The restoration of the Villa Empain, whose excellence has been awarded the Europa Nostra prize, was masterfully conducted by Diane Hennebert, director of the Boghossian Foundation from 2006 to 2015.

The Villa Empain offers the history of an exceptional building, constructed in a period when architecture was the pride of Brussel. But with time and its unsettled fate, the house had degraded to a shadow of what it had been during a few decades.

The fact of the matter is that, in order to survive, any major architectural heritage item needs love, respect and its recognition as a complete work of art. In the field of architectural heritage, every restoration project is unique and requires a particular care which begins with the discovery of the place, its history and condition.

In the case of the Villa Empain, acquired in 2006 by the Boghossian Foundation, on the recommendation of architect Philippe De Bloos the first researches which allowed the restoration to be launched were based on a report produced in 1995 by architect Stéphane Dusquesne of the Katholieke Universiteit of Leuven. This study includes historical research and a very complete summary and pictures of the building before its partial destruction in the early 2000s. A fortunate coincidence made Stéphane Duquesne the person in charge of the file at the Direction of Monuments and Sites of the Brussels-Capital Region. This first phase was also based on the available historical elements: early documents, plans, images, artifacts, letters and testimonies.


Carlo Chapelle, commissioned by architect Francis Metzger to undertake this research, worked six months to collect the useful information. While this work constituted a precious base of data, historical studies of this type always leave certain shadow zones which in situ observation can hopefully shed further light on. Be that as it may, the task in hand is to link into a time line, starting from a particular place and time, to attempt to create a kind of harmonious dialogue with the past, to understand the spirit of the original architect, to find the means to return to the sources with contemporary elements in order for the building to come (back) to life and shine out into the present and the future.

To complement the historical data, from 2007 onwards, a detailed survey was executed on site. This gave a quantity of information, provided clarity about the building systems and their implementation, and identified materials, colours and technologies. Samples were taken and sent to labs. Chromatic sampling by the Royal Institute for Cultural Heritage was also of great value for these studies. Starting from a more detailed knowledge of the original state, the subsequent transformations, the state of degradation, the programmatic data released by the Boghossian Foundation and the requirements of the Royal Commission of Monuments and Sites in respect of listed buildings, it was now possible to formulate the proposals for the restoration of the Villa Empain.

These suggestions were presented by architects MA2 to the Brussels-Capital Region, the relevant departments of which followed the project with the greatest attention from 2007 onwards.

The restoration of the Villa Empain was complex. One seldom one finds such a quality of materials in the construction of a private house. But it is also rare to observe such damage, caused without scruple, in a building of this value! In order to restore the villa, it was necessary to choose highly skilled entrepreneurs and craftsmen. The temporary joint venture of general contractors Valens and Jacques Delens was designated for undertaking the works, later supplemented by the Dimension 7 for the restoration of the pool and its surroundings. Some restoration or replacement techniques called for hard-to-find skills: the replacement of the copper roofing, the restoration of window frames decorated with 23.75 carat gold leaf, restoring the “Bois Jourdan” or “Escalette” marble, repair and restoration of valuable woods (bur and gnarled walnut, grained rosewood, manilcara), the restoration of a unique stained glass window and wrought ironwork, …

At the end of the two-year building site, everyone had the feeling that the house had always shone this way. It’s crazy how quickly one forgets the discomfort of a site when the result fulfils the expectations! On rediscovering the villa as a coherent whole, memories of its suffering were rapidly effaced. Which may be the biggest and best compliment to the team responsible for this delicate restoration.