The restoration of the Villa Empain

The Villa Empain offers the history of an exceptional building, constructed in a period when architecture was the pride of Brussels. But over time and because of its restless fate, the house degraded to a point where only the shadow of what it had been during a few decades remained. Now, for a major element of architectural heritage to survive, it is necessary to love, respect and recognize it as a complete work of art.

In the field of architectural heritage, every restoration project is unique and requires particular care which begins with the discovery of the place, its history and condition. The Villa Empain was acquired by the Boghossian Foundation in 2006. Upon the recommendation of architect Philippe De Bloos, the first research which allowed the launch of this restoration was based on a report realized in 1995 by architect Stéphane Dusquesne at the Katholieke Universiteit of Leuven.

This study includes historical research, a very complete summary and pictures of the building before its partial destruction in the early 2000s. A fortunate coincidence made Stéphane Duquesne the person in charge of the file at the Direction of Monuments and Sites of the Brussels-Capital Region.

This first phase was also based on the available historical elements: ancient documents, plans, images, artifacts, exchanges and testimonies. Architect Francis Metzger commissioned Carlo Chapelle to do this research. He worked for six months collecting useful information. Even though this work became a precious starting point of data, it is however necessary to admit that such historical studies always leave certain ambiguities which should be completed by on-site observation. Be that as it may, it is a question of joining on a time line from an existing place, of trying to create a kind of harmonious dialogue with past, to understand the spirit of the original architect, to find the means to return to the sources with contemporary elements in order for the building to (re) live and join the present and the future with radiance.

From 2007 onwards in order to complete the historical data, a detailed survey was executed on site. This observation provided plenty of information, as well as clarity about the building systems and their implementation, the identification of materials, colors, and techniques. Samples were taken and sent to labs. Chromatic polls, carried out by the Royal Institute for Cultural Heritage, were also of high value for these studies.

It was possible to formulate the proposals for the restoration of the Villa Empain based on a more detailed knowledge of the original state, the subsequent transformations, the state of degradations, the programmatic data released by the Boghossian Foundation and the patrimonial requirements of the Royal Commission of Monuments and Sites. These suggestions were presented by MA2 architects to the Brussels-Capital Region, whose services started following the project in 2007 with great care.

The restoration of the Villa Empain was complex. One rarely one finds such a quality of materials in the construction of a private house. But it is exceptional to adopt such damages, caused without scruple, in a building of this value! In order to restore the villa, it was necessary to choose highly skilled entrepreneurs and craftsmen.

The momentary association of general contractors Valens and Jacques Delens was chosen for the project and was later completed by the company Dimension 7 for the restoration of the pool and its surroundings.

Some restoration or replacement techniques were not very current: the replacement of the copper roof, the restoration of the windows covered with 23.75 carat gold leaf, restoring the “Bois Jourdan” or “Escalette” marble, repairing and restoring valuable species (burr and walnut wood, grained rosewood, manilcara), the restoration of an artistic stained glass window and wrought iron, …

After completing a two-year building site, everyone had the feeling that the house had always shone this way. It’s very strange how quickly one forgets the discomfort of a site when the result is fulfilling expectations! By rediscovering the entity of the villa, its suffering was quickly erased from memory. This may be the biggest compliment to the team responsible for this delicate restoration.