Citroën Yser: a cathedral of steel and glass

Car factory

In the early 1930s, André Citroën bought a plot of land at Place de l’Yser. It was the ideal site for his new car factory, which was to be the largest garage in Europe for some time. The site benefited from excellent visibility and good accessibility, close to the Canal and the historic centre of Brussels.

In collaboration with the French architect Maurice-Jacques Ravazé, the Belgian architects Alexis Dumont and Marcel Van Goethem designed an enormous complex of 16,500 m², made largely of glass, steel and concrete, which closely reflected the modernist spirit of the time. As well as these materials, characteristics such as openness, transparency, flexibility, horizontality, functionality and light were an important part of the design.

An entire urban block

The complex, which occupies virtually an entire urban block, consists literally of a head and a body: the showroom facing the city and the workshops located by the quays and the Canal. Brand image, people and logistics were central to the concerns of André Citroën and his architects.

Located at the intersection of Place de l’Yser and Quai de Willebroeck, the showroom is a deliberately spectacular 21-metre-high glass palace, characterised by a rounded curtain wall extending from the ground floor to the roof. This curtain wall is structured vertically by oval columns that emphasise the slenderness of this ‘cathedral of space and light’, and finished off by a horizontal course projecting above it.

Originally, the showroom consisted solely of a ground floor with marble flooring, a curved ceiling and indirect electric lighting. Light was regarded as having an important role to play in promoting the brand and contributing to the building’s iconic qualities. During the Second World War, the building was occupied first by the German army and then by British troops. It subsequently returned to its original use, and additional floors were added to increase the floor space available for the garage business.

Expertise and technicality

At the heart of the building, the gigantic workshop hall originally housed all operations: offices, assembly, repairs, a petrol station and storage. Cars were manufactured on site and passed directly into the showroom for display.

While the showroom drew attention to the finished product, the workshops focused on productivity and the production process. The architecture emphasised the importance of daylight to the workers’ activities, and its execution conveyed an image of expertise and technicality.

The most striking element is the ingenious roof resting on metal lattice columns via a number of elegant riveted beams. It features glazed panels which provide overhead natural lighting in the workshops as well as a curtain wall glazed from floor to ceiling and running round the entire perimeter of the building.

Ahead of his time

The site has four (main) entrances situated on the north-south axis and the east-west axis. In the workshops, the north-south axis is accentuated by a taller row of lattice columns perpendicular to the other spans. This creates a link with the showroom. From contemporary drawings and photos, it can be deduced that this linking element was fitted with a glazed panel of impressive size. On the same axis lies the southern access, leading to Place de l’Yser. In the building’s original design, there was thus an unimpeded view from the showroom to the workshops and vice versa.

The east-west axis was a secondary axis, and its access points are characterised by the deflection of the façades inwards towards the doors. An ‘inner street’ links Quai de Willebroek with the Canal. Transparency is optimised and visual interaction with the water is a reality.

André Citroën was ahead of his time, not just in the typology of the building he wanted, but also in its method and speed of construction. All the latticework was prefabricated, enabling the metallic structure to be erected like a tower of cards in just three weeks. The story goes that the installation of the curtain wall and the interior fittings were completed during the following three weeks…