Institute of Tropical Medicine is art deco gem

Belgium's Institute of Tropical Medicine in Antwerp (ITM) is the national reference centre for tropical diseases in our country. This is where you go for your jab if you are travelling to the tropics. The ITM also operates a day clinic for HIV patients as well as a help centre for people worried about sexually transmitted infections. In addition the ITM is also an important seat of learning and research. The Institute is housed in a remarkable complex of buildings that flandersnews explored in the company of the ITM’s Eline Van Meervenne.

The ITM was set up in Brussels in 1906 as the School for Tropical Diseases. Its aim was to train doctors and nurses for Congo.

In 1933 the School for Tropical Diseases merged with the Leopold II Clinic for Tropical Diseases and moved to a brand new, purposely-built headquarters in the Nationalestraat in Antwerp where it remains to this day. A special competition was organised with the art nouveau architect Victor Horta in the jury. The jury decided in favour of a design by the architects Marcel Spittael and Paul Lebon and this resulted in the art deco building that we know today. The building incorporates new materials like chrome and aluminium. Geometric forms like triangles and oblongs occur in symmetric patterns.

A sculpture by Arthur Dupagne adorns the entrance hall. It was sculpted to commemorate the hundreds who died on the construction of the railway linking the Congolese port of Matadi with Leopoldville, today's Kinshasa.

The walls of the ITM headquarters display murals by Fernand Allard l'Olivier.

This Africa expert painted the landscapes and the people of Central Africa as they looked during the 1920's. The murals were first displayed at the 1930 World Exhibition in Liège and were then handed over to the ITM. Three of the murals were recovered from the ITM's loft in 1993. They had ended up there and were in need of urgent repair. Today the value of each single mural is estimated at some 25,000 euros.

One of the best preserved interiors of this art deco building is the Bibliotheca Brodeniana or the Broden Hall Library. It is named after Alphonse Broden, the ITM's second director. Art deco lamps and the tall windows create a very special atmosphere. Works of art on loan from the Royal Museum of Central Africa in Tervuren adorn the walls.

The Institute's garden that forms a unit with the building deserves a special mention.

It is a sunken garden and only one of two of its kind in Belgium. The ponds, fountains, paths and hedges are all in the modernist style.

The pond in front of the ITM's day clinic is a special feature that played an important role in the air conditioning of the building. A ventilator behind the waterfall drew humid air into the building via a grille. In this way humidity levels in the building were kept at a constant level. This was an aesthetic and efficient predecessor to today's air conditioning facilities.

Originally there were two gardens, one on the north and one on the south side of the building. Today only the garden on the south side remains. The garden is open to the general public once a month: on the first Sunday of the month.

Students from Belgium and the four corners of the globe are also trained at the ITM.

Classes are given in an old monastery established by the Carthusian Order in an adjoining street. The building also houses the ITM's research facilities and some medical services. In the late 18th century the monks were ejected from the building that served as an army barracks for a while before becoming the workshop of an important diamond cutter. In later years Capuchin Poor Clares took up residence here. After the number of nuns fell to an all-time low the premises were sold to the ITM in 2001. The renovated monastery includes a magnificent facade as well as a beautiful garden with its very own shrine.