Towers Skyline Ghent © Amaury Henderick

The skyline of Ghent is famously dominated by the spires of its three medieval churches, representing the old guardians of religion that link up the city’s present and past. There is a fourth and equally impressive tower, however, which has joined this landmark parade. The new kid on the block is called the Boekentoren, or Tower of Wisdom, and it stands as a monumental triumph of avant-garde design.

The 'Boekentoren' or 'Tower of Wisdom'

Boekentoren Ghent - Henri Van de Velde 2 - Photo Credits Cheetah Flicks

In 2017, the Boekentoren will soar to new and exciting heights as a five-year restoration project draws to a festive close. Why does this building deserve our renewed attention? Because it is universally recognized as a towering achievement in 20th-century architecture and an enduring testament to the creative genius of Henry van de Velde, the most versatile Belgian artist of his age.

Henry van de Velde (1863–1957) was born and raised in Antwerp, where he attended the prestigious Royal Academy of Fine Arts. Classically trained as a painter and interior designer in Antwerp and Paris, van de Velde pioneered his own take on the decorative style that was sweeping Europe at the time: Art Nouveau (Jugendstil), a sophisticated play on the intricate bounties of nature.

The young artist’s prodigious talents are on full display in the incredibly diverse art objects—books, textiles, jewellery, furniture and tableware—he created in the period, and which were eventually applied to the realm of architecture.

The aptly called Bloemenwerf (Court of Flowers, 1895), the artist’s elegant villa on the outskirts of Brussels, provides a shining example of van de Velde’s masterful Art Nouveau, blending beautifully into the surrounding foliage. Indeed, van de Velde’s designs easily rival those of his fellow-architect, compatriot and leading proponent of the Jugendstil, Victor Horta.

Building Bauhaus

Tweebronnen library Leuven © Xavier Van Den Bogaert - Veto

Over the course of his career as an internationally celebrated artist and academic, van de Velde became a design legend in his own time. Taking his rightful place among the foremost innovators of the 20th century, he is perhaps best remembered as the prime mover of Bauhaus, the hugely influential design school that was rooted in van de Velde’s ground-breaking work at the renowned Grand-Ducal School of Arts and Crafts in Weimar.

The stark, box-like features of Bauhaus seem a far cry from the free-flowing whimsy of Art Nouveau, but looks can be deceiving. Staying true to form, van de Velde reduced his designs to their bare essence and dimensions. His blueprint for Bauhaus sees beauty crystallised into utility, adopting a ‘less is more’ approach that revolutionised modern design: throughout the Art Deco period and far beyond, artists and architects have strived to emulate van de Velde’s grand ideal of creating the perfect marriage between function and form, embodied in a highly individual yet ‘total’, or all-encompassing, work of art.

Van de Velde’s seminal work can be admired across Europe and even as far as the United States, but it remains firmly anchored in Belgium. Here, echoes of his quintessential style include numerous public and private buildings, such as the Tweebronnen municipal library in Leuven or his New House in Tervuren. Equally, many exhibitions and art collections showcase his prolific oeuvre, such as the permanent collections in Ghent’s Design Museum, or Philippe Wolfer’s jewellery designs on display in the Royal Museum of Art and History in Brussels.

The pinnacle of innovation

Boekentoren - binnenzicht leeszaal bibliotheek © Geert Roels

But if there is one work of art that shows Henry van de Velde at the top of his game, it is undoubtedly the Tower of Books. In 1933, the University of Ghent presented its most acclaimed lecturer with his greatest challenge yet: to design a suitably majestic, but fully functional, building to house the university’s library, a modern tower that would epitomise scholarly aspiration.

In 1942, the Tower of Books had risen to a dizzying height of 64 metres, accommodating some three million books (that’s 46 kilometres worth of knowledge) spread out over 24 intricately designed floors, many of which were indi vidually decorated by van de Velde. On top, the belvedere, shaped like a Greek cross, commands spectacular views of Ghent, lining up perfectly with the three towers in the city centre.

Now, more than 70 years later, the milestone building is being restored to its full and former glory, with a grand reopening slated for 2017. To the droves of students, tourists and architecture buffs that have visited its hallowed halls, the Tower of Books still stands a beacon of timeless inspiration and design, which speaks volumes about the genius.

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