-350 The cemetery of Laeken and its underground galleries

Saturation demands for space and space demands for Architecture. This is when the latter sinks deep down into the ground, it decontextualizes in the hunt for new dimensions.

This is the story of the Cemetery of Laeken, this is a story of abandonment.

Born as an appendix of the Nôtre Dame de Laeken Cathedral, this small plot of land at the periphery of an embryonic Brussels, was soon engulfed by the urban transformation processes that characterize Europe during the 19th century. Densification and overpopulation were just some of the side effects produced by the soil consumption-oriented emerging “mass”, triggering the rapid implosion of a consistent part of the main continental necropolis.

Hence the cemetery, historically relegated extra-moenia, uncovers itself as a passive witness of the instability of the city system, as a mirror of an unprecedented socio-cultural asset.

The establishment of the bourgeois values coupled with the settlement of the Royal Family (1830) and the burial of the Queen (1850) Louise-Marie d’Orléans in Laeken will, in fact, lead to a relevant demographic increase of the town and therefore require the first significant enlargements of the modest necropolis.

It is 1879, when Émile Bockstael, illustrious architect and engineer, envisions an underground network of funerary galleries spanning for over one kilometer, able to face the increasing demand for post-mortem notoriety of the noblesse bruxelloise. An extremely rational plan for design and organization that foresees three east-west oriented main galleries (retracing the upper paths) and a dozen of transversal secondary ones.

A proper linear infrastructure, solely interrupted by a neoclassicism inspired central space, hosts the primary point of access (now Bockstael’s funerary monument) around which the different components of the project are articulated. A disorienting and repetitive sequence of cubicles, where only sporadic distribution elements and narrow roof lights, hints to establish a timid relationship with the surface above. Only half a century will have to go by, before the cemetery is forced once again to confront its physical boundaries; in 1930, in fact, a second extension will be put into place by Architect François Malfait.

An intervention, the one of the Colombarium, sets apart from the former for linguistic, spatial and formal choices. An autonomous and monumental architecture, a new epicenter in Art Déco taste, manages throughout a plastic semi-circular void, to charge with symbolic meaning the act of descent and to open an explicit dialogue between the different levels.

In a collage made out of historic layering, additions and subtractions, the cemetery is today confined in a state of utter neglect. Water infiltrations and structural failure have led the 19th century part to be closed to the public and retire in the echoes of its glorious past.

A long symbolic silence within the perpetual construction-saturation-demolition process, alongside revealing the weak resiliency of the site, suggests an unsteady future, a possible imminent collapse.


Our illustrations aim at depicting a synthetic representation of the two main access points to the underground galleries, concerning the extensions of 1879 and 1930. They aspire to highlight conceptual, compositional and relational characteristics of the interventions.

(Text, photos and illustrations: Jonathan Robert Maj and Michiel Van der Loos / nonOffice // This article was published in Shht#2 Underground, January 2014 )


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