Art and architecture have traditionally been repositories of wealth. When I visited the Palais Stoclet in Brussels last week, I realized how the immense wealth Belgium amassed during the last quarter of the 19th century turned into this marble, gilt, mosaic, and hardwood haven. All that glittered might have looked like gold, but it was in fact the reflection of the wealth gained from banks and railroads. The art collection the Stoclet family put together still sustains them through the sales of paintings that are now worth tens of millions of dollars.

The last time the Flemish had it that good was during the Middle Ages, when the cities of Bruges, then Ghent, and finally Antwerp built trading empires on the back of sheep whose wool they collected, wove, and dyed. One by one, their economies collapsed as trade routes changed, politics interfered, and even the landscape doomed them by closing their access to the sea. The area became a contested terrain all the way through World War I, the wealth it had accumulated sleeping in the art its cities commissioned and in their curved streets, especially those of Bruges.

Canal in Bruges, Belgium. Taken in October 2010.
Tony Grist/Wikimedia Commons Canal in Bruges, Belgium. Taken in October 2010.

Bruges become a major tourist attraction exactly because so much of the original structure still exists through neglect. What was once one of Europe's largest cities is now a seemingly perfect village, the brick and plaster facades of its central core displaying variations on similar themes, and its civic buildings and churches punctuating this crafted coherence with spires and carved turrets. What makes it such a beautiful environment is the skill at making buildings that catch the eye with details, emphasize openings, and celebrate power with height, in combination with the coherence of the whole.

In cities across Flanders, the luxury stayed inside. The cloth is now long since gone, as is the actual money. What remains are the paintings that document that richness, depicting the way the light falls on brocade, velvet, fur, and sheared wool. In Jan van Eyck's "The Virgin and Child with Canon Joris van der Paele" (1436), for instance, the carpet underneath the Madonna extends to the bottom of the painting, inviting the viewer into a scene where every surface, like the interior of the Palais Stoclet, glistens and patterns run amok across the painting's breadth.

"The Virgin and Child with Canon Joris Van der Paele" by Jan van Eyck (1436).
Courtesy of The Yorck Project/Wikimedia Commons "The Virgin and Child with Canon Joris Van der Paele" by Jan van Eyck (1436).

In recent years, Flanders has regained some of the wealth it lost more than a century ago. There is real work going on, from the resurgent Port of Antwerp to a host of small manufacturers, but above all else this is an age of bureaucracy on the one hand and hipness on the other. As the de facto capital of Europe, Brussels is the part-time home to thousands of bureaucrats, politicians, and the lobbyists who serve them with lavish dinners and, I assume, gifts. This has become a town to shop and eat.

At the same time, the very rundown and stagnant quality of many of these cities in Flanders has attracted hipsters who have made Antwerp the avant-garde fashion capitol of Europe and have brought artists in search of cheap housing and wealthy collectors to Brussels.

But now the wealth no longer inheres in buildings. New architecture in Flanders' cities, when it is any good, is minimal and even shy in its aesthetics. The best new art centers are in renovated buildings that have been cleaned out and up, not adorned. Art is being made there, but the collections now being built are more about being part of international art market, and I assume they are as fungible and moveable as anywhere in the world. Neither the Palais Stoclet's monument to domestic richness nor van Eyck's immortalization of luxury goods have a contemporary equivalent. Wealth no longer inheres in places or things.

Aaron Betsky is a regularly featured columnist whose stories appear on this website each week. His views and conclusions are not necessarily those of ARCHITECT magazine nor of the American Institute of Architects.