The sick building
There’s nothing like a good grey and rainy day to bring out all the unutterable glumness of the Joseph Lemaire Sanatorium in Tombeek. The only reason I took the trouble to find the place (not easy) and to ignore the warning not to enter it was because an eminent body of international architects – the venerable World Monuments Fund – has concluded that this wreck of a building is worth salvaging. It has in fact been listed for the year 2010 as “One of the 100 Most Endangered Sites in the World.”
The Joseph Lemaire Sanatorium in Tombeek has been listed as one of the world’s 100 most endangered buildings. Can anyone save it from demolition?
Endangered it may well be, or what’s left of it. After examining it on the Save the Sanatorium website, I decided I had to see it firsthand. The address is more than a little vague – about 20 kilometres southeast of Brussels, just beyond Tombeek. When I stopped for directions at a friterie, they said I should go up the hill when I saw the sign for Acacia, a rest home.
The approach to the sanatorium today will give you a rough idea of just what an impressive institution it must have been. Two long, straight roads, one in, one out, separated by an overgrown traffic divider, lead you between two rows of towering pines to the once-upon-a-time hospital for dying or surviving tuberculosis patients.
I can’t claim I didn’t know I was trespassing. The tall mesh fence stretched forbiddingly before me, and a black-on-red sign said it in so many words: Gevaar – Verboden de site te betreden. You would get the message even if you didn’t know the language. But I interpreted it to mean that the proprietors were concerned about my welfare, and so if I chose to take the risk, the responsibility would be mine.
The fence runs several metres to the left and right of the gate before coming to an end in a sparse wood where the way across the muddy grounds leads to any one of several wide-open entrances to the sanatorium. From the outside, you see the hundreds of wide windows that allowed the rooms to be flooded with light and that are now nearly all smashed, jagged shards of glass still clinging to the frames. The walls are, of course, covered with graffiti, some elegant, most crude. Many of the light-yellow ceramic tiles have fallen off or soon will.
It is only after you have gone inside the building – greeted by puddles of water where linoleum used to be – and crunched or splashed your way around a bit that you realize just how huge it is. Because of its odd geometry – the wings at right angles going off in different directions – you can’t see the whole of it at a glance.
It was the Belgian Labour Party in 1933 that commissioned the young architect, Maxime Brunfaut (1909-2003) to design a sanatorium for 150 male tuberculosis patients. The party bought up a large parcel in Tombeek, near Overijse, as the site for what was to become a state-of-the-art medical institution. Joseph Lemaire, a pioneering socialist health-care advocate, was its first director.
From the laying of the corner stone to the opening day in September 1937, the project took no more than 13 months – a record building time. Later, Maxime Brunfaut, one of several Brunfaut architects for three generations, went on to build or help build many major projects, including Brussels Central Station and Brussels Airport.
Photographs from the period show us an appropriately austere, though not oppressive, five-storey building with its giant “Prevoyance Sociale” sign on the roof, clearly visible from afar. Indoors are gleaming medical facilities, a solarium and immaculate rooms for dining, relaxation or gentle recreation, together with individual accommodations for patients.
Tuberculosis today still kills or disables just under two million people a year, 80% in the developing world. If you are one of the 13.7 million active cases, you will have a chronic cough, suffer high fever and find blood mixed with spit in your handkerchief. In the pre-antibiotic 1930s, treatment was long and terribly uncertain. Many of the fears and folklore that have always haunted TB victims and their relatives were still current then; consumption, they called it, and some believed it was akin to vampirism. As the infection spread, others in the family lost blood, convinced that it was being sucked out of them at night.
Much of the atmosphere and many of the superstitions that the word tuberculosis evokes were turned into lasting fiction by German Thomas Mann in his 1924 novel The Magic Mountain. The dead were quietly “spirited away” and nothing more said about them. The hospital, as Mann describes it, held a morbid fascination for some, like the woman who faked illness so she could stay on.
Brunfaut’s hospital on the heath is a far cry from Mann’s sanatorium high in the Swiss Alps. No record of daily life and death at the Tombeek institution has come down to us. All we have are the memories of Brunfaut, interviewed near the end of his life by author Johan Wambacq for his new book Het paleis op de heide (The Palace on the Heath). Brunfaut lived long enough to see his building abandoned in 1987 and left to decay – to be used by squatters, vandalised and ransacked for anything at all usable or sellable, from medical equipment and filing cabinets to beds and mattresses.
I soon found out why I found no signs that squatters had taken advantage of this vast if leaky roof over their heads; the place was guarded. As I passed by an open window, a voice from outside called to me in English: “Hey, you in there, it’s forbidden, come out.” Caught in the act, I gave myself up, went to the window and started to explain that I only wanted to.... A young woman with a very serious-looking dog on a leash, she beckoned to me to leave the property at once.
Once we began to talk, she was ready to accept my excuses. She’s from South Africa, her name is Lauren Harrys, and she lives in a trailer-like cabin on the grounds with her boyfriend and their dog. “I like the quiet,” she says. It turns out we share an appreciation for some of the highly- skilled graffiti on the interior walls. When I said I was sorry I couldn’t visit the rest of the building, she gave me her boyfriend’s mobile number and suggested he might know who could show me around.
Will anything ever be done with this amazing place? Imaginative architects have converted many abandoned buildings – factories, warehouses, railway stations – into museums, art galleries, hotels. But this? The World Monuments Fund has a few schemes up its sleeve, but it will take political will to make any of them happen.
As for where Belgium stands on the 100 list, we find it alphabetically, if not culturally, between Bahrain, where the colourful and crowded Suq Al-Qaysariya in Muharraq is in danger of losing its market stalls to a shopping mall, and Bhutan, where the Phajoding meditation centre in Thimphu is losing monks and in need of maintenance. The world is full of emergencies. It doesn’t look from here as if the crumbling sanatorium in Tombeek stands much of a chance of resisting demolition.
Meanwhile, in Brussels
The rooster on the roof is still crowing its symbolic identification of the Pathé Palace cinema in Brussels’ Anspachlaan. But beneath its claws, the building is empty of moving
images and eager audiences. Converted more than once to other uses – first as an electrical appliances shop, then a temporary home for the Théâtre National – this rare example of late Art Nouveau, built in 1913 by architect Paul Hamesse, is getting a second chance. In September, the French Community drew up a plan to restore it. Trouble is, it’s only “partly classified” meaning that they may well “partially” disfigure it. Fingers crossed.