Casino Royale: Stynen’s unrealised sculpture garden

By Emerald Liu

The city council of the seaside town Oostende organised a competition for its new casino-kursaal in 1945. A design by Antwerp architect Léon Stynen was chosen as the winner the following year. Not entirely surprising, given that he was considered a prominent name by that time in his career and had previously designed casinos for Knokke, Chaudfontaine, and Blankenberge.

Stynen is considered one of Belgium’s most influential architects, his career spanning from the early 1920s till the late 1970s, leaving behind a varied body of work. During this time he was not only active as an architect but also as an urbanist, designer and lecturer. After receiving his education in the beaux-arts traditions at the Antwerp Academy, he won a competition to design a war monument in the coastal town of Knokke at the age of twenty-three. The following years were dedicated to designing houses and apartments in the Art Deco style, in keeping with his traditional background.

It was not until 1925 when he would reach an architectural epiphany while visiting the Exposition internationale des arts décoratifs et industriels modernes in Paris, alongside his friend René Guiette. There he discovered the work of Perret, Mallet-Stevens and Le Corbusier, which led Stynen to immerse himself in the ideas and idioms of the avant-garde. Examples of this transitional period towards modernism can be seen in the Verstrepen Residence (1927) and the Knokke Casino (1928). For the latter he revised his original monumental design for a more modern approach favouring transparency, pure lines and spatiality – the presence of symmetry still underscoring his roots in the beaux-arts style training.

From the 1930s onwards Stynen was very much in demand for private buildings as well as cultural institutions, such as the Ostend casino-kursaal. The modernist Ostend casino, with its semi-circular glass wall, offers splendid views of the promenade and the North Sea, creating a sense of openness and interaction between the exterior and interior. Had the architect been given a complete carte blanche, the proposal would have included a circular floorplan with central stage and rooftop sculpture garden. The collaboration with artists such as painter Paul Delvaux and sculptor Oscar Jespers luckily did receive the council’s seal of approval and came to fruition. The choice of Portland stone – used in major public buildings such as St. Paul’s cathedral in London or the United Nations headquarters in NYC – compliments the coastal casino and cultivates an evocative atmosphere. The limestone formed in a marine environment becomes a perfect canvas for the sky’s reflection, its porous patterns decorating the building’s façade. With his work, Stynen tried to achieve a harmony between landscape and building, engaging the environment within the architecture.

Léon Stynen, Sketch for a rooftop sculpture garden, Ostend Casino. Collection Flanders Architecture Institute – Collection Flemish Community, archive of Leon Stynen.

In his 1945 draft for the Ostend casino, Stynen – who was the son of a sculptor – proposed a rooftop sculpture garden. It was designed to enhance coincidental social interactions; one of his hallmarks was to create spaces in which circulation becomes an experience rather than an activity resulting from happenstance. Circulation spaces become staying spaces, their design germinates social interactions that lend themselves to lingering. This effect is especially reflected in the first sketch, where the fluid outlines of the visitors mimic those of the sculptures. The layout of the unmaterialised garden steers the gaze towards a monumental sculpture piece at the end and draws the eye beyond towards the horizon.

Léon Stynen, Painting for a rooftop sculpture garden, Ostend Casino. Collection Flanders Architecture Institute – Collection Flemish Community, archive of Leon Stynen

His sketches relay a sense of surrealism and dualism. The feeling of containment against the backdrop of an endless sky. An interesting dialectic results from the curious pairing of the chaotic antics a casino offers, and a space provided for contemplation. With Stynen’s attention to detail, he invites the visitor into a different realm, a different universe. His unrealised rooftop garden is a representation of that, leading the visitor to transition from the hubbub of the kursaal to the peaceful contemplation area of outdoor sculptures.