Houses in the street, located right outside the city’s Berchem train station, were constructed at the end of the 19th century, and results include roofs that look like shallots, facades with pirate boats sailing right out of them, flower-covered cast-iron balconies, beautiful bay windows and copious amounts of mosaic designs, including depictions of the four seasons, historic battles like Waterloo and the Battle of the Golden Spurs or sometimes a still life.
Add promising (though less than humble) residential names like “Carolus Magnus” and “The 12 Apostles” to that, and you begin to understand that Cogels-Osylei was (and in a way still is) a street where citizens both affluent and flamboyant and the architects who served them all let their fantasies run wild.
You are walking a street where facades veritably shout to one another in Art Nouveau accents (or those of Baroque, Neoclassicism or Neo-Renaissance). Cogels-Osylei illustrates the absolute climax of Flanders’ Belle Époque. Stroll up and down it, or in surrounding streets like Transvaalstraat and Waterloostraat, and you’ll see buildings that are remarkable or utterly bizarre, sometimes beautiful and most definitely fascinating.
Cogels-Osylei lies in the Zurenborg neighbourhood of the Berchem district in southeast Antwerp. Railway tracks that run between the Antwerpen Berchem and Antwerp Central train stations not only split the area in two but also reflect the original idea behind the development. Around 1900, the intention was to create trade and warehouses – an economic heart just south of the recently built Central Station. Until then, the ground had been the property of Baron Osy van Wichem, hence the name.
When no entrepreneurial reaction followed, the development of the area changed into a residential building site, eventually managed by the Société Anonyme pour la Construction de Maisons Bourgeoises (Society for the Construction of Homes for the Bourgeoisie). Many of that period’s renowned architects such as Jacques de Weerdt, Jules Hofman and Joseph Bascourt made their contribution to what is now neatly called “eclecticism”, and Zurenborg (then spelled Suerenborgh) became populated by wealthy bourgeoisie, with a sharp eye for detail in housing and embellishment – including the pretty front gardens.
However, like many urban areas, Zurenborg experienced enormous decay after the Second World War. Houses stood empty and, like so many beautiful buildings in Antwerp, faced demolition in the 1960s to create new office space and apartment blocks. Demolition plans did not succeed, thanks to major protests by artists and activists. Many of them bought up the houses cheaply at the time. Since 1984, most of the neighbourhood’s houses have been classified as protected heritage.
Most of the houses in the Zurenborg neighbourhood have now been renovated, and these days Zurenborg has become a very trendy area, protecting its fashionable shabby-chic image by combining the semi-palaces and Michelin-starred restaurants with broken furniture and wholefood bistros or mobile veggie food vans.
At the other end of Cogels-Osylei from the station is Tramplein, a former tram station now transformed into a bar called the Wattman (an old Dutch word for tram driver). Trains rush past above your head while you’re having a drink outside, giving you a moment to pause the conversation and have a sip.
On the other side of the train tracks is the Dageraadplaats, Zurenborg’s best example of multi-cultural, multi-purpose community living. This square is almost completely covered with restaurants and cafes surrounding a playground and basketball court filled nightly with kids and teenagers from the neighbourhood.
Dageraadplaats is the place to go after your architectural tour of the neighbourhood for a reasonably priced bite to eat, or even a hug. Order the cocktail called the knuffel (hug) at the bar Zeezicht for a perfect summer refresher. As evening falls over the Dageraadplaats, an artificial starry sky (little lights strung across the square) mildly shines over the giant terrace.
Tours of the Zurenborg neighbourhood or just of the Cogels-Osylei are available in English and Dutch
De Roos, No 46, and De Zonnebloem,
No 50, by architect Jules Hofman
De Iris, No 44, by T Van Den Bossche
Quinten Matsijs, No 80, by Jacques De Weerdt
The Four Seasons, corner of Waterloostraat and
Generaal Van Merlenstraat, by Joseph Bascourt
Les Mouettes, No 39, by Jacques De Weerdt