How Ostend rose from the ashes of the Second World War

“Destruction and Reconstruction, Ostend 1944-1958” is the title of a fascinating exhibition that you can see in Ostend this summer.  Using photographs, newsreel and plans from this day architectural historian Marc Dubois has succeeded in creating an exhibition that shows the public at large how Belgium’s premier seaside resort was rebuilt after the Second World War.

Marc Dubois: “The destruction and chaos caused by the Second World War posed a major challenge for policymakers, architects and builders.  Many public buildings had been completely destroyed.  Others were so badly damaged that pulling them down and starting from scratch was the best option.”

“The destruction happened in two main waves: at the beginning of the war when Ostend was occupied by the Nazis it was a target for British bombers.  Incendiary bombs wreaked havoc.  One of the town’s main public buildings stood on the market square: it was much more than just a city hall.  It also served as a festival hall.  Here all the town's records and many important paintings were kept.  As it was bombed using incendiaries only a shell remained the following day.  Records had gone up in smoke as had several paintings by masters James Ensor and Leon Spilliaert."

"Towards the end of the war, after the D-Day landings, the Germans realised their days in Ostend were numbered.  They blew up much of the port infrastructure that would have been vital in re-enforcing the Allied armies and defeating the Nazis.   Everything had to be repaired after the war.”

The port with its ferries to England meant that Ostend was a lynchpin in traffic between the UK and the continent of Europe.  Much, though not all of this infrastructure was destroyed, but this also meant an opportunity for urbanists.  Architects like Jean-Jules Eggericx got the chance to draw up plans for a more functional city.

Marc Dubois: “Before the war Ostend had two stations: the Maritime Station and the Central Station.  The Maritime is the one still used today.  It’s next to the docks where the ferries used to arrive allowing travellers to hop on an international train straight away.  This is where you took the Istanbul Express! Local services were kept separate and arrived at the Central Station, where now the Delhaize supermarket stands.” 

“Before the war the fishing fleet moored by the quayside adjoining the city centre.  Already before the war moves were underway to move the base of the fishing fleet to the East Bank of the port where a brand new fish auction building was built.  This operation was only completed after the war.”

“Once domestic rail services were switched to the Maritime Station architects could consider what to do with the freed up space from the tracks and think of redesigning the city centre to cope with new flows of car traffic.  This was the age of the car and urban planners had to take account of the rise of the automobile.  There were plans to fill in the three docks surrounding the inner city.  The dock where the Mercator is now moored was the middle dock.  These plans were not carried out in their entirety.  Only the last dock was filled in and it was here that Victor Bourgeois’s brand new city hall (above) arose. "

"Belgium’s three leading architects were all involved in the reconstruction of the city and drew plans for public buildings: Bourgeois the city hall, Léon Stynen the Kursaal and Gaston Eysselinck the Post Office Building.”

“This was an age of major road construction: part of what is today the Ostend - Brussels Motorway had already been built, but a lot still needed to be done.  New stretches of motorway and countless motorway bridges needed to be designed and built.  The completed motorway was opened in 1956 in time for the 1958 World Exhibition. Now the old rail tracks were no longer needed, the space freed up could be used to create a new access road leading from the motorway to the city centre.  The roundabout at the end of the motorway that was to connect with the west coast, the east coast and the city centre was named the Kennedy Roundabout.  The access road became the ‘United Nations Avenue’, a sign of the times.”

Ostend was fortunate to have as mayor Adolphe Van Glabbeke, who also served as Minister for Reconstruction and Public Works and knew how to channel cash to projects that would benefit the city.

Visitors to the exhibition can marvel at a wealth of newsreel footage from this day preserved in the VRT archive, but also at the magnificent high definition analogue photographs made by photographers Maurice and Robert Anthony.  The Anthonys preserved the Ostend of the Twenties and Thirties for posterity.  Maurice fled to England at the start of the war, but Robert remained to record the devastation. If British bombers destroyed the city hall, the Nazis were responsible for trashing the magnificent Kursaal.

Marc Dubois: “The old Kursaal, just like the new one by Léon Stynen, commanded the approach to Ostend from the sea.  The Germans had it pulled down and replaced by a bunker.  Only the cellars remained and were incorporated into the new building.  The Kursaal combines a casino with concert halls and festival rooms.  The eleven metre high glass façade is a technical achievement. Stynen wanted to give art pride of place.  Note the sculpture above the entrance on the city side of the building.  Inside there’s a fresco by Delvaux. Countless were the artists involved in the Kursaal’s elaboration.”

“Reconstruction of the Post Office too was an important undertaking.  Gaston Eysselinck created a masterpiece that combined postal and telegraph services at a location where all the big international cables ended up”.

After the war the emphasis was on rebuilding the architecture and infrastructure that would strengthen the economy and generate cash.  The port and fishing were a priority, but also tourism and the airport.  There was even talk of an airport especially for helicopters when this was seen as an important new mode of travel. 

Construction of luxury flats on the seafront had started before the war, but now proceeded with a vengeance as old, damaged hotels were pulled down.   Rebuilding the Ostend race course, the Wellington Hippodrome, was a priority too.  A new royal villa overlooking the Ostend promenade replaced the royal chalet that had been destroyed.

1958 was an important year for Belgium with the World Exhibition in Brussels.  Ostend had its own pavilion and an opportunity to promote tourism.  A real highlight was the visit of Monaco’s Princess Grace and her husband Prince Rainier, who attended the opening of the new festival hall on the main market square.  Ostend with its casino and status as Belgium’s biggest seaside resort was now twinned with Monaco!

Don’t forget to have a look at the movie the celebrated filmmaker Henri Storck produced to promote the city.  It takes in all the important vistas of the city from its beaches over the casino, the quays to the ferries bound for Dover.

“Destruction and Reconstruction, Ostend 1944-1958” runs at the Venetian Galleries in Ostend until 29 September: open Monday through Saturday 2PM till 6PM. Sunday also 10AM till noon.