The Houses of the People initiated by the Belgian Workers’ Party at the end of the 19th century were a rare confluence of socialism and exquisite design
The Friday Market Square, one of the central squares of Ghent, is not the sort of place you visit for ‘socialist architecture’. In among this elegant space of gabled houses and cobbles, you’ll find neither pompous Socialist Realist palaces nor functionally questionable béton brut Houses of Culture; certainly, nothing looks less ‘Soviet’. But if you look in one corner, you’ll find the buildings of an impressive, gaudily ornamented late Victorian department store, just slightly taller than the historical gables. Two buildings, encrusted with neo-Baroque accoutrements, and at the top – along the cornice, above a grandiose, bulbous, iron and glass picture window with an ornate clock – are the words ‘socialist workers’ societies’, outlined in pompous serifs. It’s dramatic architecture, and it’s socialist propaganda, but not as either is conventionally understood.
Bond moyson’s people’s house
Source: Viennaslide / Alamy
This is the People’s House (Ons Huis, literally Our House) Bond Moyson, designed by Ferdinand Dierkens in 1897 as a combined co-operative department store, uniting worker-run enterprises throughout the locality. Its facade, though dressed with allegorical scenes of struggle and labour, is not so unlike the heavy, melodramatic Beaux Arts that imperial Belgium was so full of – but rather than celebrating Belgian imperialism, it celebrates an insurgent socialism. Nearby is the Vooruit (Forward) building, built just over decade later, in 1911, to designs by the same architect. This had grander ambitions – not just a co-op, it also included a ballroom, a cinema, a theatre, and meeting rooms for the labour movement, all under one roof in a lasciviously curved plate-glass palace. It is now an arts centre, and the People’s House Bond Moyson still houses a socialist health insurance society, though these continued social uses are rare. These two buildings are among the few survivors of an entire programme, where the Belgian Workers’ Party built several Houses of the People for the self-governing institutions of the socialist movement – a concentrated legacy that was unusual for the time, and is usually forgotten compared with the more famous interwar mini-utopias in Amsterdam, Vienna and Berlin. Here, radical politics and the overripe opulence of the Belle Époque met, for the first and last time.
This was noticed abroad from early on – the largest of the Houses of the People, the Maison du Peuple in Brussels, became a centre for the worldwide Socialist International. In 1901, in The Social Democrat, the newspaper of the British Social Democratic Federation, Dora Montefiore wrote that these buildings were an exemplar for what the labour movement could do elsewhere. ‘The centre of activities, the focus of mutual interests, the living, animating symbol of Democracy and of Collectivism in nearly every town and village in Belgium, is the Maison du Peuple’, she wrote. Of the Brussels ‘Maison’, designed in 1895 by Victor Horta, she notes that ‘the design was entrusted to one of the leading architects of the town, who was so evidently in sympathy with the feeling and work he had to express that, when he was asked if he were not intending to have Maison du Peuple writ large on the facade of the building, replied, “Do you write ‘Church’ on the buildings that express your religious aspirations? No, you build them so beautifully and so expressively that they interpret to all comers the meaning of the edifice; and in the same way I hope to work out my design for the People’s Home that all may understand and read the symbol aright, and that the people when they come across it may recognise it at once as being the expression of their needs and aspirations”.’
Source: Ullstein Bild / Getty Images
Montefiore commends the results: ‘everything within and without the building speaks of light, strength, suitability and cleanliness. A very lofty café, lighted by electricity, and capable of holding close on a thousand people, shares the ground floor with the various trading departments; on the first floor, and approached by iron staircases, are the administrative departments, and halls of various sizes for public meetings, trade union meetings, and social gatherings. On the roof is a large theatre and concert hall, holding more than 2,000, with an outside promenade and refreshment rooms. Iron, cement and glass are largely employed in the construction of the building, and the architect has relied for decoration more on line and form than on colour, with a result that makes for dignity and simplicity rather than for show and glitter.’ That is, Horta actually tried to express socialist ideas when designing the building, which makes this significant not just as a major Art Nouveau building, but as an attempt to explicitly unite ideology and architecture.
Brussels peuple 2
Source: (colour image) PMRMAEYAERT / Wikimedia
This is only the most famous part of the building programme. Brussels has the ornate iron and glass Presse Socialiste Cooperative building and the later, almost Constructivist headquarters for the socialist newspaper Le Peuple – also owned by the Presse Socialiste – both by Fernand and Maxime Brunfaut. Both survive, though the former is now the Marc Sleen Museum celebrating the cartoonist’s work, and the latter the music company PIAS Group. Antwerp still has the lush 1901 Maison du Peuple, designed by Jan van Asperen and Emiel Van Averbeke, which was saved through being turned into a Steiner school. Its pupils now pass these portals of organic whipcrack curves and the heroic mosaic panels of workers and peasants, en route to a quite different kind of instruction. Many Maisons du Peuple remain in smaller towns, often either Art Nouveau or a strange, monumental Art Deco – Dour, Wihéries, Thulin, Pâturages, Grâce-Hollogne, Aarschot, their original ideas visible through their signage and peculiar Jugendstil/workerist panels and stained glass, though they don’t fulfil their original purpose.
In larger towns, however, the Maisons du Peuple seldom survive, victims of postwar Belgium’s rampant overdevelopment and casual demolition, something encapsulated in the coinage ‘Brusselisation’. Industrial Charleroi’s Palais du Peuple is a case in point, an almost Chicago School steel-framed Neoclassical edifice designed by Paul Dubail in 1925. As in Brussels, it had a multifunctional programme of co-op and trade union offices, a cinema, a café and so forth, the sort of ‘social condenser’ that Constructivists were reinventing architecture to achieve in Moscow. According to no less than Georges Simenon, it housed the best restaurant in Charleroi, and was devoid of the ‘greyness’ he associated with socialism. It was demolished in 1980 after the co-operative it housed went bankrupt. An ambitious curtain-walled Moderne Maison du Peuple in Herstal faced the same fate.
Antwerp peuple 3
Source: (colour image) PIAS
The demolition of the Brussels Maison du Peuple, meanwhile, became a national scandal. Not only was it pivotal in socialist history (the famous 1903 conference where the Russian Social Democrats split into Bolsheviks and Mensheviks was held there), but its destruction for a grim office block has roughly the same talismanic significance for preservationists in Brussels as the Euston Arch did in London. It was intended to be reconstructed, so much of the fabric survived, and it has been scattered around Belgium. Some fragments are in the Horta premetro station, others in a Flanders park, and others made their way to a specially designed café in Antwerp, the Horta Grand Café, opened in 2000.
The sheer contrast between these lush, light buildings and the stodgy monumentality or Constructivist coldness usually imparted to any meeting of socialism and design makes them unique. But the story of their eclipse and destruction also tells a story about Western European socialism, as it drifted from an insurgent movement into a ‘centre-left’ part of a consensus political duopoly. Naturally, the buildings have little place in a country sharply divided between its two major linguistic and national groups – a Maison du Peuple in Flanders or in Wallonia does not look different, and their architects and patrons would have thought it puzzling that they should. But more than that, these places were about socialism as a way of life, not just a welfare state that would provide for the workers. Accordingly, there was little place for them when the state provided the goods, which in postwar Belgium it did, in abundance, replacing self-organised workers’ welfare.
Charleroi palais du peuple carte postale vers 1926
It would be pointless to lament that shift now. What is much more interesting, and more relevant to today’s concerns, is that these ideas and these buildings are actually much more relevant in an era when the radical left is back as a major force, but is still far from power, so has to rebuild itself from the ground up. The likes of Momentum and Podemos are hardly in a position to build the sort of mass social housing and large-scale planned projects that transformed European cities for the better in the 20th century – they haven’t the infrastructure, the materials, the money. But neither did the Belgian Workers’ Party in the 1890s. What they did have was enthusiasm, and the ability to channel that into smaller-scale, grass-roots co-operatives and organisations, who then stamped their presence on the city, and in the process tried to create spaces where life was, in a microcosm, better and fairer. The architecture they chose to express this with was attractive, decorative, ultra-modern, and open. The obscure moment of socialist Art Nouveau might be surprisingly useful for the contemporary left. A left-wing populism needs its Maisons du Peuple.
This piece is featured in the AR’s September 2018 on Belgium – click here to pick up your copy today