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The story of the collection

The Marnix building,
a work of art in itself

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“I am not interested in making a building that looks like a gas station or folk art. I think the wordmonument is a very honorable word. When you are given the opportunity to do a building in Brussels on a site near the king’s palace, if you don’t do a monument, you are a jackass!”

Since 1965, ING Belgium, formerly the Lambert Bank, has had its registered office in the Marnix building on the avenue of the same name opposite a side wing of the Royal Palace.

The building was erected between 1960 and 1963 on the site where the 18th-century palace of the Lambert family had stood until then. This went up in flames in the winter of 1956. Hansi Lambert, the mother of the then 28-year-old Léon Lambert, took the opportunity to have a new building constructed over its ruins, which had to meet the needs of a rapidly expanding modern bank. After discussions with Le Corbusier were suspended, the design was entrusted to Gordon Bunshaft, the icon of the American group Skidmore, Owings and Merrill (SOM), also known for his numerous designs for skyscrapers, including the Lever House in New York. The architect, however, envisaged a low-rise building for the Lambert Bank in Brussels, due to the proximity of the Royal Palace and the historic nature of the city. Nevertheless, the Marnix building has become a modernist masterpiece. The characteristic, cross-shaped elements that structure the facade, provide a horizontal rhythm. The choice of materials is also remarkable: a type of polished concrete, with white cement and quartz is reminiscent of stately marble, while fine, stainless steel “joints” in the middle of the cross shapes, give elegance to the whole structure. Finally, the interior was also stylishly finished down to the smallest details. Specially-developed designer furnishings, in addition to benches and chairs designed by Mies Van der Rohe and Saarinen once decorated the open spaces dominated by travertine, wood and steel. With such structural, material and visual rigour, the Marnix building soon took on the style of an Italian Renaissance palace, something that Lorenzo de Medici would at least have appreciated according to Léon Lambert.

Since the completion of a much-needed extension in 1992, the building has occupied a complete block of houses that stretches between Avenue Marnix, Rue du Trône, Rue d’Egmont and Rue de l’Esplanade. The floor plan of the office complex now has an asymmetric H shape. The 51,000 m2 of office space is spread over eight floors. In addition to the completely transparent ground floor that looks out onto the esplanade on Avenue Marnix the highest floor on the same side is particularly eye-catching. Until Léon Lambert’s death in 1987, the space was occupied by his personal penthouse and adjoining reception rooms. A monumental oval spiral staircase provides access to this floor, which piques the imagination. Not only was it the setting for Lambert’s elegant dinners, in these quarters he also surrounded himself with the most important works of art from his personal collection. Although its former look has been reviewed, the bank’s staff, customers and visitors continue to enjoy a panoramic view over Brussels.

Léon Lambert inaugurated the Marnix building in 1965. Today, the complex houses the headquarters of ING in Belgium. According to Gordon Bunshaft, the American brain behind the building, with the Royal Palace so close, you would have to be a jackass if, as an architect, you don’t do a monument. Its architecture, on the other hand, cannot really be called “royal”. Lavish decorations are hard to find in the Marnix building, to the benefit of the strict, minimal design language, formulated in rather austere materials. A vision that is not just about functional interests, but is also a response to aesthetic needs. The structure was also intended to be the showcase for Lambert’s impressive art collection and today fulfils a similar role for the current ING Collection. A specially-designed, monumental sculpture by Henry Moore that stood for years on the esplanade in front of the building, gave a hint from outside of what was going on behind the façade: a sophisticated interaction between art, architecture, furniture and people. Bunshaft, himself an art collector, knew better than anyone what someone like Lambert needed to help his collection find its voice. His advice: “Make it as quiet as possible.”