Bloomberg’s Feargus O’Sullivan has been writing an interesting series on housing in world cities. He took a look at Brussels Belgium where instead of opting for tall apartment buildings as a 19th century solution to housing many in the downtown, stone and masonry decorated single family homes were adopted. These houses are tall, thin, and all have entranceways directly onto the street frontage.
These houses are fittingly called “maison de maitre” or master’s house, for their size and facade splendour and were built and lived in by the “wealthy bourgeois”. Like the Goldilocks and the Three Bears story, these houses are not grand mansions for the truly rich aristocrat, nor were they as plonky as a standard townhouse. The main floor had three large reception rooms with dividing doors that could open, an open space concept way before its time.
“The result is an interesting hybrid, combining floor plans reminiscent of London townhouses, plot sizes similar to old Amsterdam and servants attics like in Paris — all brought together with an elaborate, unmistakably Belgian decorative style.”
There’s a lot of ornamentation on the front facade of these structures which can be kindly called a “baroque streak” but were largely influenced by the aesthetic movement.
While Brussels did try a Paris redevelopment plan in their downtown similar to Baron Haussmann’s in the 1860’s, the locals hated “Haussmann-style” apartment living.
They hated it so much that no one tried to build apartments in the downtown again until the 1970’s, leaving downtown Brussels with much the same feel as Buenos Aires in Argentina, where older buildings still dominate the historic downtown.
As middle classes moved to new houses being built outside the city’s historic walls, Brussels’ “maisons de maitre” grew less popular with many of the houses being split into apartments. Redevelopment of roads and destruction of heritage buildings came to be known as “Brusselization”.
But in a surprising twist, the middle class came back to the centre city and the Maison de Maitre enjoyed a new popularity. Why? There was no run of investment in the downtown housing to make it out of reach of residents, with an entire house costing less than a one bedroom apartment in many larger American cities.
There is also less competition for house purchases in Brussels, with few international European Union workers competing against locals for purchase. A Maison de Maitre house can cost as low as 600,000 Euros (930,000 dollars Canadian).
The YouTube video below shows a real estate offering for a maison de maitre and gives a sense of the house’s plan and interior.