This is an excerpt from the architecture section of Lonely Planet's Belgium & Luxembourg guide.
Some of Belgium’s finest cathedrals and most of its great abbey churches were ripped down during the anti-religious turmoil of the 1790s. However, a great many splendid religious structures did survive, including the sturdy Romanesque Collégiale Ste-Gertrude in Nivelles. Romanesque architecture, characterised by very hefty columns and semicircular arches, disappeared gradually over the 12th and 13th centuries once new understandings of building technology allowed the introduction of light, pointed arches and the development of soaring Gothic vaulting. Tournai’s cathedral, built in three clearly differentiable sections, offers a vivid example of that architectural progression.
Image of Cathedral Notre-Dame (on the left) in Tournai by Daxis
In the cloth trading towns of the medieval Low Countries, wealth and education led to precocious ideas about rights and personal freedoms. Architecturally these notions were embodied in the grand guild-houses on market squares and, particularly, in the construction of secular belfries (Bruges’ is particularly incredible) and ornate city halls, most memorably in Brussels and Leuven.
Image of Saint-Salvator Cathedral's belfry by Wolfgang Staudt
Once the Catholic rulers had definitively suppressed iconoclasm and Protestantism in proto-Belgium (after the Dutch Revolt), art and architecture followed a whole new baroque trend. This Counter-Reformation underlined ideas about God’s mystical nature along with the limitless powers of kings by use of dazzlingly ornate and exuberant decoration. Although starting from Italian artistic roots, this heavy Flemish baroque developed as its own distinct style that reaches a stylistic peak in Antwerp’s St-Carolus-Borromeuskerk.
Image of St-Carolus-Borromeuskerk by Dittmeyer
For most of the 18th century, while Belgium was under Austrian rule, architecture took on a cold, rational, neoclassical style as typified by Brussels’ Place Royale. After independence, but especially under its second king, Léopold II (r 1865–1909), Belgium focused on urban redevelopment. Leopold realised that making Brussels more aesthetically
appealing would boost its economic potential. Partly using vast personal riches he’d gained through exploitation of the Congo, he funded gigantic public buildings like the Palais de Justice, created the monumental Cinquantenaire and laid out vast suburban parks linked to the city by splendidly wide thoroughfares like Ave Louise and Ave Tervuren.
Image of the triumphal arch in the Parc du Cinquantenaire by RightIndex
Much of this expansion coincided with a late 19th-century industrial boom that saw Belgian architects experimenting with new materials including glass and iron. From the early 1890s, Brussels was at the forefront of art nouveau design, using sinuous lines, organic tendrils and floral motifs to create a genuinely new architectural aesthetic. One of the best examples, the Old England Building, combines wrought ironwork frames, round windows, frescoes and sgraffito, a distinctive art nouveau technique of incised mural that’s most stunning example graces the facade of Maison Cauchie.
Image of the Old England Building by David Spender
Antwerp also has some excellent art nouveau facades, found especially in the Zurenborg suburb. But art nouveau wasn’t only about facades – several buildings from this era only reveal their secrets once inside. After WWI the feminine curves of art nouveau were progressively replaced by the harder, rectilinear lines of art deco, presaged very early by buildings like Ghent’s (1912) Vooruit and Brussels’ (1911) Palais Stoclet, and later by the cruel 1950s brutalism that marks Brussels’ Bibliothèque Royale. One high point from that era is the futuristic (1958) Atomium.
Image of Brussels’ Bibliothèque Royale taken by Leandro's World Tour
Tragically, earlier 20th-century styles were largely unvalued during the 1960s and ’70s and some of Belgium’s finest art nouveau buildings were torn down. Worldwide protests over the 1965 destruction of Horta’s Maison du Peuple helped bring about laws protecting Brussels’ heritage and ARAU was formed to save and renovate city treasures. The former Belgian radio and TV building, Flagey, was one art deco landmark to be rescued but other swathes of cityscape have gone under the demolition ball, notably in Brussels to make way for the bland glass buildings that typify the EU quarter. Luxembourg’s EU zone is almost as uninspired. Despite some public acclaim, Belgium’s 21st-century architecture has mostly proved less than majestic. Antwerp’s sail-topped Justitiepaleis is certainly memorable but fails to offer the wow factor of the Bilbao Guggenheim, whose spirit it seems to envy. Bruges’ red-elephant Concertgebouw feels like a modernist token and even the fine new galleries in Mons and Leuven aren’t genuinely beautiful. There is, however, one major exception: Santiago Calatrava’s truly astonishing Guillemins station in Liège. This is contemporary architecture that’ll really blow your hat off.
Image of Guillemins station in Liège by Bert K
More cultural highlights can be found in the Lonely Planet guide to Belgium & Luxembourg