Lifestyle & Belief

Brussels' historic Villa Empain rises from ruins

BRUSSELS, Belgium — The fate of architectural treasures can be complicated in this city.

The Villa Empain was built in 1934 to be the bachelor pad of a billionaire’s son. It went on to serve as a cutting-edge museum, Nazi lair, Soviet embassy and TV network headquarters before ending up in the 1990s as an abandoned, graffiti-strewn squatters’ haunt.

The Art Deco gem seemed destined to become another victim of “Brusselization,” the deliberate neglect and destruction of significant buildings by property speculators or public authorities for which the Belgian capital became infamous in the 1960s and 1970s.

However, in the latest twist in the building’s checkered history, the Villa Empain has been rescued by a family of Armenian jewelers. The Boghossians have transformed the distinctive building into a cultural center seeking to promote an East-West dialogue through art.

The villa’s marble halls are now packed with art treasures from the Ottoman Empire. The collections of delicately tinted Iznik ceramics; erotic harem paintings; Bursa textiles and exquisite pages of 13th century calligraphy have been drawing in crowds since the "Colors of the Orient" exhibition opened in November.

“It was important for us to make an exhibition about the Ottoman Empire, given that the family is from Armenia,” explained Diane Hennebert, director of the Boghossian Foundation. “It’s important to have this place as an open place for art and culture.”

The Boghossians fled their homeland in 1915 during the mass killings of Armenians that are still a source of bitter dispute between Armenia and Turkey, whose government denies that the deaths were genocide.

After some time in Syria, the Boghossians settled in Beirut. The Lebanese civil war forced them to relocate their flourishing jewelry business to Europe in the 1970s and they settled in Geneva and the Belgian port city of Antwerp. Their Bogh-Art “haute-joaillerie” is highly prized. A pair of their ruby, diamond and mother-of-pearl ear clips sold for $290,000 at a recent Christie’s sale in Dubai.

The family set up its foundation in the early 1990s initially to support projects helping newly independent Armenia rebuild after the disastrous 1988 earthquake. The foundation went on to support projects in Lebanon and Syria as well as Armenia.

In 2006, brothers Jean and Albert Boghossian decided to transform the Villa Empain into an emblematic headquarters for the foundation. They were inspired by the Gulbenkian Museum, a landmark arts center in Lisbon, Portugal, set up in 1969 as the heart of the philanthropic foundation honoring Armenian oil magnate and art collector Calouste Gulbenkian.

The Villa had lain abandoned for more than a decade and had been badly vandalized. It needed substantial renovation before it opened to the public in April 2010.

“They underestimated just how difficult it was to renovate the place,” said Hennebert. “Much of the interior had been completely destroyed.”

Aged just 23, Louis Empain engaged the then-fashionable Swiss architect Michel Polak to build his home on the edge of Brussels' Bois de la Cambre park at the start of the 1930s. No expense was spared as the three-story building emerged in a mix of Art Deco details and the clean modernist lines of Germany’s Bauhaus movement.

Gold-leaf framing enlivened the austere Italian granite exterior; doors and partitions were carved from mahogany, burr walnut and rosewood; renowned artisans were enlisted to produce the decorative iron and glass work; walls and floors were covered in Carrara marble; a beautiful pool curved toward the park.

Empain could afford it. His father, Baron Edouard Empain, had been one of the kingdom’s richest men, a banking, railroad and real estate tycoon whose achievements included building the Paris metro and Cairo’s swish Heliopolis district.

Louis, however, was restless, and left Belgium for Canada in 1937 after just a couple of years in his palatial new home.

As a parting gift, he left the Villa to the state on condition that it was used as a museum for contemporary design. Three years later, Hitler’s armies invaded and requisitioned the prestigious building. According to local lore it was occupied by the Gestapo, but Hennebert says there are no records to indicate what the Nazis used it for.

The next twist came after Belgium’s liberation at the end of World War II, when the government gave the building to the Soviets to use as their embassy alongside other diplomatic missions opening on the newly re-named Avenue Franklin Roosevelt.

Empain’s family spent years in legal action to recover the building, saying the government had infringed the terms of Louis’ donation by handing it to Moscow.

They won, and the Soviets left in 1963. The Empains sold building, which later housed Radio Television Luxembourg’s Belgium operations. When they moved on, the Villa fell upon hard times until the Boghossians arrived and decided to open it up to the public.

“We want the Villa Empain to become a center of creativity and of dialogue between different cultures,” Jean Boghossian writes on the foundation’s website. “If the Villa Empain becomes the center of shared creativity, the ‘embassy’ of oriental cultures in the capital of Europe, we will have realized our dream.”