Art Deco Heaven (or a Baron's Folly)
How wonderful to leave the confines of my own preconceptions and be surprised by a town. This weekend I visited a playboy mansion in the Hollywood Hills. Except I never left Brussels.
The Villa Empain is an Art Deco palace created in 1934 by Swiss architect Michel Polak. He was commissioned by Baron Louis Empain , just 21 at the time, who had recently inherited a vast fortune from his railway magnate father. In his grief Baron Empain decided to spend a lot of money which is evident in the marble and rosewood entrance hall, the gold leaf window frames and the polished granite facades.
Despite the villa boasting its own American Bar replete with bronze fountains and a purpose built fencing room, the sleek geometrics, curving walls and stained glass failed to seduce the young baron. After barely inhabiting the villa he donated it to the Belgian state with the stipulation that they run it as a museum of Decorative and Contemporary Art. But History had other plans for this house.
In 1943 it was requisitioned by the German army and after the war became the Embassy of the Soviet Union. It fell empty in the 1990s until a Belgian business man bought the house and tried to do a "Grand Design" on it - ripping out all the original features. The Belgian conservation society "Monuments et sites" intervened and commandeered the house, preserving it for posterity and fulfilling the Baron's wishes.
After extensive restoration the villa became the new home of The Boghossian Foundation and the house is now a Cultural Centre and Contemporary Art Space.
Admittedly I understand the barons's unwillingness to set up home here. The wrought iron and marble are impressive but a little chilly and the large central atrium seems only to cut out the heart of the house.
The way the gold leaf glistens on the window frames is something special though and the whole place is just designed for a party. It's not hard to imagine serried ranks of tuxedo'd butlers proffering trays of champagne in some Gatsby-esque extravaganza.
But even without a glass of champagne in hand this house still lifts the spirits. Be sure to put Villa Empain on your Brussels Bucket list.