When planning a trip to Antwerp I would strongly suggest you schedule an hour or two to stroll around in the Cogels Osylei, often described as the most beautiful street in Antwerp – or indeed Belgium. About 300 metres away from Berchem train station, it is easily accesible and once you’re done ooh-ing and aah-ing you can hop on a bus or tram and continue your journey into Antwerp, for maybe a visit to the zoo.
Until the 16th century the south-eastern area of Antwerp had little appeal. It often got flooded and the soil was very sour, which does explain the name of the area: Zurenborg. Then Michiel Van der Heyden, a major real estate investor, bought the area, decided to drain it and built himself a large farm on it: Suerenborger Hoeve. Modesty was not wasted on Michiel and it wasn’t very long before he changed the name from Suerenborger Hoeve to Suerenborger Hof (court) and gave himself the title of Lord of Suerenborg.
Over time the domain changed hands quite regularly and was eventually owned by Baron Osy-Knijff, CEO of the Société Général. Through inheritance, Lady du Bois de Vroylande, sister of Baron Eduard Osy, became the rightful owner, and she was married to Senator John Cogels.
There was no shortage of money or influence in this family so they decided to start their own construction business, the Compagnie de l’Est d’Anvers (The Company of East Antwerp) The idea was to turn the area into a flourishing economic centre, with factories, offices and shops. Their plans however, were met with little enthusiasm and soon the company merged with another construction company. The idea now was to build houses for the upper class, so the company was appropriately called Société Anonyme pour la Construction de Maisons Bourgeoises.
Louis Luyckx was made director of the company and he considered supervising the building sites as his main job. According to him, the houses had to impress. Sure, the quality had to be of the highest standards, but more importantly the way they looked had to be unique.
The architects he hired, though without a doubt very skillful, never quite managed to make a name for themselves nationally. Therefore they knew it was important to please Mr Luyckx if they wanted to keep getting contracts. And although they were given complete artistic freedom, they soon realized that the more ornate details they added, the more praise they got.
So the results were – to use an understatement – eclectic. Initially more renowned architects were horrified when they saw what monstrosities were being built in Antwerp. But of course these houses were not meant to be objects of arts. Their sole purpose was to be rented out and bring in money. And they did.
By the 1950′s however views and situations had changed completely. The well-to-do had left and their place was taken by artists and hippies. The houses got neglected and decayed. In the 60′s there were plans to tear them all down and put up a modern housing estate. Luckily some leading architects had come to understand that what their colleagues of the past used to call monstrosities were actually unique buildings that had to be preserved for the future.
Of course everybody always refers to the Cogels-Osylei but that doesn’t mean the neighboring streets don’t deserve any attention. True, the majority of the houses in the Transvaalstraat, Waterloostraat and others may not be as flamboyant but they are no less wonderful. So next time you’re coming to Antwerp, make sure to add Cogels-Osylei to your itinerary. You won’t be disappointed.
For more of my pictures of the Zurenborg area, click here