The Brigittines Chapel and its history

The name of Brigitte is of Celtic origin and means “tall, strong, powerful”. As for the name “Brigittines”, it comes from Bridget of Sweden, born in Finstad, near Uppsala, who was the daughter of the governor of the region of Uppland. After the death of her husband, Bridget of Sweden founded the new religious Order of the Most Holy Saviour for both monks and nuns. The
protector of travellers, in the iconography, she is sometimes seen wearing the cross of the Daughters of Bridget (or “Brigittines”). In 1623, the Archduchess Isabella of Austria granted the Order of Bridget permission to establish itself in Brussels. Based in Dendermonde, the Brigittines Order in 1637 bought a property located on the current rue des Brigittines (which still bears its name). A convent with a chapel were built there in 1663. The chapel, a “rare single-nave building”, was designed by the architect Léon Van Heil in the Italo-Flemish Renaissance style. During the bombardment of 1695, which reduced most of Brussels to ashes, the building was only slightly damaged. However, the Habsburg Emperor Joseph II ended the religious vocation of the building in 1784.

Abandoned as a religious monument from 1783 to 1920, the Brigittines Chapel was used as a school (1783), an official pawnshop (1789), a warehouse for books from monasteries (1789), before serving as a prison (1792), a military pharmacy (1796), an arsenal, a hospice, a beer and timber warehouse (1798), a covered market (1830), a ballroom (1850) and finally a publisher’s warehouse. In 1920, the Chapel was put up for auction. The City of Brussels bought it two years later and, following successful renovation work, saved it from almost two centuries of misfortunes and varying functions. Its façade became a listed structure in 1936... and the whole building, later, in 1953. By 1975, and after commissioning a complete revamp of the whole building, the City of Brussels and the Alderman of Fine Arts and Culture reaffirmed their support to creative endeavours in the performing arts. The first dance production performed at the Chapel in 1975 was “23 Skidoo” (Frédéric Flamand). In 1982, new improvement works were undertaken. In the month of June of the same year, the Chapel’s space was made available to emerging dance companies. The Bellone Brigittines Festival, which follows a theme, was set up in 1982. Ever since 1992, the Brigittines Chapel has honed its ambition to support and participate in the emergence of new forms of expression at both national and international level. The Chapel was managed by the non-profit association Bellone Brigittines which, from May 1997, has overseen the realisation of these aspirations.

In 1999, Les Brigittines achieved the recognition of a “Centre d’Art contemporain du Mouvement et de la Voix de la Ville de Bruxelles” [Contemporary Art Centre for Movement and Voice of the City of Brussels]. In order to develop further the artistic role of the Brigittines Chapel and allow the centre to strengthen its ties with the local community and neighbouring cultural associations, the City of Brussels took the decision to expand the infrastructure and build on an extension. A new building had to provide more suitable accommodation, a better environment for artists and the public alike.The City then launched an architectural competition which was won by the Italian architect Andrea Bruno who managed the project in collaboration with the Belgian SumProject company (formerly Groep Planning). Having started works on May 9th, 2005, the extension opened to the public on August 20th, 2007.

Andrea Bruno decided to clone the chapel, using the same footprint and the same volumes but with a contemporary element. A volume comparable to the Chapel’s would offer the necessary space to ensure the successful operation of the Centre d’Art contemporain du Mouvement. As a result, the old space could be vacated entirely to be turned into an auditorium. The architectural cloning changes how the chapel is perceived but also the significance of the space surrounding it. The current layout stages a chapel with its square, forming a sacred entity. The aim of the extension project was to offer  the Chapel a new meaning, supported by the public space around it.

The adjacent areas are also part of the development project. The new volume consists of six successive layers: the basement level used for equipment, the double height foyer featuring a mezzanine with offices, the next two upper floors accommodating an auditorium, and under the roof, a loft housing a rehearsal space. Vertical circulation takes place in a glazed area between the twin volumes.

Artist res­i­dences and the Vis­i­tandines garden

On the other side of the Chapel, at the corner of the rue des Visitandines and the rue Notre-Seigneur, a cluster of artist residencies and garden was created in 2009 by architects Ann Gilson and Bernard Gochet (Carbone 14), in collaboration with landscape architect Benoît Fondu. The primary objective of Carbone 14 was to rehabilitate an urban fabric which had come apart a long time ago. The new building has the same footprint as the Chapel and was built on a narrow plot along a school building with blank walls. It includes six entities with flexible spaces spreading out over three floors (three lofts, three studio flats).