Le Dossier B by Schuiten and Peeters


Almost ten years have elapsed since I devoted a week of blog posts to one of my favourite fantastic creations, the Obscure World/Obscure Cities of Belgian artist-and-writer team François Schuiten and Benoît Peeters. Schuiten and Peeters’ mythos is a multi-media project with a series of bande desinée albums as its core, a cycle of stories which introduce the reader to some of the cities in the Obscure World (a “counter-Earth” on the opposite side of our Sun), and which are connected by recurrent characters and motifs. Since the completion of the core series, Schuiten, with occasional help from Peeters, has expanded the mythos to encompass other books that flesh out some of the world’s invented history and its connections to our own world, together with other manifestations such as art exhibitions and music releases. Le Dossier B (1995) is a peripheral Obscure World production, a 54-minute TV documentary which entangles the genuine history of 20th-century Brussels with an invented secret society who believe in the existence of a twin city, Bruzel, that intersects with the Belgian capital.


Le Dossier B was directed by Wilbur Leguebe from a script by Leguebe with Schuiten and Peeters. Valérie Lemaître plays the on-camera investigator, “Claire Devillers”, while artist and writer appear in roles that match their personalities. Schuiten is seen in silent footage as “Robert de la Barque”, an artist whose obsession with Brussels’ vast Palace of Justice provides clues to the Bruzel mystery via the eccentricities of its architect, Joseph Poelaert. Peeters appears later in the investigation as “Pierre Lidiaux” the author in 1960 of Le Dossier B (a book which has since vanished), his own study of the connections between Brussels and Bruzel. We first see Lidiaux being interviwed on a TV arts show, then later as the presenter of his own eccentric and unfinished film about Antoine Wiertz, the real-life Belgian painter of vast canvasses on morbid subjects whose museum Lidiaux explores. Aside from the well-realised historical fakery, one of the pleasures of Leguebe’s witty and imaginative documentary is the spotlight it throws on the history and culture of Brussels and Belgium. I hadn’t realised, for example, that the Wiertz Museum is so close to the European Parliament building which was still under construction when the film was being made. Elsewhere there are references to Magritte, Delvaux and Art Nouveau architect Victor Horta, and we catch a glimpse of work by another great Belgian painter, Jean Delville.


The last third of the film is based around the researches of one James Welles (Adrian Brine), a British historian whose book-length study, Shadows in the Night: A Secret Society in Belgium, explores the connections of yet more historical figures with the Bruzel mystery, including the aforementioned Horta and chemist Ernest Solvay. The historian’s surname may be taken as a deliberate choice: Orson Welles was the director of another documentary mixing fact and fiction, F for Fake, while Welles’ appearance as Falstaff in Chimes at Midnight provided Schuiten with the model for the central character in La Tour, one of the albums in Schuiten and Peeters’ Obscure Cities series.


Some of this territory is explored in another of the Obscure Cities albums, Brüsel, especially the building of the Palace of Justice and the concept of “Brusselisation”, a pejorative French term for the rapid demolition of historical quarters of a city to make way for new construction. Where Brüsel has the freedom of the comics medium to refashion the capital in a fantastic manner, Le Dossier B uses the material of our world to suggest another city (possibly the one depicted in the album) whose existence we never see. Apart, that is, for the suggestion near the end of the film that the Bruzel of the secret society is the Brussels of today, a city which has overwritten the Brussels of a century ago, just as the invented encyclopedia in Borges’s Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius gradually changes the world at large to match its contents.

Le Dossier B is available on DVD but seems to be sold out for now. Alternatively, it may be watched at YouTube in an unsubtitled copy that’s been uploaded in the wrong aspect ratio. The really determined may wish to do what I did: download the video, grab some English subtitles, then watch it in VLC with the aspect ratio set to 16:10. A lot of messing around but it works.

(My thanks to Brussels resident Anne Billson for the YT link!)

Previously on { feuilleton }
Echoes of the Cities
Further tales from the Obscure World
Brüsel by Schuiten & Peeters
La route d’Armilia by Schuiten & Peeters
La Tour by Schuiten & Peeters
La fièvre d’Urbicande by Schuiten & Peeters
Les Murailles de Samaris by Schuiten & Peeters
The art of François Schuiten
Taxandria, or Raoul Servais meets Paul Delvaux

Hector Guimard’s Castel Béranger


Art Nouveau is never far from these pages or from my own work, as has been the case this week when work-related research turned up this recent addition to the scanned books at the Internet Archive. Hector Guimard is best known today for his entrances to the Paris Metro not all of which survived the ravages of the 20th century. His designs for the Castel Béranger, an apartment block in Paris, slightly precede the Metro commission, and were intended by Guimard as a showcase for his own development of the Art Nouveau style.


Like Frank Lloyd Wright, Guimard attended to every detail of the building’s construction and interior design, furniture included, and that’s what you have here, a book length guide to the building inside and out. The asymmetrical wrought-iron gate is a familiar sight from studies of Art Nouveau but other views of the building are less common. Compared to Alphonse Mucha’s control and Victor Horta’s sinuous curves, Guimard’s decoration can appear undisciplined but the wildness also makes it seem in advance of its time. Some of the wallpaper patterns for the Castel Béranger contain shapes that wouldn’t be seen again in a design context until the psychedelic posters of the 1960s. Guimard believed he was designing for the future but didn’t live to see the world that could make use of such stylistic delirium.


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Chemiserie Niguet


Spotted at Beautiful Century, this scan of a postcard showing the flower shop which now occupies what was originally the Chemiserie Niguet in Brussels. The shop is in the Rue Royale, and the Art Nouveau storefront was installed in 1896 from a design by Belgian architect Paul Hankar (1859–1901). Considering this is one of Hankar’s few Art Nouveau designs to have survived the depredations of “Brusselization” I was surprised that the only illustration in any of my books was the early plan below. (In fairness, Victor Horta tends to dominate any general discussion of Belgian Art Nouveau architecture.)


Magasin Niguet (1896).

Searching for the shop as it is today on Google Maps reveals the view below. Shame about the camera catching the rubbish awaiting collection. The bland 20th-century facades surrounding the storefront make its presence an incongruous one but at least it’s survived, unlike this Parisian establishment.


Previously on { feuilleton }
Rue St. Augustin, then and now
Hector Guimard elevations
Infernal entrances
Hector Guimard sketches
Temples for Future Religions by François Garas
Elizabetes Iela 10b, Riga
Atelier Elvira
Louis Bonnier’s exposition dreams
The Maison Lavirotte
The House with Chimaeras

The Royal Greenhouses of Laeken


The Winter Garden, photo by William Helsen.

My arcades fetish has been aired here a few times to which one might add a complementary fetish for iron-and-glass structures in general, especially railway stations, palm houses and winter gardens. The Royal Greenhouses at Laeken, Brussels, are an impressive example of the latter, even if they happen to owe their existence to King Leopold II whose barbaric exploitation of the Congo is recounted in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. Alphonse Balat was the architect of the central Winter Garden built between 1874 and 1876, and reading up on him it turns out that the celebrated Art Nouveau architect Victor Horta was one of Balat’s apprentices. Horta never had the opportunity to create anything this extravagant, unfortunately, but if he had the results may have resembled one of the structures created by François Schuiten for his greenhouse city of Calvani (below), a metropolis of the Obscure World. Schuiten is a resident of Brussels and we’re told that one of the earthly “Passages” to the Obscure World can be found at the Royal Greenhouses. The building is only open to the public during April and May each year, however, so anyone looking for a route to Schuiten’s world may be better off searching elsewhere.

• The Royal Greenhouses at Wikimedia Commons
• The Royal Greenhouses at Flickr


Calvani by Schuiten.


The Winter Garden dome, photo by Jean-Pol Grandmont.


Photo by Roman Bonnefoy.

Previously on { feuilleton }
Arcades panoramas
The art of François Schuiten
Passage des Panoramas
Passages 2

Les Murailles de Samaris by Schuiten & Peeters


The Obscure World.

Les Murailles de Samaris (1983) by François Schuiten and Benoît Peeters is the first of the stories which explores the world of Les Cités Obscures, a “counter-Earth” on the opposite side of our Sun with a continent of separate city-states, each with their own distinct architectural style. Having discovered these stories first in their French editions it wasn’t immediately apparent how much the Obscure World was supposed to be connected to our own; a number of the books contain references to people or places in our world, while the city of Brüsel, subject of the book of that name, is a kind of parallel Brussels. The counter-Earth explanation isn’t given in the early books but seems to have evolved later, as does Schuiten and Peeters’ introduction of portals between the worlds which imply a two-way leakage of influence. Writer and artist encourage readers of the series to suggest or “discover” new portals to the Obscure World.


A view over Xhystos.

The distant city of Samaris is the mysterious destination of Les Murailles de Samaris (The Walls of Samaris). The story begins in the city of Xhystos whose style is fully Art Nouveau in a manner reminiscent of the celebrated Belgian architect Victor Horta, if Horta had been allowed to design a city where every building is decorated with wrought-iron curves and glass-canopied roofs, and where trams go by on elevated roads several storeys high. The narrator, Franz, is informed by the city authorities that he’s been chosen to go on a perilous mission to discover whether rumours about the nature of Samaris are true or not. Previous explorers have failed to return so Franz’s friends and girlfriend regard his acceptance of the mission as suicidal. What follows is a journey by steam train out of the city into a surrounding zone of lawless ruins, then a journey by “altiplane” and “aerophele”, the latter being a kind of multi-winged sand yacht.

Continue reading “Les Murailles de Samaris by Schuiten & Peeters”