Brief history of the Villa Empain

by Diane Hennebert, Directrice of the Boghossian Foundation

Brief history

With the Stoclet Palace, built by the Austrian architect Josef Hoffman in 1911, the Villa Empain is certainly one of the most beautiful architectural masterpieces of Art Deco in Brussels. In 1930, at the age of 21, Baron Louis Empain had this private mansion of 2500 square meters built, on the prestigious avenue of the Nation which was later on renamed as Franklin Roosevelt Avenue. This splendid mansion is entrusted to the Swiss architect Michel Polak, with the collaboration of Alfred Hoch. Michel Polak is already well known in Belgium : one of his major works consisted of the famous “Residence Palace ” (1928) and the George Eastman dental institute in the Leopold Parc.

The project conceived for Baron Empain on a property of 55 acres includes a monumental villa with four granite polished facades, a garden surrounding a decorated swimming pool with a pergola and a caretaker’s lodge. The modern and luxurious character of this construction generated enthusiasm and curiosity. It is true that the diversity and the quality of the materials used (marble, polished granite, bronzes, wrought iron, glasses and precious woods), the refinement of the details and the coherence of the whole imposing simple lines has contributed from the start to its patrimonial value.

Some references

As a great art lover, Louis Empain donated the property to the Belgian State in 1937, with the intention of creating a museum of decorative and contemporary art. Unfortunately this project was not carried out until after few years under the direction of La Cambre School of Arts. In 1943, the German army requisitioned the villa and occupied it until the end of the war.

Thereafter it sheltered the allied armies and as well as the embassy of the USSR and did not fulfill the functions for which it was offered to the Belgian State. Considering that the latter had not honored its engagement, Louis Empain recovered his property in the beginning of the sixties before reselling it in 1973. For nearly ten years it was rented to the TV channel RTL.

Since the beginning of the 1990s, the building remained practically unoccupied and left in a state of minimal maintenance. Fortunately, its recent acquisition by the Boghossian Foundation makes it possible to consider its future in an optimistic way. Its approved classification by the Government of Brussels-Capital Region in March 2007 and its future transformation into a center of dialogue between the cultures of the East and the West indeed guarantees the revival of this splendid house.

Read more

1930-34 : Design and construction of the villa at the request of Louis Empain and under the direction of the architect Michel Polak.

1937 : Louis Empain donates his villa to the Belgian state in order to create a museum of decorative and contemporary art. It is La Cambre School that takes charge of this project and hosts the villa for expositions and public manifestations until 1943.

1943 : The German army requisitions the villa.
After the Second World War, the villa is occupied by the USSR embassy, and then restored to Louis Empain. After the year 1970, the villa is sold to successive private buyers.

2001 : The villa is protected and registered on the list of the safeguard of the architectural heritage of Brussels.

29.03.2007 : The Government of the Brussels-Capital Region officially approved the classification of the villa. This approved classification covers the totality of construction of the property (principal building, caretaker’s lodge, swimming pool and pergola) as well as the garden.

Belgian architects Francis Metzger and Philippe De Bloos are chosen by the Boghossian Foundation, which works with the Royal Commission of Monuments and Sites for Brussels-Capital Region.