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5.8.05

Modernism in Knokke-le-Zoute

New Casino, Knokke-Heist, designed by Steven HollAll around the world, starchitects are building zippy, modernist opera houses and modern art museums. For many city governments, the hope in funding these projects is to bring the so-called "Bilbao effect" to their neck of the woods. An article by Guy Duplat (Une «super-tour» pour Knokke, July 29) for La Libre Belgique described what American architect Steven Holl is trying to build in the town of Knokke-Heist. It's a port on the Belgian coast, most famous for its Casino, where in July 1963, a young singer named Jacques Brel sang a song called Mathilde for the first time.

In fact, Brel had quite a history at Knokke, where he even made a live recording, in 1971. (The album you can buy now also has an interview that he gave while at Knokke that year.) Knokke's Casino represented for a Belgian singer like Brel the pinnacle of success, glamorous like Las Vegas was for Frank Sinatra. In his wonderful song La Chanson de Jacky, about the folly of his youth, singing at Knokke is shown in another light:

Même si un jour à Knokke-le-Zoute
Je deviens comme je le redoute
Chanteur pour femmes finissantes
Que je leur chante "Mi Corazon"
Avec la voix bandonéante
D'un Argentin de Carcassonne.


Even if one day at Knokke-le-Zoute
I become as I fear
A singer for old ladies,
Singing "Mi Corazon" to them
With the smarmy voice [voice like a Bandoneón; thanks, Jens!—CTD]
Of an Argentinian from Carcassonne
Available at Amazon:
available at Amazon
Jacques Brel, Live at Knokke-Le-Zoute (1971)
The Knokke Casino also represented the worst possible end, a place where old singers, who had long given up any real creativity, washed up to end their days. If that happens, he says, when he's drunk he will still remember his youth, when people called him Jacky, with the sweet refrain, "To be, for only an hour, beau et con à la fois" (handsome and fucking stupid at the same time). Over the years, the Knokke Casino has hosted a number of contemporary artists, some who created artwork for the casino like Keith Haring and René Magritte (there is a whole room, De Magrittezaal, decorated with a mural called Le Domaine enchanté, made by the Surrealist artist in 1953), as well as festivals and other events.

The building's cost is forecast as 125 million € (US$154.55 million). According to the article I read, the new building will consist of three parts, the renovated version of the original Casino (with the Magritte and other artwork preserved, of course), with its glass façade restored; a 108-meter (354.3-foot) tower meant to look like two large sails, and a porous bridge between them. If the architect's name is not familiar, his most famous building to date, I think, is Kiasma, the contemporary art museum in Helsinki.

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