The North-South Connection is generally seen as a trauma in the belief of Brussels denizens, a major error and the result of a lack of a strong-willed and coherent urban policy. The reflection on this railway layout linking the city’s North and South stations actually led to a broader town planning approach on the scale of Brussels – from its beginnings, in fact, in 1836, because this layout is closely linked to the creation of a station in the heart of the city. This aim persisted when construction work on the tunnel resumed in 1935, because the choice of an open trench required recomposing the urban structure over more than two kilometers in length.
“(re)compose the city”
June 1 – October 14, 2018
Rue de l’Ermitage Kluis 55, Brussels
The Connection concurrently offered an opportunity for the City and the State to give shape to their respective plans for Brussels: the City by launching a clearance and modernization policy, and the State by erecting national facilities such as the Albert I Library and its Administrative District.
Whereas the Connection is generally considered as devoid of any overall vision, the layout plans for the Connection, the town planning proposals for Brussels, the projects for the three main train stations, the competition for the Albert I Library and the projects of an Administrative District, presented at the exhibition, all challenge the city through architectural design and broader composition pieces which incarnate the political, architectural and land improvement intentions.
(re)compose the city shows possibilities which do not compose the contemporary city, but have a capacity to fuel the discussions that are agitating the current urbanization of Brussels.
THE CONNECTION AND THE URBAN TRANSFORMATION
From the end of the 19th century to its inauguration in 1952, the North- South Connection shaped the discussion on the transformation of Brussels. On the one hand, it catalyses a large number of precise issues such as the renovation of neighbourhoods, relations, layouts, that had been left pending sometimes for more than half a century. On the other hand, it territorializes the major stakes of mobility and facilities then discussed in various think tanks on modern architecture in different ministries. In general, it gives the authorities of the City the means and resources for its monumental ambitions as the representative of the nation.
THE STATIONS OF THE CONNECTION AND URBAN PLANNING
Around 1900, the prevarications about preserving the North Station (1846, François Coppens) and having the South Station (1869, Auguste Payen) as a backup station (or terminal) came to an end: “the enlargement of the existing facilities can no longer be considered only at the expense of districts bordering the stations.” Linked by the Connection, the two sta- tions became through-traffic stations that catered for the two exits of the tunnel. To that end, new stations were to be situated away from the existing stations and the city centre. They would be disengaged from their esplanade and be turned into mechanisms to manage flows, backed against and nested under the tracks.
The idea of a central station, con- sidered since 1836, would also take shape thanks to the creation of the Connection. Situated in the district to be cleared in the Putterie, the train station was designed to be underground. In 1937, with the works for the Connection just revived and the competition for the South Station com- pleted, the architect Gaston Brunfaut wrote: “Every contemporary sta- tion poses enough problems for us to study them in consideration of the urban whole on which they depend.” But how could these three stations be established in the urban fabric?
THE CONNECTION AND ITS LAYOUTS
The idea of connecting the North and South is concomitant with that of creating the Belgian rail network. Layout studies were conducted from 1836 to 1903, when the layout was approved by a convention signed by and between the City of Brussels and the State. Three major tendencies emerged. The first consisted of crossing straight through the heart of the city. The second layout was to circumvent the city by the west side, in line with the industrial development.
The third went through the east of the city, along the Senne valley. In terms of the infrastructure itself, the paths were either overhead, or at road level, or underground. All these layouts included the creation of a central station, which in some of the projects was the only station. In 1897, the engineer Frédéric Bruneel proposed an underground alignment to the east of Brussels, bordering the Senne valley, and this was the one adopted in the convention of 1903.
ADMINISTRATIVE DISTRICT OF THE STATE
The Administrative District is located on the slope of a hill once called Montagne de l’Oratoire, because that is where the Oratorian convent was founded in the 17th century. The gardens and orchards of this convent, ter- raced and squared, offered a broad view of Brussels. Whereas the French Revolution made this garden accessible, the urban transformations of the upper part of the city in 1821 made the gardens disappear and altered the incline. The difference between the upper and lower part of the city is such that the district at the bottom is called Bas-fonds [Shallows]. The City acquired ownership and commissioned Jean-Pierre Cluysenaar in 1847 to establish the link between these two quarters.
This resulted in the two wings of covered markets supporting and framing the monumental staircases leading to the Colonne du Congrès and to what is known as Panorama Square. The competition, held by the board in 1849, appointed Joseph Poelaert, who had previously designed the Column to arrange this square and enhance the panoramic view of the city.
In 1955, the choice of site to centralise the ministerial administration premises fell on the plots of the Montagne de l’Oratoire belonging to the ONJ, the State and the City, which were already being demolished for the tunnel of the Connection. The interest of the site lies in the fact that it is intermodal, as it is adjacent to the inner ring and two major road arter- ies, as well as near the Halte du Congrès. It is also symbolic, because the Colonne du Congrès overlooks it – one of the great symbols of the crea- tion of Belgium. Whereas the cornerstone was laid on 21 April 1958, the first draft was filed in 1959 and the tower was completed in 1983. In 2001, the Administrative District was sold to a private developer.