed this based on his previous act of donation. Empain became the legal owner once more, and continued to use his villa for exhibitions.
In 1973, Empain sold his villa to an American businessman who subsequently rented it out to the broadcasting group RTL. After 2000 another owner carried out a few illegal renovations, leading the disused villa into dereliction.
Since 2010, the Boghossian foundation has proven to be villa Empain’s saviour, after extensive renovation work. It’s become a centre where Western and Eastern art meet. The Boghossian’s exhibitions are focused on dialogue and exploration, shared emotions and encounters for everyone. You can also come there for film screenings, lectures, yoga classes and performances - all year round.
Villa Empain is just 15 minutes up the road from Fosbury & Sons Boitsfort, along the embassy-lined Franklin Roosevelt street. Go and venture out - not everyone is as lucky to work in an architectural gem and be able to take a little break into another one, this close together.