“De Grote Post”, Ostend’s modernist masterpiece

As part of our occasional series about interesting buildings and sites in our region, this time we visit the building that used to house the main post office in the West Flemish coastal city of Ostend. As ever VRT News’ photographer Alexander Dumarey has provide some excellent photographs to illustrate our article. The Main Post Office building is one of several fine examples of modernist architecture that are to be found in “The city by the sea”.

During the Second World War Ostend’s main post office was destroyed by aerial bombardments. When the war ended the Ministry of Postal, Telegraph and Telephone Communication (PTT) decided that a new main post office should be built at the same site.  

In 1945 the Ghent architect Gaston Eysselinck was given the task of drafting the plans for the new main post office building.

Gaston Eysselinck’s own home in Ghent (built 1930-1931) and the main post office building in Ostend (built 1946 to 1953) are said to have had a determining influence on 20th century Belgian architecture.  

He applied creativity to the application of the ideas of the Neues Bauen School of architecture by adapting them to the location and the functional needs of building has was constructing. He also succeeded in applying the French modernist Le Corbusier’s “Five Points of Architecture” in a non-dogmatic way. 

Gaston Eysselinck began his mission with great enthusiasm. However, the design process soon became a clash of ideas between the architect, the city authorities and the commissions that had a say in the new post office building’s construction. The Royal Commission for Monuments and Landscapes believed that the plans resembled a design for an industrial building and that they would result in a building that was too exclusively functional. However, Gaston Eysselinck stood his ground and ignored all the suggestions and demands that had been put to him. 

Despite the various commissions having advised it to reject the plans, the City of Ostend approved them on 26 September 1946. The only condition imposed by the city authorities was that changes be made to the plans for the front façade of the building. 

Construction work got under in September 1947. Tension mounted between the Ministry and the architect. The Ministry’s decision to scrap plans for a monumental sculpture by the sculptor Jozef Cantré was a source of conflict between the authorities and the architect. Gaston Eysselinck viewed this as a mutilation of his design as he believed that the sculptures was an integral part of the building.

When the building was opened in 1953 it received little or no critical acclaim. A decade later in 1963 Cantré’s sculpture was added to the front of the building. As the years went on the building began to receive increased recognition as an example of post-war modernist architecture and it 1981 it became a listed building. 

The Post Office left the building for new premises in 1999. The City of Ostend bought the former main post office in 2001 and set about turning it into a new cultural centre. The parts of the building that were protected by its listed status were renovated, while the rest was demolished. Two new halls were built that can be used for, amongst other things, concerts, theatrical performances, debates and exhibitions.

The new cultural centre “De Grote Post” opened its door in December 2012. 

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