An imaginative approach to Art Deco
until 21st March 2004
Henry Lacoste (Tournai 1885 - Brussels 1968) occupies a very special place in the history of Belgian architecture between the two world wars. Trained in the tradition of the Fine Arts Academy in Paris, passionate about the history of architecture, archaeology and past civilisations, he used the past as a source of living inspiration in his work and his creative teaching, both of which developed in reaction to the prescriptive thinking of the avant-garde modernists.
Lacoste was the son of a wrought iron worker and locksmith from Tournai, who was taught his father’s skills at an early age. He sat his school-leaving certificate in Lille and then studied at the Brussels Fine Arts Academy from 1904 to 1908. He then went to Paris and worked in Gustave Umbdenstock’s studio to prepare for the admission exam to the Academy of Fine Arts. After that Lacoste found work in Henri Deglane’s studio where he graduated as an architect to the French government in 1913. It was during his time in Paris that Lacoste met other artists who were to remain close to him throughout his career : the architects Paul Tournon, Louis Madeline, Michel Roux-Spitz, Albert Laprade, the sculptors Carlo Sarrabezolles and Nathan Imenitoff. Recommended by Deglane, he left for Greece under the auspices of the French School of Athens to participate in the recording of the excavation of Apollo’s temple in Delphi from 1913 to 1914. He volunteered for service in the First World War and was appointed to the Dhuicque mission whose job it was to list and try to preserve historic monuments and works of art caught in the combat zone of Yser. Here Lacoste documented, in minute detail, numerous buildings.
In the aftermath of the war, Lacoste was commissioned to rebuild the border village of Bléharies, near Tournai. It was Albert I ‘s wish that a visitor from France would see in this village that he was entering a country that had rediscovered hope, grace and beauty through its buildings. He was responsible for the first reinforced concrete church in Belgium (1919-1925). At the same time, Lacoste worked with a French colleague and friend, Louis Madeline, to develop a new approach and thinking with regard to commemorative memorials. This was warmly acclaimed by the critics and their collaboration gave birth to various projects and creations such as the monument to the Belgian soldiers in the Père-Lachaise cemetery in Paris (1922), the monument to the young French writer Ernest Psichari in the military cemetery in the Rossignol forest (1924) and the cemetery at Lessines (1924-1929).
From 1930 to 1938, Lacoste was the supervising architect for the annual series of excavations that uncovered the Roman town of Apamea in Syria. It was an opportunity for him to increase his knowledge of the architecture of the Late Antique period and the Near East, and we can see traces of this in many of his later projects. He was anxious to give a didactic dimension to this amazing discovery and so, in 1933, he had reconstructed, at the Royal History and Art Museums at the Cinquantenaire in Brussels, from casts made on site, a fragment of the enormous colonnade that crossed Apamea.
Settling finally in Brussels, Lacoste was responsible for the medical research institute Fondation Reine Elisabeth in Jette, a brilliant exploitation of colour using marbrite from the Fauquez glassworks (1927-1929). He also designed his own house in Auderghem (1927), a fascinating combination of Assyrian, Egyptian, Greek, Medieval, Renaissance and modern elements. From 1929 to 1931 he worked in partnership with Lucien De Vestel and together they designed the first crematorium in Belgium at Uccle (1930-1932) and produced pilot studies for the Natural History Museum in Brussels, which De Vestel completed alone after they split up.
Exhibition pavilions gave him the chance to create some of the most distinctive examples of Belgian Art Deco, full of formal and symbolic references, combining vastness of concept with extraordinary attention to detail, erudition with irony. The Belgian pavilion for the colonial exhibition in Paris in 1931 marked the beginning of a long-term interest in the arts of black Africa. He went on to design pavilions for the general administrator, the decorative arts, catholic life, Greece and Latvia for the World Fair in Brussels in 1935 and one for the Belgian Congo at the international water exhibition in Liege in 1939. Deeply religious, he synthesized his research into religious architecture in two "mining cathedrals" built simultaneously for the collieries of Limbourg at Zwartberg (1937-1941) and at Beringen (1938-1948). As at Bléharies, he created a solitary nave scanned by huge rib-like arches whose sober architecture contrasts with the rich and colourful interior decoration.
During the Second World War he worked in town planning in Tournai, Namur and Brussels and, most notably, conceived an astonishing project for a basilica in Beauraing (in collaboration with M. Claes, 1943). At the end of the war he rebuilt the impressive library of Louvain University and designed numerous projects for church buildings in the Belgian Congo. As his reputation grew he was much sought after for international projects, most of which never came to fruition. He was approached by the Indian government to plan the new town of Chandigahr in the Punjab which would eventually be taken on by Le Corbusier; he took part in the competition for Beirut’s law courts in the Lebanon, he planned a new town for the Belgian Congo and was appointed to an advisory commission to look into restoring the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem.
A considerable amount of Lacoste’s time and energy was devoted to teaching. Fellow for the history of architecture at the Brussels’ Academy from 1926, he subsequently became head of department, professor of architectural theory and, finally, principal from 1954 to 1955. He was an eloquent, knowledgeable and enthusiastic teacher who opened his students’ eyes to the glories of past civilisations, taught them about town planning through the study of the excavations of Apamea and the large-scale model of Rome by Paul Bigot. In 1950 he reconstructed an example of the latter at the Royal Museums of Art and History in Brussels. He took some of his students with him to Syria, notably Paul Mignot, Claude Strebelle and Colin Davidson and worked with them on several projects including the Mardasson Memorial in Bastogne (1946) and Costermansville College in the Congo (1948-1953). His erudite and demanding style of teaching made him one of the most influential teachers of his time along with Henry van de Velde and Victor Horta.
The exhibition, mounted jointly by the Archives d’Architecture Moderne and the Fondation pour l’Architecture, is on show in all the rooms of the Fondation pour l’Architecture (CIVA) and in the Musée d’Architecture – La Loge, covering an area of more that 1,000m². The Lacoste collection consists of 8,000 graphic documents, stored at the AAM, and consists of an exceptional collection of drawings and photographs covering the life’s work of the architect. Multiple paths crisscross to show the civil and religious projects of Lacoste in Belgium, France, the Congo, the Lebanon and Israel, as well as his archaeological activities at the excavations in Delphi and Apamea.
The many sources of Lacoste’s inspiration and his cultural context are evoked by a selection of African art (masks, statues, textiles), moulds of Egyptian, Assyrian and ancient reliefs that he chose for his own house, a part of the relief map of Rome, Art Deco objects, works by the sculptors who worked alongside him (Carlo Sarrabezolles, Nathan Imenitoff, Jacques Moeschal), together with old and recent scale models, from private and public collections. A photographic record by Philippe De Gobert presents the architect’s most important works.
Events connected to the Henry Lacoste exhibition
11 March 2004 - Lacoste Day
Visit to the churches at Beringen and Zwartberg, and to the Library of the KUL, University of Louvain
The exhibition is taking place at:
Fondation pour l’Architecture
55 rue de l’Ermitage - 1050 Bruxelles (Belgium)
tel : 32.2.642.24.80
fax : 32.2.642.24.82
e-mail : firstname.lastname@example.org
Musée d’Architecture – La Loge
86 rue de l’Ermitage - 1050 Bruxelles
tel : 32.2.649.86.65
e-mail : email@example.com
Opening times :
Open from Tuesday to Sunday 12am to 6pm
Wednesday 12am to 9pm
Closed Mondays and Public Holidays
Musée d’Architecture - La Loge : 3 €
Free entry : under 6 years
Fondation pour l’Architecture : 5 €
Primary School : 1€/ child
Combined ticket for both : 6 €
Secondary School : 2€/ person
Concession : -1 €
Under 12 years : 1 free entry by 1 adult entry
Christine de Schaetzen
Fondation pour l’Architecture
55 rue de l’Ermitage - 1050 Bruxelles
tel : 32.2.642.24.74 - fax : 32.2.642.24.82
Photograph: Pavillion for the general administrator for the World Fair in Brussels in 1935. Coll. Archives d'Architecture Moderne