Casino Knokke, a seaside attraction
This modernist multifunctional building was designed in 1923 during the major works in the seaside resort. Many stars have frequented it over the years.
Jozef Nellens and his real estate company Knocke Balnéaire wanted to make Knokke famous. They agreed with the municipality that they would build a real casino. Young Antwerp native Léon Stynen won the public architecture competition. The foundation stone was laid in 1929, and on 5 July 1930 the Knocke-Albertstrand Casino-Kursaal opened.
Initially, it was only open during the four months of the summer season. It was a real commercial success, and also acted as a magnet for the surroundings. Many luxury villas were built in the surrounding dunes and the inhabitants came to relax on the Zegemeer, a lake created from a fresh water source at the bottom of a basin in the dunes further inland. In the afternoon, celebrities such as Ray Ventura could be heard at tea dances, while in the evening, cabaret, ballets, operas, concerts, recitals and poetry enchanted the wealthy guests.
The Second World War was a dark time for this high-society venue. German troops partially occupied the casino, converted the large ballroom into a recreation area for the Wehrmacht, and in 1943 even camouflaged it as a bunker in their Atlantic Wall, the defensive belt built along the Atlantic Ocean. There was even a wooden cannon protruding from the central glass wall of the north facade. The intention was for enemy fire to be reflected by the mirrored walls and deter attackers at sea. The casino suffered greatly from the violent war-time period. After the violence of the war, most of the windows were broken and the facade was in ruins.
Fortunately, better times arrived. Léon Stynen restored the casino and it regained its full splendour with the Summer Festival of 1947. From 1949 onwards, great names from the art world exhibited there every year, including Pablo Picasso, Max Ernst, Salvador Dalí and René Magritte. In 1955, the building was given a touch of modernity with French stone and new windows. The traditional summer opening was then extended to an annual programme, which contributed to its international reputation. It now also hosts prestigious film festivals, receptions, galas and TV shows.
Two visual highlights? The first: the largest chandelier in Europe, made up of 22,000 pieces of 1952 Venetian crystal glass, 8.5 m in diameter, 6.5 m high, 6,000 kg in weight, and with 2,700 lamps. The second: 'The Enchanted Domain', a 72 metre-long panoramic fresco painted in 1953 by René Magritte, designed by the master himself on the spot and created under his direction.
In addition to Belgian artists, an infinite number of foreign artists have performed there, including Edith Piaf, Ella Fitzgerald, Claude François, Patricia Paay, Georges Brassens, Frank Sinatra, Conny Vandenbos, Julio Iglesias, Engelbert Humperdinck, Matt Monro, Nat King Cole, Rob de Nijs, Patachou, Roger Whittaker, Josephine Baker, Charles Aznavour, Udo Jürgens, Liesbeth List, Tony Christie and Tino Rossi.