Building a national shrine? In Belgium's eyes, a matter too serious to leave it to the monarchs and cardinals alone.
Thus King Leopold II considered at the beginning of the 20th century to celebrate the great Belgian figures, following the example of the Sainte-Geneviève Parisian church transformation into a republican temple. Pantheon that he could have entrusted to the French architect Charles Girault (1851-1932) – Grand Prix de Rome 1880, author for the Paris 1900 Exhibition of the Petit Palais, a manifesto of late Beaux-Arts taste. Impressed by this work, Léopold asked Girault to build notably his Central Africa Royal Museum. This neoclassical palace became a temple for the artifacts torn from the Congo, then under the personal property of the sovereign – exploiting the resources of this vast territory, not hesitating to inflict the worst torments on literally enslaved populations.
Placed on the Koekelberg eminence, not so far from the capital center, this pantheon was based from the start on a patriotic exaltation financed by cynical colonial crimes. This inglorious genesis attracted more foes than supporters to the project. The equally unhumanist other colonizing powers opportunistically launched investigations into the fierce Congolese massacres. This international scandal accelerated the cession of the site to the Catholic Church.
So the ecclesiastical dignitaries retained the idea of a place of communion, instead of celebrating the Sacred Heart with an epic basilica. Belgian response to the French one on the hill of Montmartre!
The chosen architect, Pierre Langerock (1859-1923) was a specialist in church restoration and produced neo-Gothic works. His project testified to a clear influence from the design of the French restorer Eugène-Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc (1814-1879) of an ideal 13th century cathedral. Langerock began work in 1905. Lack of funding, other socio-political choices of the new king, then the outbreak of the First World War, only allowed him to complete the foundations of his so nostalgic basilica.
The German occupation of the country until 1918 having left many cities devastated, the site experienced new trials. The priority on reconstruction threatened the resumption of works; the idea of a future national memorial did not entirely guarantee it. The Langerock anachronistic project led to a competition, with the avowed aim of creating a diminished and different monument. This almost denial remained a sermon in the desert. The Church left this path in 1921, entrusting the commission ex opere operato to Albert Van Huffel (1877-1935), a builder of humble origins and piously devout.
He pragmatically leaned on the base bequeathed by his predecessor, which largely determined the overall plan. However, its technical and aesthetic options testified his adherence to new architectural methods. First, he abandoned traditional masonry in favor of a more modern reinforced concrete structure. All with an exterior cladding mainly in brick, stone elements adorning key locations. Internally, the concrete pillars were covered with terracotta. Bold and pragmatic party inspired by American skyscrapers? The edifice scale and the budgetary shortcomings demanded this industrialization. Meanwhile, the former master of Art Nouveau Victor Horta (1861-1947) kept the stone facades of the Brussels Palais des Beaux-Arts between academism and Art Deco – leaving the internal concrete structure partially visible.
The style chosen for the basilica retained the old forms, metamorphosing them with stripping down closer to Franciscan simplicity than to Sulpician verbosity. The brick proclaims very Nordic sobriety of spirit. If the facade towers continue a medieval heritage, their caps correspond to the central dome. Massive, modeled with as much vigor as majesty, this Italianate element remains the keystone magnifying the sanctuary.
Because Van Huffel gave this dome a shape ostensibly inspired by that of Michelangelo in Rome St. Peter's Basilica. Since the Renaissance, Catholic domes have been signified by metonymy a universalist ambition, present everywhere on the globe. The monumental dimension of the Belgian dome thus vividly affirmed its belonging to the Apostolic and Roman Church. This created an apparent national unity, in a predominantly Catholic territory nonetheless undermined by violent divisions between Walloon and Flemish communities. This aspect of Van Huffel's plans also inspired much in 1928 Joseph Smolderen (1889-1973) Liège church also dedicated to the Sacred Heart. The air of kinship between the two domes could almost turn into plagiarism!
This quote, therefore, made the dome of Brussels the depositary of a legacy that seemed perpetually essential. Yet the heyday represented by the Michelangelo dome was now very distant – in the twentieth century seeming more of a pompous reminiscence. This formal overhaul served as a premise guiding each creative decision. The semi-domes of the transept recall both the Gothic cathedral of Noyon and the apses of the same Roman basilica: the architect merged several canonical types of sacred art.
Similar synthetic reflex, for spaces of divine service. The high altar is its best profession of faith, going back to the sources of Christianity. In early Christian basilicas, ciboriums were an essential liturgical element to enhance the high altar with a canopy. At the heart of the Vatican Basilica, Bernini's monumental canopy had transformed this heritage with a glorious baroque breath. Dialoguing with these venerable precedents, closing the choir almost like a medieval rood screen, Van Huffel attached a canopy also in terracotta. All with a severe majesty, balancing meditation in the face of tradition and consent to contemporaneity.
However, only the choir was nearing completion when Van Huffel died. Providentially, his devoted right-hand man Paul Rome (1896-1989) immediately took over the work, remaining substantially faithful to the designs transmitted by his master. This continued an architectural testament far into the twentieth century. During the Brussels 1935 Exhibition, the basilica still appeared adapted to its time, opposite the Art Deco Heysel Palace by Joseph Van Neck (1880-1959). But, facing the modern ardor of the 1958 Exhibition, the sanctuary became more than ever the cumbersome specter of a bygone era.
In fact, the facade and its towers were finalized at the beginning of the 1950s, and the transepts were completed at the end of this decade. The dome – clad in Congo copper – was not inaugurated until 1970, finally completing the imposing basilica. Ten years after the independence of the former colony! The use of African materials had nevertheless continued. Tenacious habits of the lost colonial empire. Here the shadows of the slavery past remain behind the evangelizing light. Each creation can have its side of barbarism.
During the same period, other considerable basilicas experienced epic constructions, continued over decades – such as medieval cathedrals. So it happened to the one dedicated to Sainte-Thérèse de Lisieux, in the eponymous town. Begun in a neo-Romano-Byzantine style in 1929 by Louis-Marie Cordonnier (1854-1940), it was not completed until 1975 by his grandson. In Canada, Montreal Saint Joseph's Oratory, undertaken in 1904, was not completed until 1967. Seven architects followed one another, including Ernest Cormier (1885-1980) and the monk-architect Paul Bellot (1876-1944). If Lisieux rather obeys the initial plans, Montreal offers a curious collage between the smooth exterior neoclassicism and the concrete raw internal masses.
The Church here betrayed her difficulty in keeping up with the times. Aware of this hiatus, Pope John XXIII initiated in 1962 via the Vatican Council II a general meditation on the place of Catholicism in society. This liturgical aggiornamento led to a global movement of architectural modernization. In the Vatican itself, the Paul VI auditorium was built in 1966: here Pier Luigi Nervi (1891-1979) deployed vigorous parabolic arches. However, this religious update actually followed the modernizing efforts undertaken by the architects themselves since the turn of the century.
Indeed, still in Italy, Saverio Muratori (1910-1973) with his 1954 project for the Ascension Church in Rome had explored a singular link between Baroque heritage and modern structure. A similar approach in 1960 with Giovanni Muzio (1893-1982), for the Nazareth Basilica of the Annunciation. In France, seeking forms different from those of his former mentor Auguste Perret (1874-1954) at the post-war Le Havre Saint-Joseph tapering concrete tower, Le Corbusier had just explored in 1953 with the chapel of Ronchamp a lyrical expression of reinforced concrete. Guillaume Gillet (1912-1987) had also made in 1955 of his Royan church a powerful song of concrete. Then, in the USA, Pietro Belluschi (1889-1994) co-signed in 1967 with Nervi the new cathedral of San Francisco – another epic structure where concrete touches the sky in a beautiful ascending effect.
Compared to these sometimes stylistically revolutionary sanctuaries, the Brussels basilica was at best a continuation, at worst backward-looking. In sum, the sibylline vestige of a trance of colonial and Catholic grandeur.