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A (Mid-)Winter Hall’s Tale


Last week I published a lengthy blog post on the ‘basilica-type’ floor plan, the classic layout for virtually any dancing hall around since the 18th century. Normally, it takes several weeks to concoct such a main course and it comes as no surprise it requires an unusual amount of motivation. So, this week I can offer you only a snack.

The stimulus, it must be said, was rather virtual too. Dr. Timothy De Paepe e-mailed me some exquisite “work in progress” pictures freshly forged on the anvil of his 3D devil’s kitchen.


These are experimental visuals from the Winter Concert Hall of the Société Royale d’Harmonie d’Anvers in Antwerp, intended for a project by Jan De Wilde ( Adelheid Ceulemans ( respectively workin at the Antwerp Conservatory and Hogeschool Antwerpen. Their project wants to explore the circumstances in which Peter Benoit’s work ‘Ten Oorlog!’ (To War!), an oratorium based on Jan Van Breers’ texts, was premiered there in 1873. The pictures are meant to allow them to visualize the original venue, which, like so many historic concert halls, nowadays has vanished.

The building was erected in 1864 and at the time one of the biggest and most prestigeous concert halls in Belgium. But it wouldn’t be a proper 19th century concert hall if there weren’t any rogue parties being held in there too. And so annually, wild carnival balls took the stage, popular and famous for their vagrancy and villainy.

Alas, the poor thing was teared down as early as 1922 (nothing to do with cinema’s, though). It used to be located right on the spot where the parking lot “Arenberg” is situated at the Vaartplaats (Canal Square) in Antwerp. If you would one day intend to dump your car there (and I sincerely hope you won’t), please take the liberty to proceed to the rooftop. You might discover the last remainders of this magnificent hall. They’re really there. Honest.

The special thing is, Blacksmith Tim wrought his images in Google Sketchup, mainly after the old building plans I published back in 2007. It’s a hard to describe, but what a fantastic feeling looking at them in the flesh after so many years of mesmerizing winter hall’s dreams. Thank you so much Tim. Love your work.

Basilica. Everywhere. Always.


Sometimes one has to reconsider a previous insight. A long, very long time ago, somewhere around the year 2007, after a strenuous and painstaking effort, I developed the concept of the “basilica – type” for entertainment venues (in this article). Nowadays, the use of the concept has become fairly common among art-historians acquainted with interior design, but at the time, I was, I believe, one of the first to call it that way. And I certainly placed it more central in the developement of an authentic civic entertainment achitecture in the 19th century.


Back than, I toiled in the sweat of my brow at the research of the dansant project, after which this blog has been named, by-the-by inventorying all planning permissions for dance halls in the Antwerp city archives. After some weeks at this, It gradually grew on me, that virtually all these venues basically were based on the same layout, from the earliest to the most recent. Strangely enough, it appeared to be very similar to the nave of a classical church. By then, as I had truly digested my university readings about the developement of church architecture, I knew that the eldest form of the nave came from the roman basilica. And so I decided to baptise this type of floorplan for dancing halls, the ‘basilica-type’.

At the time, I hadn’t the faintiest idea that 19th century contemporaries also called it that way. But what I did understand, was, that, even if the idea sounded good, you don’t run far with it in contemporary academics when you don’t underpin it with enough hard data. So, there I was, searching myself silly, reading each and every 18th- and 19th century art treatise on architecture I could lay my hands on. Along the way, I learned a great deal about the building of churches and palaces, but for no particular reason, no one seemed to really care about dancing halls.


Next, I tried to find out where the earliest dancing halls in Europe had been built. From the start, I considered Great Britain the best option. There on the other side of the channel a civic type of concert life emerged, so much earlier than here on the continent, as we were only getting at it around the beginning of the 19th century. Basically, my idea was, that, if, by any chance you looked at a similar tender for a building first, in the end you possibly would land with a similar concept.

This idea turned out nicely, because just as the Italian horseshoe theater type was derived from a Greek classic example (Delphi), for this inovative type of concert- or dancing halls, they also went looking for classical examples. First, some quite exotic styles were tried, without much succes. Or, what to think about – the nowadays vanished – Pantheon venue on Oxford street, London, based on the Hagia Sophia? The eldest example, by far, I could discover was the – still existing – Burlington Room in York, from 1732, based on the Greek Parthenon.


But, despite this early exotic attempts, the building guild soon stuck with the basilica floorplan and never looked back. So, why the basilica one may ask? My best guess is, because of a combination of factors. As a first, the roman basilica, originally – and it was certainly branded so by renaissance cultural thinkerers – can be considered an early civil building type, used for trade and jurisdiction. It clearly wasn’t a religious temple – it became so only after christianism took over – neither had it any military function, and it certainly was no house to live in. So, gradually, the basilica became the symbol of the civitas, the seat of civil power, a thing the enlighted folks of the 18th- and their 19th century brethren, longed very much for.

So, when you needed a building for public gatherings were we, the citizens could meet on foot of equality, the basilica offered a compelling proposition. To begin with it has a flat central floor and there aren’t any hierarchical positions like the boxes in the classical opera houses. But, yet, there are other motives, among which, the economical motive stands out in particular. The basilica concept offers – technically speaking – an easy solution to built over wide spans. And technically simple building solutions, eventually, tend to turn out cheaper than complex ones. If you want to exploit a building following a commercially viable scheme, you want to build quick, cheap and reasonably safe. Nice to know that even expensive windows – as in a church – aren’t required in a dancing hall. Most entertainment there takes place at night in the half dark anyway. When the cast iron industry starts to deliver high quality building elements like pillars and spans, the tap shot out the barrel completely. The only thing you had to do, was cast your pillars and spans somewhere and bolt them together like a meccano on the building site. Thinking of it, the practice compares beautifully to the way of setting up huge factory halls.

An last but not least, the basilica-type use of space is potentially highly profitable, because you can rent the room out for concerts, dinner or tea parties and even balls, and several timeslots a day if you want. So, commercially speaking, it works like a charm when you want to combine or reach different kinds of public. Being so versatile, basilica-type buildings developed into the standard for variety theater venues in the course of the 19th century and cinema venues later on. Only when the law forebade the use of loose chairs in cinema’s in the years after the first world war, the owners had to make hard choices: variety show or cinema. And because it turned out to be cinema most of the time, the sledge hammer fell regularly. That’s the main reason why you don’t see this building types much around these days: most of them where deliberately demolished for economical reasons already a century ago. No world war needed in this case. Or contemporary city planning for that matter.


So why I wrote this fair piece of text? Well, because, as I stated in the first few lines of this article, in the course of last year I was confronted with new facts pointing all in the same direction. Until recently, I guessed that the basilica-type only got foot on the ground here in Belgium, after the French revolution, at the beginning of the 19th century. The earliest example, I knew off, was the Société Philharmonique d’Anvers, erected in 1813, on the spot next to the Arenberg Theater in Antwerp, where the actual Theatre Hotel is situated. For me, that was the start. Recently, I read the remarkable book on the Frascati Theatre in Leuven (Belgium), built in 1807 and designed by Architect C. Fisco (the one from the College De Valck in Leuven and the Martyrs Square in Brussels). The Frascati definitely pbviously had the basilica layout already some years earlier, but it was still after the French rushed in.

But last week I discovered Xavier Ducennes’ beauty of an article about the Concert Noble (Nr 37, pg 81), a nowadays disappeared concert hall in Brussels, constructed in 1779, and to my knowledge the very first example in Belgium of basilica-type achitecture applied to a concert hall. But not only it came as a shock to me, but Ducenne refers to the Burlington Room in his article and also to the Pillars’ Room in Felix Meritis in Amsterdam, built in 1777. Amsterdam? That’s damn close to Brussels and definitly on the continent. So, perhaps there is much more at hand. IMHO there is a rather fascinating genetic filiation at work here, making me dream of a European wide project about the developement of civil entertainment architecture from this type…

For sure to be continued…


– Wikimedia Commons
– Crié Antwerpen – Distrifood
– Zuilenzaal – Felix Meritis

Series: Dancing Back into the Future

For those who wouldn’t know: next year is 2015. Nothing to worry about, one could arguably say, as this year is 2014, etc. But it isn’t that simple, really. Not for hard boiled fans of Back to the Future like me. Next year will be 30 years since Doc Emmet M. Brown started one of his journeys into the future riding (or is it flying?) his De Lorean time machine. The question we must all ask ouselves, is then of course: will he arrive safely next year or not?

He cast off in “good old” 1985 and for those who wouldn’t remember: that year started with the most gripping news breaking to us that Greenland had just decided to leave the European Union. The year had just only begun. Merely a week or two later, Ronald Reagan swore in for his second term as President of the USA, and what a memorable term it would be! On the other side of the iron curtain, Michaïl Gorbatjev made it to Secretary General of the Communist Party of the USSR, with the known consequences. Until then the world was neatly split in two: the East and the West Blocks. The said curtain still hung safely in place and no one could by any means foresee that only four years later, the whole game would change dramatically.

Like any year in human history, it was one of ups and downs. The “New Coke” was launched and to our great relief, retired even before it made it to Belgium, Commodore released it’s fabulous Amiga and the first Super Mario games went for sale. The wreck of the Titanic was dicovered miles under the ocean and Space Shuttle Atlantis made it’s maiden flight into outer space. But it also was the year of the Great Ethiopian Hunger, the Heysel drama, the Schengen Deal and the attack on the Rainbow Warrior, just to pick up a few interesting items from the “1985” wikipedia page.

About terrorism: it proved a rather fruitfull year, alas. We tend to forget easily, but unlike today, bombs exploding in public places and plane hijackings used to be regular newsitems, back then. In Belgium alone no less than 12 terrorist attacks by the CCC (Cellules Communistes Combatantes) shook the nation that year. The one from the 4th of November clearly stands out in my mind. It totalled the headquarters of the Banque Brussel Lambert, since evaporated into the Parisbas Fortis Group. It happend only a few blocks away from where I used to live with my parents. As for that one, the commi’s applied around a ton of TNT, so naturally, the windows of all houses in the area shattered. Those were the day’s my friends!

But by December these public ennemies Nr 1 to 4 were arrested in a Quick Hamburger restaurant near Namur. Rule number one in Mao’s red book: never, ever eat capitalistic burgers, you morons! More Belgian than that it doesn’t get. But those little red boys were relatively small beer compared to their fascist countreparts, the infamous “Gang of Nivelle” (Bende van Nijvel). After two years of radio silence they completed three more deadly raids on supermarkets, shooting around and causing 16 deaths. And we even weren’t the only European country seeing regular terrorist action. They weren’t called ‘The Bloody Eighties’ for nothing.

Of course, the cultural world mimiqued some of that. U2 scored an iconic hit record with Bloody Sunday that still stands, etched into the eardrums of my generation. The song is a few years older than that, but it didn’t make it into our Top 30 hit parade unless 1985. But, that of course, was only a minor musical fact of that most remarkable year, for there also was Life Aid, the Woodstock of my generation. What a remarkable series of concerts and performances!

One just can’t image the impact of it, living in an age when live streams are the norm. Back then, we only had something called “Mundovision” and that was used once or twice a year, dedicated to very strickt occasions like the New Years Concert Live from Vienna. Not only Live Aid was all about rock & roll, but it was very chaotic as well and it took place in two places – London and Philadelphia – simultaneously, broadcasted completely in sync on television and radio. Perfect clear sound on the living room hifi and rather dull black and white (grey and still more grey would be a more adequate description) on the television set. A wonderful, unique, experience for the pre-internet age.

Meanwhile Amadeus won 8 Academy Awards, Karpov & Gasparov played their longest game – the top of their rivalry – and Rock Hudson died as one of the first aids V.I.P’s followed by so many famous and less famous individuals. But most important: BTTF I was released in the USA on the 3rd of June. Nothing in the world would ever be the same. It used to be the golden age of pop-posters. Magazines without posters, just didn’t last and Michael J. Fox – Marty Mc Fly in the movie – was the most popular item at the time, at least with girls. I, for myself, lived in a rather daft and distant world back then, where the earthly worries about pop-icons or film hits didn’t penetrate all too clearly. So I didn’t see it myself originally and am a convert of later age. And as converts are the most dedicated fans, guess what?

I discovered that the pivot point of all three BTTF movies, is a ball scène! So the next few weeks I will annoy all of you and rest of the world with my personal views on “The Enchantment under the Sea Dance” – “The Village Festival” e tutti quanti.

To be Continued…