Little-known outside of Belgium is the manifold and inventive architectural heritage this small country holds. As European cities grew during the 20th century, Belgian architects were busy, but not only, they were also highly creative and imaginative. What stands out when you take a general look at Belgian houses and buildings is the great diversity in styles, shapes, details and materials. A new and wonderfully practical book about Belgian modernist architecture is a testament to the Belgian originality and heritage. With maps, precise walk descriptions and images, ‘Toerist Modernist’ shows you around parts of Belgium where the modernist architecture can still be discovered today.
Behind the book is a deeply dedicated documentarist, Gerlin Heestermans. With her Instagram account ‘toeristmodernist’ she has been documenting modernist houses and her love for mid-century aesthetics since 2019. What started out as a personal account and pastime soon turned into an increase of followers who were curious to know where to go see those special places she posted. Bautier has talked to Gerlin about her discoveries of Belgian modernist architecture, her guided tours and the new book.
Could you first tell us about your background and how this project of documenting modernist houses came about?
My architectural project somehow echoes my educational background; I’ve studied art history and cultural studies. I don’t really identify with the classic image of a historian; I’m someone dynamic with a lot of enthusiasm and who takes a lot of initiatives. Next to studying I was constantly involved with activities in various cultural organisations. I’ve always been fascinated with mid-century design and through my studies I learned more about the different modernist waves. I was once talking to a friend about it and she told me that there was so much of it in Belgium. She showed me around Brussels to discover the architecture from this era and I found another side of Brussels that I didn’t know before.
So, I started documenting the places, taking photographs, posting them on Instagram, just for my own pleasure, and the rest grew out of that. At some point, I wanted to visit the house of late architect Renaat Braem in Antwerp but they would only open up for a group of people, so I gathered a group to be able to go see it myself. That was the first tour I organised. I’ve always done this activity next to my job, but during the pandemic I had more time on my hands and finally set up a proper website for the tours.
It seems you have an immense knowledge of all these modernist houses. How do you find them?
It’s very simple, I just look them up through the online inventory of buildings that the Belgian government has set up. There are different versions, one for Flanders, one for Wallonia and one for Brussels, the three main regions. And from there, it’s just intuitive. I plan a walk to see several houses at a time, I ring the doorbell and most people are happy to show me around. Of course, I was nervous about doing this in the beginning but people are so kind and proud to show me their precious homes. Recently, this has happened to me three times now, I’ve visited a house and my book is already lying on their table.
Everything about this project has happened organically. It’s very much about a network of people who are interested in the same thing. To me, the most important part is the community and being able to share the dedication with others. The exchange I have with the house owners and the visitors are truly giving. Most of the owners are very passionate about their houses. If it wasn’t for them, a lot of these treasures would have been either demolished or ruined. Let’s not forget that it’s not an evident choice to live in some of these houses and to maintain them. The stories I hear from the owners, about the architects and the houses, and also their personal stories about living in such architecture; this is what drives me. Listening to their obstacles and challenges in maintaining the houses. Some of the houses are listed, meaning they have to be renovated and taken care of following certain protection rules. This can help owners obtain renovation subsidies from the state. Other houses are not listed meaning they can be demolished or renovated beyond recognition. With my work I’ve built up this informal network of modernist house owners who share information about renovations and who help each other.
This network of people indeed sounds like such an important and positive outcome of your discoveries. Let’s talk about the architecture. What is it specifically that has drawn you towards the modernist movement?
Firstly, in my view, some of these buildings are just utterly beautiful! They are works of art that you can easily find in the street. In Belgium they used a lot of local materials, probably mainly because they had to. The architecture speaks of a certain time which, on the one hand had its constraints and on the other, gave way to so much creativity. The Belgian modernism is so varied. If you compare it to the architecture in the neighbouring countries and in the north, the others had a much more rational approach. The Belgians seemed artistic and free. This architecture is vernacular and it’s part of our Belgian heritage and identity, and I would like to do my part for it to be protected.
When I walk around, I notice colour, window profiles, bricks, colourful panels on the facade, stained glass windows or the shapes. You can get to know this type of architecture by studying the different shapes. The facades of these houses look so much more interesting than from other periods. Many people contact me because they start noticing all the different facades and send me photos. Then I go find those houses afterwards.
One of my favourite materials is marbrite, a kind of tinted glass. I also mention this in the book. The Belgian factory Facquez in Wallonia invented and produced it and it was used on many facades and interiors for decoration purposes. In their heyday, the factory employed around 1000 workers.
I sometimes take part in petitions to prevent demolitions of some of these gems; the appreciation of them still has to be worked for. It’s more difficult to live in houses like this, especially now with the energy crisis, and restoring is expensive. I see an increase in the interest of owning such places but it shouldn’t just be for the happy few. I hope that the government can offer even more help and subsidies in the future for these types of projects.
Sure, saving these houses helps us remember and cherish our shared history. And you contribute to this with the book, you help other people to find and learn about a certain culture and period in time. How did your Instagram and tours turn into a book?
In 2020, after all the positive feedback and inquiries I had via Instagram, I created my first walking guide. Soon after, the Belgian publisher, Luster, contacted me asking if I would be interested in publishing several walking guides with them, to be combined into a book. We worked on it for two years and it’s been out now for about six months. I get a lot of messages from people who are doing the walks. I’m so happy that it’s not ‘just’ a coffee table book, it’s being used out there in the streets, just as it was intended.
All pictures by Gerlin Heestermans