A street scene somewhere.
Cars, a pedestrian, apartment buildings with shops at ground level. The road in front seems broad, the prospect might be inviting or intriguing, for this scene seems a little untidy. Parked cars seem scattered across the roadspace.
The buildings seem quite new, they have a modern, fresh feel. Above the shops are the windows of apartments. People are living in them, and the lights are on in some of windows. We can see into some rooms.
The shops are small. These businesses are small town or from the edge of the city centre. Although their lights are also on, perhaps the workers have all gone home.
The sky is an evening sky, not quite dark yet, perhaps a summer evening. There is a watcher on one of the balconies.
Across the street, and reflected in the windows is an illuminated hotel sign.
So a mixed neighbourhood, homes, shops, hotels. Parked cars and a broad road. The city at night, inhabited and full of life and promise. If we use our imagination a little, we can picture ourselves as the watcher on the balcony, perhaps enjoying the view, living in the city and enjoying its benefits.
In fact this is Brussels in early August. Its between nine and ten in the evening. The air is still warm after a dry, sunny day. I was eating in a restaurant across the street and saw this. How different to my home town of Dumfries. There, houses and shops are more separate. In the evening the town centre is mostly silent and empty.
The Flagey building, Place Flagey and the nearby lake are worth a visit.
Place Flagey itself is a big irregular, informal, open public space. Many roads meet here. On two sides are apartment blocks with shops at ground level.
The apartments are carefully composed facades of yellow brick, as is the Flagey building itself. The south west corner of the square touches the northern tip of the lake. The square has an intermittent spouting fountain area which locals braved with nonchalance. Trees are scattered round the edge, and there are two more modern public sculptures which which challenge the ’30s atmosphere.
On our visit a truck and PSVs were scattered across the square. This casualness hides a vigorous and contested re-development made between 2002 and 2008.
Place Flagey is situated south of central Brussels and at the top end of a little lake, about 15 minutes bus ride from the city centre. You arrive at a big glass-covered bus and tram stop situated to one side at the north end of the square.
We visited on a warm sunny morning, and had the immediate feeling of being in a good place. Why is that? It’s harder to define, we were enjoying the sun after a rainy day (it rains on average 200 days a year in Brussels).
That was one thing but we were also feeling relaxed. We had planned our route, and how it might fit in to the rest of our day. We had done some checking out on- line. We thought it looked interesting, that there might be quite a lot to see, but we weren’t sure as it seemed quite low-key. We had seen the lake on the map and thought we might enjoy walking round it to see the Cascade apartments on the other side. It seems to float above the lake like some medieval castle, yet at the same time, indisputably modern Art Deco.
But when we got there, we realised that we weren’t just looking at the Flagey building, were were experiencing a living built environment- square, buildings and lake. Each part revealed something of the rest, and that invited movement through the space. In general it also offered a small glimpse into ordinary suburban life in Brussels. It hadn’t been primped for the tourists. Flaws and untidiness were allowed exist alongside things which were beautiful and interesting.
To begin with, we walked round the lake. We could see glimpses of buildings with mixed styles on the other side. Towards the far end, there was a man-made rocky grotto in the shade of trees, complete with broken classical columns.
The Cascade apartment building is a strong draw. We noticed couples from other countries drifting by, taking photos and smiling, happy to be there.
It is a large and beautiful example of Art Deco. Curving volumes, nice surfaces and simple detailing make a good mix.
But there were other interesting buildings, an apartment block and a modernist house to discover as well.
The lake appeared well cared for, with several duck houses spaced out along its length.
At the top end, swans, geese and ducks queued for breadcrumbs from local children. This activity served as a link with the public space and re-entry to the square.
In this complex space, life continued. People moved back and forth across it. Trams and buses came and went. Delivery vans blocked shop fronts. A man unloaded a trolley load of goods into a shop. A cafe couldn’t serve coffee because their machine had broken! A shop was being re-fitted.
There was even an external elevator moving furniture into an apartment building, and passers-by watching the little drama. All this in the morning sunshine while we looked and lingered.
The Flagey building, formerly the I.N.R. (Institut National de Radiodiffusion), the name previously given to Belgian radio and television, is now subdivided and re-purposed. It is not particularly beautiful, but it is striking. It’s probably the reason visitors would initially go there. Unlike a monument or museum, it has limited public access at specific times. Perhaps it’s in transition, and sometime in the future will become just another restored museum, but for now it’s still a collection of working spaces. At the time of our visit, the only part we could find our way into was the cafe on the north-west corner.
Its has a genuine ’30s interior, much used and worn but very real. It’s also a popular, busy space. We liked the cafe tables,
the ceiling fans and lights, the little tubular wall lights. There was a nice bar area as well.
The bar staff were all young men, apart from a girl at the counter which served food. The whole atmosphere was easy, relaxed and in no way challenging. As outsiders we felt completely unnoticed, we just blended in.
That’s what was nice about it all, the way it was. It has the charm of the old, and the everyday. Explained by the small comfortable changes which we see as we pass through it.
Our first visit had been in late September. It was a warm, dry day and began with a challenging morning, navigating across Paris to see Le Corbusier’s studio. The tourist directions were imprecise. Several streets and half an hour later, we were climbing the seven flights of stone stairs to see the apartment on 24 Rue Nungesser et Coli, near the western edge of the Peripherique.
It was worth the climb, as we and about 40 Chinese architecture students, discovered. Not much was being said, but everyone was looking really hard, judging, evaluating, admiring and remembering it all.
We remembered features like that little grey spiral staircase that leads to the roof terrace or the huge asymmetric pivoting room dividers. A very special place.
Back in the centre of Paris, we had had a quick lunch. Then, for the first time, we went into the Luxembourg gardens by the gate on the Boulevard Saint-Michel.
The gardens sit close to the Sorbonne on one side and Montparnasse on the other.We walked, surrounded by people both coming and going, down a broad avenue under a canopy of tall trees whose leaves were beginning to go brown. You could have been in a painting by Renoir
Originally built for Marie de Medici in the 16th century, and in Italian style, what was once only for royalty is now free for everyone. People have made this space their own, for this park has been much altered, changed, and added to.
It is a place with a great sense of space, elegance and style. People go there to take a break from shopping, business or study and to relax and to enjoy the company of others. Its a great placeto people watch.
It is very much a planned park with an axial layout from the pond and Senate building to the north down to the Observatory gate to the south. It has many individual, even quirky features including an “English Garden” with broad, curved gravel paths and glimpsed vistas in the South-West corner.
There are touches of formality which mingle with informality, for groups can sit on patches of grass on the long axis to south, near the children’s play area. Otherwise there is no walking or sitting on grass here.
Instead, this Paris garden has something better to offer, chairs! Chairs in profusion, of different shapes for sitting up, for reclining and even for putting your feet upon. Sturdy, hefty metal chairs which you can arrange in any number or way you want, so if there’s three of you or eight of you, you can suit yourselves as to how you fix the arrangement. None of your British style fixed park benches here. Citizens and visitors alike get to choose where they sit. The garden’s most enviable feature is the ease with which ordinary people relax and luxuriate in such splendid surroundings.
At what I like to think is the centre of the gardens, there is a large octagonal pond with a central fountain, surrounded by a broad circular walkway. Here there are fancy and beautiful flower borders of great variety which are close to the paths.
On both sides there are broad flights of steps leading up to balustraded terraces, topped with big floral urns. The walkwaysround the pond have good sized palms and oleanders growing in very large Versailles tubs, punctuating the space and offeringsmall pools of shade. Thesebroad, very grand terraces also have a number of sculptures, some of which are very beautiful. A natural arena is formed, and this is a very popular place, with plenty of people coming and going. Amongst this, the gardeners go about their work, pruning and tending the trees and borders.
To the north of this is the Palais du Medici, the home of the French Senate and a seat of Government business. From its northern entrance, on the Rue de Vaugirard, black government cars come and go.
We were sitting below the terrace under a palm, when we faintly heard the sound of a band playing in the distance. So, along with various others, we moved towards the sound, found seats, brought them over and sat to listen. Again we were positioned comfortably, this time under dappled shade, a little distance from the bandstand. The music combined with the setting to give a feeling of perfect contentment. People would walk by, hesitate, then pull up a seat and listen. Just as freely, some rose to leave.
Every time the band stopped, the bandmaster stood up and solemnly and at some length addressed the crowd, but we couldn’t hear a thing as he had no microphone. Then he would sit down and the band in their dark blue uniforms with silver buttons, would start up again. It was very funny, and the audience were quietly amused.
After a while we felt thirsty, and spotted the Pavillon de la Fontaine Caféwhere you can eat or drink. Its very popular, quite costly, but very good and fairly close to the bandstand. It has outdoor seating, with umbrellas, and its another great place for people watching. As the long, hot afternoon wore on towards evening, like many others, we had found the perfect spot, the temperature was just right. We were sitting in a little crowd in open shade under tall trees while one of us had a glass of beer and the other a glass of wine. We were talking about the morning’s visit, comparing notes and photographs. It was so comfortable that seven o’clock came round before we knew it. The conversation turned to dinner. Whereto eat, and would it be necessary to book a table?
So a slow journey then, past the children still in the sandpit at the Observatory end, past the office workers hurrying home, and back up over gently rising ground towards the sound of Paris traffic, towards Montparnasse and our hotel.