From the south side of the Grand-Place, the scrubbed and polished Hôtel de Ville (town hall) dominates proceedings, its 96m spire soaring high above two long series of robust windows, whose straight lines are mitigated by fancy tracery and an arcaded gallery. The edifice dates from the beginning of the fifteenth century, when the town council decided to build itself a mansion that adequately reflected its wealth and power. The first part to be completed was the east wing – the original entrance is marked by the twin lions of the Lion Staircase, though the animals were only added in 1770. Work started on the west wing in 1444 and continued until 1480. Despite the gap, the wings are of very similar style, and you have to look hard to notice that the later one is slightly shorter than its neighbour, allegedly at the insistence of Charles the Bold who – for some unknown reason – refused to have the adjacent rue de la Tête d’Or narrowed. The niches were left empty and the statues seen today, which represent leading figures from the city’s past, were added as part of a nineteenth-century refurbishment.
By any standard, the tower of the Hôtel de Ville is quite extraordinary, its remarkably slender appearance the work of Jan van Ruysbroeck, the leading spire specialist of the day, who also played a leading role in the building of the cathedral. Ruysbroeck had the lower section built square to support the weight above, choosing a design that blended seamlessly with the elaborately carved facade on either side – or almost: look carefully and you’ll see that the main entrance is slightly out of kilter. Ruysbroeck used the old belfry porch as the base for the new tower, hence the misalignment, a deliberate decision rather than the miscalculation which, according to popular legend, prompted the architect’s suicide. Above the cornice protrudes an octagonal extension where the basic design of narrow windows flanked by pencil-thin columns and pinnacles is repeated up as far as the pyramid-shaped spire, a delicate affair surmounted by a gilded figure of St Michael, protector of Christians in general and of soldiers in particular. The tower is off-limits, and guided tours in English are confined to a string of lavish official rooms used for receptions and town council meetings. Tours begin at the reception desk off the interior quadrangle; be prepared for the guides’ overly reverential script.