Often described as the most beautiful street in Antwerp, the Cogels Osylei and its surroundings are definitely worth a visit.
From Flemish Renaissance, Byzantine, Gothic, Classical and Art Nouveau, nowhere will you find so many confronting architectural styles in one small district. Small doesn’t mean less interesting, for the story behind the hood is quite surprising.
The domain of Zurenborg was owned by the family Cogels-Osy who had their own construction business and shared the idea to turn the area into a flourishing economic center, with factories, offices and shops. Their plans however, were met with little enthusiasm and soon the company merged with another construction company. The idea now was to build houses for the upper class and the company was appropriately called Société Anonyme pour la Construction de Maisons Bourgeoises.
By the end of the 19th century the main avenue was named 'COGELS-OSY' Lei and it became the heart of the new 'rich area' of Antwerp. Louis Luyckx was made director of the company and he considered supervising the building sites as his main job. According to him, the houses had to impress. The quality had to be of the highest standards, but more importantly the way they looked had to be unique.
The architects he hired never quite managed to make a name for themselves nationally. Therefore they knew it was important to please Mr Luyckx if they wanted to keep getting contracts. And although they were given complete artistic freedom, they soon realized that the more ornate details they added, the more praise they got. So the results were eclectic, from Flemish Renaissance, Byzantine, Gothic, Classical to Art Nouveau. Houses in that neighborhood were not meant to be objects of arts. Their sole purpose was to be rented out and bring in money. And they did.
By the 1950′s however views and situations had changed completely. With car ownership rising and upper middle class households moving to the suburbs, the status of Zurenborg as a residential area came down. The houses were regarded as too big and too much energy consuming. A major plan was made in the 1960s to transform the whole area into a modern 'Corbusier-type' neighborhood, and a business and office area similar to the one built at Brussels North station. Luckily some leading architects - Renaat Braem was amongst them - had come to understand that what their colleagues of the past used to call monstrosities were actually unique buildings that had to be preserved for the future and in the end it was concluded that the area was not to be demolished. From one day to another, the area became listed as urban landscape. In the end the area became popular for artists and entrepreneurs.
Currently more than 170 buildings in the neighborhood are protected monuments and Zurenborg has become an example of a well-functioning urban neighborhood.
Text: Magali Elali
Photos: Bart Kiggen