Enhanced with century-old trees and contemporary sculptures, the Villa Empain garden features an immense swimming pool surrounded by an oval pergola, unique in Brussels.
In the early 20th century, purchasers of plots of land located along the Avenue des Nations (today’s Avenue Roosevelt) were bound by specifications requiring buildings to be set back by at least 9.5 metres, with the area in front of the buildings landscaped with ornamental gardens, with no items higher than 1.5 metres. Plots were to be surrounded by ‘artistic’ wrought iron railings no higher than 1.8 metres, set on a stone base. Buildings also had to be sufficiently widely spaced to provide views through to the trees of the Bois de la Cambre.
Designed by the architect Michel Polak, the swimming pool, one of the first private swimming pools in Belgium, reflects the rear façade. With a depth of 3.80 m and a volume of 500 m³, at the time it was considered to be one of the largest and most modern of its kind. It was completely rebuilt during the restoration of the Villa. The pool is surrounded by a pergola with a mosaic floor reflecting the colours of southern climes.
The original trees still to be seen are a yew, two prunus and two cedars of Lebanon, located behind the Villa. The impressive dimensions of one of the cedars planted in the 1930 qualifies it as one of the 20 largest cedars in the Brussels region. The elegant row of fir trees along the eastern perimeter of the property also dates back to the time of the Villa’s construction.
Covering the pergola which surrounds the swimming pool, an impressive wisteria, planted behind each pillar, might also date from the 1930s. The roots have been kept, allowing the regrowth of secondary branches cut back during successive renovations of the pergola.
The garden is decorated with contemporary sculptures from the Boghossian Foundation collection. At the back of the swimming pool and protected by the pergola is is a black granite sculpture by Egyptian artist of Armenian origin Armen Agop (1969). To the front of the pool are two sculptures in corten steel (self-patinated steel used for its resistance to atmospheric conditions), created specifically for the Villa Empain by Belgian poet- artist Johan Baudart (1961).
Pool-side, the garden is decorated with a number of contemporary sculptures by Belgian artist Hubert Verbruggen (1944). The simple yet strong lines of the Vinalmont stone sculpture by another Belgian artist, Damien Moreau (1966), contrast perfectly with the flowers and insects of the Ideal Nature Machine series by Austrian artist Stefan Waibel (1979) and the fantasy world they evoke.
The sculpture Spaces in-between by Lebanese artist Nadim Karam, faces the Villa Empain, on Avenue Franklin Roosevelt. Inaugurated in 2019, this joint initiative of the Boghossian Foundation and the City of Brussels reflects a shared desire to integrate culture into the urban landscape. It echoes Nadim Karam’s desire to “Make cities dream”, in response to the war he has known.
“For me, to create an urban art project is to communicate with the essence of a city and come to a better understanding of its people, culture and dynamics. I try to project a dream for the city that only materializes when the city and its people get involved and begin working with me.”
The installation reflects on the relationship between East and West, terms that frequently evoke a tension between two geographical areas, along with distinct identities and contradictory world views.
These two stainless steel sculptures, each 3 metres in diameter, seek to make visible the blank spots on the maps of communication, the unclear boundaries between East and West and their uncertain contours. Standing face to face, these two circular surfaces trigger a historical dialogue that intersects in many places and yet contains breaches. The other side of the each sculpture is fully perforated by an array of 1cm circular holes that allow the light to seep in, offering better visibility of the patterns. In this way spectators can imagine and retrace the fluctuations of sociocultural and geographical borders. Standing between, the two, the reflection of either sculpture creates a structured surface entirely perforated with memories.