Tournai: Architecture and planning through the ages of a former leading urban centre and current provincial historic city of the Low Countries


  • Peter Martyn Instytut Sztuki PAN



In reference to urban resilience, "l'urbanisme" and post-1945 reconstruction, the objective is to focus on one city from a prominent group in the Low Countries. Having lost their historic primacy (e.g. with respect to Liège, Ghent, Antwerp and Brussels), these cities remain of crucial importance for their exceptional urban-architectural heritage and cultural prominence. One of the first Netherlandish urban communities to acquire municipal autonomy (1211), Tournai had an illustrious past comparable with that of Bruges. The key significance of this “République communale” - representing both the so-called fourth city of France and a leading Flemish economic centre - is reflected in its widely-preserved architectural profile, with many hundreds of listed town houses (12th to 19th centuries).
Tournai’s prolonged decline, after occupation by the English (1513-19) and inclusion within the Seventeen Provinces, provides a microcosm of Belgian history. Having largely converted to Calvinism (“la Genève du Nord”), provoking Spanish religious persecution, many Tournaisiens emigrated northward to the self-proclaimed Dutch Republic. Seized by the armies of Louis XIV (1667) and made seat of the Flemish „Parlement”, Tournai was then occupied by the anti-French Alliance, being incorporated successively into Habsburg Austria, Revolutionary France (1794-1815) and the Dutch Kingdom (1815-1830).
It is apparent that only in a fully independent Belgium was genuine socio-economic recovery possible. Through industrialisation and the country’s remarkably advanced economic infrastructure, it was hoped entrepreneurs would locate their businesses in or around Tournai. A crucial railway junction arose from 1842, linking the city with Mouscron, Liège (via Namur), Brussels and French-administered Lille. Magnificent boulevards radiating from the imposing railway station and replacing the demolished city walls testify to ambitious plans for a populous industrial centre rivalling Liège and Lille. 
Tournai, however, appears to have been unattractively situated between the industrial areas of Belgian Hainaut (1. around Mons; 2. focussed on Charleroi) and burgeoning cross-border textile manufacturing towns of Tourcoing and Roubaix. If in 1846, with a population (including subsequently incorporated village communities) exceeding 65,600 inhabitants, the city had remained one of Belgium’s ten most populous built-up areas, the stagnation thereafter is strikingly revealed in later figures, ranging from 60,690 (1880) to 69,756 (2015), with (significantly) a 1910 peak of 74,921.
Tournai’s modern history, it is conjectured, came to be characterised by a combination of encroaching provincialism and resistance to being overshadowed by a number of agglomerations in the vicinity (Lille-Roubaix-Tourcoing on the French; Mons and Kortrijk on the Belgian side); cf. Delft with regard to Rotterdam-The Hague. Parochialism was reinforced by the city's inclusion in Hainaut, contradicting its historic associations with Flanders. Fortuitously, nonetheless, spared intensive industrialisation, Tournai’s unique historic qualities persisted, despite the ruinous air raid of May 1940 (over 1,700 homes and numerous public or ecclesiastical buildings obliterated, together with one of Belgium's richest municipal archives). A major aspect of the city’s irrepressibility may thus be exemplified in the urban core’s post-war reconstruction. Consideration is also required of how contemporary external forces may be undermining hereto persistent urban institutions and traditions. What does a rich urban heritage currently signify?


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How to Cite

Martyn, P. (2016). Tournai: Architecture and planning through the ages of a former leading urban centre and current provincial historic city of the Low Countries. International Planning History Society Proceedings, 17(3), 433–446.