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The Rector’s Building at Brussels Free University

As part of our continuing series on interesting buildings, landscapes and sites in Flanders and Brussels we visit the Rector’s Building at Brussels Dutch-medium Free University in Elsene. As well as housing the offices of the university’s Vice-Chancellor or Rector it is also the administrative heart of the University. As ever VRT News’ photographer Alexander Dumarey has provided us with so excellent photographs to illustrate our article. 

In 1969 the Dutch-medium VUB split from the French-medium Free University of Brussels ULB. Soon after the split work began on a new campus for the VUB. The northern section of what had been an area of land used by the army for military training was given over for the construction of a new campus from the VUB. The southern part of the site was used to construct a second campus for the ULB that it uses in addition to its original site around 1.5 kilometres away. While much of the architecture on the site is pretty run of the mill, one building that does stand out is the ellipse-shaped rectors building, the administrative heart of the university. 

The building was designed by the Antwerp architect Renaat Braem. Renaat Braem’s work includes the Arenawijk in the Antwerp district of Deurne and the Kiel Estate, also in Antwerp. His wish was to build a veritable temple to science on the university site. However, the university considered his plans to be too expensive. After several drafts he put his final plans for the Rector’s Building forward in 1973. The buildings is a five-story ellipse, measuring 76 metres by 16 metres.   

Symbolism is important to Renaat Braem. The architect opted for an ellipse as it is the most primary shape found in the natural world, for example in the manner in which the planets orbit the sun. 

Renaat Braem had wanted the offices inside the building to be open plan. Only the centre of the building that contains the stairs, toilets and lifts was to be separated from the rest. The landings are decorated with murals that show the origin of life, the battle waged by humans for their freedom and featuring human as free spirits.  

However, the university was set against open plan offices and it set about dividing the floors up into individual office units. More economy measures followed and as brick was used instead of concrete on the building’s facades it ended up being 2.4 metres longer than initially planned. Construction work started in 1975 and the building was officially opened on 26 May 1976. 

Initially there was no money to pay for the murals. However, the architect considered them to be so important that he started work on them nonetheless. He worked on them for 8 years. Although Ruperto Urzua helped Renaat Braem from 1980, the murals were never completed. The work on the 3rd and 4th floor looks rougher and more rushed than the rest. Rumour has it that he had become sick of painting and was disappointed that the students had little interest for is work.