Architectural Icon: the windows of Esch
Much of the centre of Esch-sur-Alzette was built at the turn of the 20th century, and a street plan was actually put in place by the famous German urbanist, Joseph Stüben, for new districts, and to embellish the city centre.
The great merchants who made money from, or traded to the workers in the steel and iron industry of the area, often put their own stamp on their homes, telling a story of their ancestry or their beliefs.
You can stroll down the streets of Esch and marvel at the wonderful windows – many adorned and embellished or incorporating trefoil (clover-shaped) windows, wrought iron balconies and marvellous statues of Mercury – the Roman god of commerce and industry, with his winged cap and sandals.
Styles of architecture and symbolism
Often you may find different styles of architecture on the façades of buildings on the same street in Esch. Historicism, recalls the neo-gothic and neo-baroque styles very much in fashion from the 1850s to the 1920s.
Then came Art Deco, contrasting with the former aggrandised building facades by using clean and bold geometrical lines and shapes, and large rectangular windows.
Across both eras until the end of the 20th century, the city’s architecture also celebrates the Art Nouveau style with foliage and natural curvy lines.
Much of the carved or enamel artwork on Esch’s brick and stone buildings had great symbolism. Wealth was denoted with garlands, scrolls, shells and the horn of plenty. Fertility was evoked through fruits, flowers, foliage and fish, shells and even a goat. Strength – a popular theme amongst steel merchants, included lions, bears, palm leaves and heraldic scrolls.
A little history on Esch-sur-Alzette…
Esch was granted the title of city in 1287 by Henry IV, Count of Luxembourg, and in 1311 it was surrounded by a wall, which was finally dismantled in 1671 when it also lost city status. In 1838 iron ore was discovered in the surrounding region, and the town grew from a population of just over 1,000 to one of 30,000 by 1930.
In 1906 Esch regained its official city status and the wonderful Art Nouveau and Art Deco houses on display today were mostly built over the next few years and decades.
The street with the greatest number of facades with elegant windows is the pedestrianised Rue d’Alzette, now a shopping area. If you’re walking through Esch’s centre, start at the town hall which was built in the 1930s by Isidore Engler, architect to the city and responsible also for designing the hospital, renovating the slaughterhouse (now Kulturfabrik) in the 1920s, and for the public baths.
Engler used several local sculptors to adorn this public building, and in the middle of the town hall, you can see the crest of Esch carried by a miner on the left and a steelworker on the right. Bas reliefs between the windows on the first and second floors represent industry, science, sports, education, architecture, electricity, agriculture, mine work and gardening, as well as social care and metallurgy. The building also has huge stained glass windows which front the internal staircase.
Nearby the old Sichel store was built between 1909 and 1924. The façade is decorated with fruit garlands, and shows a miner with his pick and a smithy in his forge. It’s also adorned by Mercury, and above the entrance are two bees, symbols of hard work and endurance.
Heading now to the Rue d’Alzette, there are two great Art Nouveau buildings. The first, an apartment block at No 4, is done in the “Nancy” style, displaying peacocks on both sides of the second floor balcony together with motifs of sunflowers and chestnut leaves.
At No 55, the picture window is decorated with bas reliefs inspired by nature. The house belonged to a shoemaker and a chemist and you can see a young girl tying her sandals on the left and a young man next to a snake. The staff with snake belonged to the Roman god of medicine, Aesculapius.
At No 61 the enamelled brick façade mixed with carved stone reflects the light. The Art Nouveau decorations are again inspired by nature and include a rose window which appears to the eye to be covered with plants.
Neo-gothic architecture is used for No 65 and No 67. At the former, the apartment block has yellow brick and the first floor windows are decorated by clover trefoil windows, and ornamental streamers and crests. The latter has a white brick façade and the windows, once again, deploy clover trefoils.
No 90 is a red brick corner house built in 1915 by builder Chilot, and incorporates both gothic and renaissance finishes. The door is capped by the head of Mercury, and the balcony by torches , whilst the façade on the Rue de X Septembre has windows decorated with masks of human faces. Back to Art Nouveau once more, no 96 has a large window flanked by two female heads with long flowing hair, who hold up the first floor iron balcony.
Three apartments share the same façade (No 199-123) with a balcony held up by owls, who represent wisdom. The entrance has a fantasy creature with horns leaning on a basket balcony and under the window of the second floor there is another creature with two fish in its mouth. Between the second and third floors is a goat surrounded by garlands.
Rue Zénon Bernard
Continue your architectural tour on Rue Zénon Bernard. The youth centre at No 65 was originally built in 1907, in, you guessed it, Art Nouveau style.
Formerly the residence of architect Olivio Moise, it has so much detail you need a few moments to take it all in. There is the head of Zeus surrounded by oak leaves, two arch windows, and to the left, windows with beautiful wrought iron balconies. The arch windows are adorned by horns of plenty, whilst the iron gate conjures up the image of a flower festooned with horse chestnut casings. The building almost seems alive. Olivio had originally installed busts of Mercury, Venus and Dante as a reminder that humans should not try to rival the gods, but these were unfortunately stolen when the house was unoccupied.
Finally at No 14, the corner house has a balcony decorated with flowers, squirrels and ducks and another stylised with a gazelle and flower motifs. As with so many houses and apartments in Esch, the architects invite you to look upwards to the top floors (this building is four storeys high).
If you have more time, you can check out the Art Deco gates of the town library on Rue Emile Mayrisch, which was also the house of another architect, Christian Scholl. The boy’s grammar school, was designed to illustrate the prosperity the students of the school would achieve in their later professional life. The central window on the second floor is decorated with Mercury’s head.
You can take a self-guided walking tour of the great facades, windows, and architecture of Esch-sur-Alzette, using this brochure, also available at the tourist office in English, German, French and Dutch.
Esch-sur-Alzette is European Capital of Culture in 2022 and is hosting numerous events, concerts, plays, exhibitions and festivals. You can find out more here.