1 A chanson des vieux amants? Belgium and the world's fairs dr ...

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A chanson des vieux amants? Belgium and the world's fairs dr. Rika Devos. Department of Architecture & Urban Planning, Ghent University. St.-Lucas ...

A chanson des vieux amants? Belgium and the world’s fairs dr. Rika Devos Department of Architecture & Urban Planning, Ghent University St.-Lucas, Department of Architecture, Wenk World’s fair architecture: a setting for discussion World’s fairs would have lost their meaning in today’s mediatised global village: in 2010, this is old news, as world’s fairs, by their very existence, continue to deliver proof of the will to show, to (re)consider, nothing less than the world. Printed press, live satellite television, Internet, YouTube and Skype, multinational corporations, free travel, changed concepts of the nation and international relations, Europe without borders: all these eye and mind openers have not, as was suggested by many in the 1990ies, drained the sense and purpose from world’s fairs. Ever since the first post-war world’s fair – Expo 58, held in Brussels – organisers have publically questioned the use of their events, as from the 1950s onwards, evolutions in science, (tele)communications and transportation theoretically made the world accessible to all. But world’s fairs offer a specific view of the world, bound by place, time and the exhibition’s theme, which give order and sense to the gathering. Indeed, one of the criteria used by the BIE1 to grant a city the right to organise a world’s fair is the choice and elaboration of a relevant theme. Such a theme – in case of Shanghai 2010 ‘Better City, Better Life’ – has to set the goals for the fair, give sense to the efforts of the participants, provide an opportunity to differentiate from others and unite all in a conceptual way. Organizing or participating in world’s fairs is about making choices, taking stances, speaking publically about the theme and, in doing so, shaping a specific voice or authentic identity: hence today’s potential significance of world’s fairs. At world’s fairs, the choices made and stances taken are expressed essentially in architecture. These positions are steered by the representation of progress. It was Italian writer and semiotician Umberto Eco, who, after his visit to the Montreal 1967 fair, pointed at this binding concept of progress – projecting the future – as essential to the history of world’s fairs.2 Moreover, this history reflects the constancies and radical changes in our concepts of progress and its representations. Another aspect Eco forwarded in his lucid analyses, albeit implicitly, is that projecting the future – with utopian or realistic aims – is an essentially architectural occupation at world’s fairs. The general language at a world’s fair is a language of images: images determined by BIE: the Bureau International des Expositions, founded in 1928, is the intergovernmental organization in charge of overseeing the calendar, the bidding, the selection, and the organization of international exhibitions and world’s fairs. 2 Umberto Eco, “A theory of exhibitions,” Faith in Fakes. Travels in Hyperreality (London: Vintage, 1998), 293. 1


the architectural settings of the site, by a single pavilion or by a specific exhibition feature. World’s fairs are fabrications, motivated by a specific theme, shaped by designers, commissioners and organisers who all attach specific meanings and messages to these images of architecture. (image: Shanghai 2010) The Belgian presence at world’s fair has a long, rich and challenging history. The sequence of pavilions and universal exhibitions erected for the representation of Belgium from 1851 onwards displays recurrent questions and reflexes, but also changing ways to link the Belgian voice with architectural commissions. The challenge to represent the Belgian nation has been met over and over again, shaped according to the formats of the era. Belgium, although among the smallest of nations, has always been an important player in the evolution of world’s fairs and the way the nation was and is represented at world’s fairs is telling for the shifts and constancies in the functioning of great exhibitions and for the appreciation of the changing role of architecture in this process. The early world’s fairs: Belgium as an important part of a rational, harmonic world As a young nation, Belgium was an eager and noted participant at every major world’s fair in the nineteenth century, and this since the very first world’s fair: the 1851 Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations in Hyde Park, London. The Belgian representation is documented as an important one in the 1851 Crystal Palace, but few details are known. By participating in this universal exhibition, Belgium not only placed itself among the important European nations, but also inscribed, spatially and conceptually, in the general order that was designed to demonstrate the world to the fairgoers in an intelligible manner. Architecture was an important tool to shape and represent this rational order. The fair assembled its participants in the Crystal Palace, designed by Joseph Paxton and built for the occasion. The palace delivered the prototype for the architectural setting of most early fairs. The Crystal Palace, a technically vanguard glass and steel structure based on a technology for the construction of greenhouses, covered 7,6 hectares and housed the majority of the exhibits stemming from 27 nations and their colonies. The typology of the Crystal Palace physically united and (re)organised the world in one comprehensive building and enabled direct comparison between the artefacts and tools of the participating nations. These exhibits, chosen by the participants as representative of their latest accomplishments and knowledge, displayed the state of affairs for each nation, but also, in sum, for the world. This world was structured encyclopaedically, arranged following distinct sections and classes. Hence what is really at stake in the organisation of a world’s fair, apart from the diplomatic, political, social and economic steps to be undertaken, is the representation of the 2

world in spatial, architectural terms. The Crystal Palace also demonstrates the potential of universal exhibitions to raise discussion on the formal and spatial appearance of the architecture deemed appropriate to house and represent progress. John Ruskin and Augustus W.N. Pugin, for instance, strongly opposed the ‘unfit algebra’ of Paxton’s Palace.3 It was deemed too bold and unsuitable for its noble task. In the nineteenth century, Belgium organised four great exhibitions on its own territory: in Antwerp (1885 and 1894) and in Brussels (1888 and 1897). These international exhibitions were preceded by a monumental national fair, held in Brussels 1880 to celebrate Belgium’s fiftieth anniversary, for which the Cinquantenaire or Jubelpark was equipped with an eclectic, monumental complex designed by the city architect of Brussels, Gédéon Bordiau (1832-1904). For the Antwerp fair of 1885, located in the new city district in the southern part of town, again Bordiau designed the Hall of Machinery and the Hall of Decorative Arts. The latter had a stupendous triumphal arch as entrance gate, designed by Jean-Laurent Hasse (1849-1919). (image Antwerp 1885) Next to the palaces, the site was equipped with a jardin à l’anglaise where the freestanding follies and ‘exotic’ pavilions of the European colonies were located.4 While few traces of the 1885 fair remain today, parts were recuperated for the Antwerp 1894 exhibition, designed mainly by Hasse. Once more, a scenic park and a monumental hall dominated the plan of the fair. In addition, 120 pavilions were erected in the garden and grouped into specific quarters, planned by Joseph Maton. Yet the most popular area of the site was Old Antwerp, a homogenised wood and plaster, precise reconstruction of an historic Antwerp urban quarter. In between the two Antwerp world’s fairs, Brussels had organised its first international exhibition in 1888, once more with Bordiau as architect-in-chief. The location of the Cinquantenaire was reused and enlarged. The Cinquantenaire served as a venue once more for the 1897 Exposition internationale de Bruxelles. This exhibition additionally covered 96 hectares in the Tervueren Park, where the colonial exhibition, including an inhabited native village, was installed. The panoramic Tervueren Avenue connected the Cinquantenaire with the Palace of Colonies, built in a Louis XVI-style by the architect Ernest Acker (1852-1912). In the interior of the palace, renowned architects like Paul Hankar, Henry van de Velde or Gustave Serrurier-Bovy designed the colonial exhibition stands. Through their designs, the 1897 exhibition not only introduced the colony to the public, but also established the emerging art nouveau.

Wolfgang Friebe, Buildings of the World Exhibitions (Leipzig: Edition Leipzig, 1985), 21. Piet Lombaerde, “Architecture of exhibitions and urban development in Antwerp,” in De panoramische droom. Antwerpen en de wereldtentoonstellingen. The panoramic dream. Antwerp and the World Exhibition. 1885. 1894. 1930, ed. Mandy Nauwelaerts and others (Antwerp, 1993), 95-97.

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The Belgian fairs demonstrate the evolution in the settings of the fairs, which became more and more complex and fragmented. From a single hall with some ephemeral structures for entertainment in its margins, world’s fair sites developed into complex locations, with several thematic international palaces for the arts or for machinery, completed with follies and other, small freestanding structures and pavilions. This splintering or spatial chaos appears to be inherent to the attempts to rationalise the world and to control the fair and its public. World’s fairs demonstrate the impossibility to render the world fully intelligible and organised, on the physical, but also on the organisational, economic or political level. The diversity and size of the display appeal to the imagination of fairgoers. As philosopher Lieven De Cauter has explained in his seminal text, the experiences of large quantities – of exhibits, of nations, of identities, of fairgoers – eventually led to “the collapse of a whole system of representation”, which gave rise to an entire new series of frightening and exciting experiences.5 De Cauter speaks of the “panoramic ecstasy,” the thrill triggered by the experience of unintelligible vastness. The experience of the categorised world easily slips into an experience of dazzling chaos. This experience is also an architectural one. Architects of world’s fairs have often developed tools to enable visitors to get a better or more rewarding overview over the exhibition sites: like panoramic viewpoints and towers, small trains and boat tours or the travelling walkways in the nave of the 1889 Galerie des Machines, which offered fairgoers a privileged summary of the highlights of the exhibition. These vantage viewing points were tools to control the ‘gaze’ of fairgoers. Still today, but even at the early exhibitions, “the content of World’s Fairs always threatened to spill over and to subvert the intentions of their sponsors.”6 Grand exhibitions are not only places and moments to establish social or political order;7 they are also occasions to contest this order publically. In this sense, the vantage viewing points have a function similar to official publications on world’s fairs. They frame, limit and suggest an interpretation. In the case of the organisers, several idealist discourses can be discerned: peace amongst nations, education (especially of the masses) and the celebration and promotion of overall progress. Yet a fourth goal is equally important: fostering international trade. Commercialism is an important force in the spectacle of world’s fairs, even when this perspective is most often ignored or criticised in architectural publications.

Lieven De Cauter, “The Panoramic Ecstasy: On World Exhibitions and the Disintegration of Experience,” in The panoramic dream, 49. 6 Robert W. Rydell, John E. Findling and Kimberly D. Pelle, Fair America. World’s Fairs in the United States (Washington/London: Smithsonian Institution Press, 2000), 9. 7 Paul Greenhalgh, Ephemeral vistas, the Expositions Universelles, Great Exhibitions and World’s Fairs, 1851-1939 (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1988), 18. 5


Industrialisation, identity, heritage, modernisation and the battle of the styles A quick glance at the oldest Belgian world’s fairs suggests that there’s more to world’s fairs than ordering the world in an attempt to educate visitors. It is also, as in the case of Antwerp, an initiative to bring cities to national and international attention: to develop new city quarters and to boost local industries. In the case of the Belgian capital, Brussels, not only the city, but especially the nation, with its colony and King, was celebrated. In this rationale, the acclaimed success of the world’s fair was presented as a binding, national achievement. The participation of a nation in a world’s fair soon acquired a double focus: national production was represented and displayed for international comparison in thematic palaces, but nations also constructed free-standing pavilions as a coherent national ‘face’. The pavilions summarised the achievements, made them part of a unifying narrative and testified to a specific national identity. The expression of a national identity through architecture is a treacherous task for architects, but also a tempting one. Belgium’s first freestanding national pavilion was designed by Emile Janlet (1839-1874) for the 1878 Paris world’s fair. The pavilion illustrates the contemporary practice of explicitly linking the representation of national identity to an substantiated choice for a specific architectural style. Janlet’s pavilion was erected in Flemish neo-renaissance style, a new, dominant idiom in the search of a true Belgian, national style – not Dutch, nor German and certainly not French. Janlet was a pupil of Henri Beyaert (1823-1894), whose Flemish House for the National Bank building (1874) in the centre of Brussels had acquired national recognition for its ‘new’ Belgian formal language. Claims to a national style, thus, were founded mainly on the (art) history of the region.8 Janlet’s stylistic development of the pavilion’s façade – 60 m long, 20 m high and designed to impress – was inspired by the Antwerp city hall. Moreover, the pavilion was an international proclamation that a true Belgian architectural heritage existed, of an ‘authentic autochthon style,’ realised with local materials and, in its own era, influential across Europe, but still with potential for future development.9 Reference to local historical styles was even more explicit in the Belgian pavilion for the 1900 Paris fair by Acker and Gustave Maukels (1856-1933), who made explicit references to the city hall of Oudenaarde, one of the icons of late Gothic building in Brabant. In the context of world’s fairs, the interest in a historically rooted national style is related to a growing awareness and (re)construction of a national history and built heritage. From the Antwerp fair of 1894 up until Expo 58, world’s fairs also showcased idealised historical city In particular the work of Hans Vredeman de Vries (1526-1609), whose oeuvre was ‘rediscovered’ in the second half of the nineteenth century. 9 La Belgique à l’Exposition Universelle de 1878 (Brussels, 1878), 237-268 as quoted in Linda Van Santvoort, Brussels architecture in the last quarter of the 19th century – the search for national Identity linked to the desire of architectural innovation (unpublished conference paper, 2006). 8


quarters made of wood and plaster, which were demonstrations of national heritage and centres for entertainment with explicit economic and touristic goals. The copies of old city quarters proved to be a great success: even fairs abroad, especially the American ones, had their divertissement quarters shaped as Old Belgiums, often relying on the expertise of Belgian architects. Yet, as historian Pieter Uyttenhove pointed out, there might be another argument for their success, as these historicizing quarters were also experienced by fairgoers as a kind of “sentimental compensation for modernity.”10 With Janlet, Acker and Maukels, the Belgian government had opted for an architectural statement on national identity stressing its independence on the basis of style and materials, rooted in local art history. This discourse was not instigated by the world’s fair, but was part of these architects’ daily practice, as they were engaged for important commissions by the Belgian royalty and government. It is also within the same group of Brussels-based architects that an expertise in building world’s fair pavilions and palaces was fostered. Maukels, for instance, collaborated with Bordiau in the Cinquantenaire exhibition and the Antwerp exhibition of 1885 and participated in the fair of 1894. Acker not only realised the 1897 Palace of Colonies at Tervueren11 but was also the architect-in-chief of the Brussels world’s fair of 1910. The Exposition universelle et internationale de Bruxelles 1910 took place on the plains of Solbosch. Its fine arts section was situated at the Cinquantenaire and the colonial section at the Tervueren site.12 At Solbosch, Acker designed the Palace of Belgium in a beaux-arts style along with several other pavilions. With Louis Van der Swaelmen (1883-1929) he prepared the overall layout of this exhibition site. Most pavilions here had metallic structures and were decorated in an eclectic or neoclassical style – no art nouveau. Recently, the abandonment of art nouveau at the 1910 exhibition was evaluated as programmatic, “a refusal of modernity,”13 illustrated by the government’s choice for an academic architect like Acker – instead of a personality like Victor Horta (1861-1947). Notwithstanding the role of world’s fairs and pavilions as projects of nation building and demonstrations of national identity and success, Belgian world’s fairs continued to play an important role in the promotion of cities. In 1905, the Liège fair was stimulated primarily by local private and commercial sponsors in an attempt to boost the local economy. In addition, the exhibition was motivated by the celebration of the 75th anniversary of the nation.14 Hasse, Pieter Uyttenhove, “The ruin and the party: The modernity of Old Antwerp and Old Belgium,” in The panoramic dream, 257. 11 This pavilion was replaced by Charles Girault’s Congo Museum in 1910 12 King Leopold II took up the patronage of the exhibition. 13 Serge Jaumain and Wanda Balcers, eds., Bruxelles 1910: de l’exposition universelle à l’Université, under the direction of Serge Jaumain and Wanda Balcers (Brussels: Dexia, 2010), 107. 14 Philippe Raxhon, “L’Exposition universelle et l’anniversaire de la Belgique: utile coincidence,” in Liège et l’Exposition universelle de 1905, ed. Christine Renardy (Brussels: La Renaissance du Livre/Dexia, 2005). 10


Charles Soubre and urban planner Van der Swaelmen acted as the main designers for the Exposition universelle et internationale de Liège. The architecture of the pavilions at Liège was largely historicizing and mixed neo-classical elements with exotic influences or eclectic motives. The subsequent Belgian fairs demonstrated the first traces of modernism in architecture. If Peter Behrens’ contribution at the Brussels 1910 exhibition could easily be missed in the eclectic German pavilion, this was no longer the case at the 1913 Exposition universelle et internationale de Gand 1913 or Wereldtentoonstelling Gent 1913. Here, Behrens’ German pavilion expressly testified to new currents, using progressive construction techniques, denouncing decoration and promoting rational design. This approach was in contrast to the contemporary so-called ‘French taste’. Both idioms were evaluated as ‘modern’ by the Belgian architectural press, but opinions were divided between German or French adherence. The French style dominated most pavilions at the 1913 fair, including the central palaces by head architect Oscar Van de Voorde and inspired by the success of the 1893 Chicago White City.15 Van de Voorde designed a monumental, uniform beaux arts-ensemble, adorned with pompous plasterwork facades and arranged according to an axial layout, parts of which were attributed to different participants. (image 1913 Ghent) In addition, the plea for a true, rural and Flemish style, influenced by new currents in Germany, but also Great Britain, was heard also at the Ghent fair. An important argument on national identity was developed in the Modern Village, a model village equipped with new comforts like gas lighting, a sewerage system or a tramway. The choice for a more or less rural setting was well motivated, because the countryside was considered a place with a greater distinct identity than the city. Just before the Great War, the future image of Belgium was captured between the French bon goût and the German Landartstil. Belgian interwar representations and the confrontation with modernism The first world’s fair after the Great War was a specialised exhibition, of considerable significance to the history of modern architecture: the 1925 Paris Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes. It is this event that later lend its name the art deco style, a dominant idiom at this fair, which also determined the intriguing Belgian pavilion by Victor Horta. (image 1925 Paris) His pavilion was contemporary to his monumental Brussels Palace of Fine Arts16 – also a national commission– a building which demonstrates “the discrepancy and the syncretism

15 Joris Nauwelaerts, Moderne architectuur op de wereldtentoonstellingen van Brussel 1910 en Gent 1913 (unpublished MA thesis, Ghent, Ghent University, 2003). 16 The Palace of Fine Arts was designed before the Great War but only finished in 1929.


of the modernist, classicist and exotic elements that mark art deco”17 in a building that had to enable Brussels to compete with Paris. In this pavilion, Belgium demonstrated the contemporary work of its most renowned decorators and products by firms like crystal by Val Saint Lambert, silverwork by Wolfers or furniture and interior fittings by De Coene.18 Importantly, with respect to the representation of national identity, the discourse on style had changed. A smart interpretation of national heritage no longer sufficed to deliver proof of the progressive selfawareness of the nation. It was implied that a nation that wanted to testify to its progressivity, was bound not only to look towards, but also to look like the future. Yet the art deco style put forward by the fair organisers – including their plea for a union of architecture and the decorative arts – was criticised by many. Not only because it attempted to unite a broad variety of often contradictory architectural concepts, but it also was deemed ‘not modern enough’ because of its beaux arts references and stress on decoration. In this period, the battle of the styles also shifted: heroic modernists, professing a tabula rasa for architectural heritage, openly challenged academic tradition. World’s fairs became public arenas for this battle. At the Paris fair of 1925, Le Corbusier erected his Pavillon de l’Esprit nouveau not only to promote his own concepts on modern architecture, but also as a polemic stance against the aesthetic and social concepts of the organisers of the fair. Five years later, Belgium prepared to celebrate the centenary of the nation. The 1930 anniversary was staged with a specialist exhibition in two locations: Antwerp and Liège.19 Both sites demonstrated the architectural culture of the period with a fairytale-like mixture of eclecticism, academic monumentality, art deco and a variety of modern buildings. Emiel Van Averbeke, the architect of the city of Antwerp, drew the layout of the Antwerp exhibition. Jos Smolderen, appointed architect-in-chief, designed a City of White Palaces, sited in a streetscape intensively filled with focal points – fountains, sculptures, ponds – and abundant lighting. Five years later, the Exposition universelle et internationale de Bruxelles, 1935 celebrated the centenary of the first Belgian (and continental) railroad and the fiftieth anniversary of the Belgian colony.20 (image 1935 Brussels) Joseph Van Neck (1880-1959) was engaged to draw the new layout for the terrain. Assisted by his pupils Robert Puttemans, Charles Malcause and Prudent Laenen, Van Neck also designed the five art deco Heysel palaces. The central hall of this complex had an Steven Jacobs “Het paleis voor Schone Kunsten van Victor Horta,” in Anne Hustache, Steven Jacobs and Frans Boenders, Victor Horta. Het Palies voor Schone Kunsten van Brussel (Brussels: Gemeentekrediet, 1996), 32 and 42. 18 Werner Adriaenssens, “Art deco. Evolutie en beïnvloeding van de interieurkunsten in België na het uitdoven van de art nouveau tot de tentoonstelling van 1925,” in Art nouveau & design. Sierkunst van 1830 tot Expo 58, ed. Claire Leblanc (Tielt: Lannoo, 2005), 116-118. 19 Dirk Laureys and Serge Migom, Van sprookjestuin tot modelstad. Antwerpen 1930 en de tentoonstellingswijk (Antwerp: Dienst Cultureel Erfgoed, 2005). 20 King Leopold III and Queen Astrid took up the patronage of the event. 17


impressive structure with three-hinged reinforced concrete arches, developed by the engineer Louis Baes. Van Neck drew most of the monumental gates and fountains, as well as several monumental axes of the Heysel plateau. The architecture at Brussels 1935 displayed a mixture of art deco, monumental classicism and modernism, testifying to a close collaboration between architects, sculptors, painters and artists. Notwithstanding its peace-driven ideals, the rising nationalism and lasting economic recession cast a shadow over the event. But the international tensions were most present at the 1939 Liège specialist exhibition,21 which set out to celebrate the completion of the Albert Canal. The Exposition internationale de la technique de l’eau was received as a modernist statement. The organisers had invited the progressive group of l’Equerre22 to design the general layout of the exhibition, which contacted Le Corbusier on the general planning of the exhibition.23 Although his proposal was never realised, architect-in-chief Ivon Falise managed to introduce Le Corbusier’s idea of a standard module, mainly in the thematic and Belgian pavilions. In the thirties, Belgium participated in two world’s fairs abroad. The main architect, at both the 1937 Paris exhibition and the 1939 New York fair, was Henry van de Velde (18631957). Already in 1922, Van de Velde was put forward as commissioner-general for the 1925 Paris fair, because of his increasing reputation in architecture and the decorative arts. Yet due to his long stay in Germany, he was deemed unfit to represent Belgium, “especially in France”.24 In 1926, Van de Velde returned to Belgium and became director of the ISAD, the Institut supérieur des Arts décoratifs, which then promoted itself as a school in favour of modernism. With Jean-Jules Eggericx and Raphaël Verwilghen, Van de Velde designed the Belgian pavilion at the 1937 Paris Exposition internationale des arts et des techniques dans la vie moderne, sited at a prominent place for the building: on the border of the Seine, along the main axis and next to the Eiffel tower. (image 1937 Paris) Van de Velde was determined to make a statement and to demonstrate the progress made during ‘his’ ten years at ISAD. The pavilion was received as a successful synthesis of the contradictory tendencies at that time. Notwithstanding its ‘modern classicism,’ it was not marked by the retour à l’ordre that dominated the architectural confrontation between national socialist Germany (by Albert Speer) and Stalinist Russia (by Boris Iofan). Neither did it adopt the critical and avant-garde modernist language of Le Corbusier’s Pavillon des Temps modernes or Lluís Sert’s The Liège 1939 fair had to close its gates prematurely because of the outbreak of World War II, see: Viviane Lejeune and Marc Moisse. L’Exposition de l'Eau. Liège – 1939, (Andenne: Editions du Molinay, 1999). 22 The group L’Equerre consisted of Ivon Falize, Roland Evrard, Paul Fitschy, Edgard Klutz, Emile Parent and Albert Thibaux. 23 Le Corbusier’s projects were not executed, see: Xavier Folville, “Liège, 1939: Le Corbusier, le groupe L’Equerre et l’Exposition de l’eau” and Claude Baiwir, “Liège 1939: d’un pavillon d’exposition à l’autre,” Le Corbusier & la Belgique (Brussels: CFC editions, 1997). 24 Adriaenssens, “Art deco,” 115. 21


Spanish pavilion with its famous display of Picasso’s Guernica. Van de Velde was able to repeat his success two years later, at the New York world’s fair of 1939-40. Much more than the discussions on national style, internationalism and modern architecture, the New York fair demonstrated the rise of the economic interest of great exhibitions. While world’s fairs had been aiming more and more at the general public and less exclusively at the upper classes, it was the New York fair that deliberately addressed the lower middle class for the first time. Moreover, the New York fair also demonstrated the rising appreciation of modern imageries – especially the socalled streamline style – in commercial circles. Van de Velde designed the Belgian pavilion, in collaboration with Léon Stynen and Victor Bourgeois,25 as a prefabricated building, again with a façade marked by large glass surfaces and terracotta cladding. Although the architecture of the 1939 fair was often criticised for its commercial, fun-fair-like imagery, clearly, the majority of the pavilions had moved away from academic architecture. Challenges of representing Belgium – modern architecture as a medium After over a hundred years of presence in world’s fairs, Belgium claimed the organization of the first post-war world’s fair. The organisers motivated their demand with the nation’s longstanding know-how in organizing world’s fairs and with the so-called Belgian Miracle of 1947: Belgium was the first European nation to reach the level of pre-war industrial production again. Yet Expo 58 also served nation building goals: in an era marked by social and political conflict,26 a common, national success with a strong presence of the young Baudouin I would not only reinforce the King’s popularity, but also restore social coherence. In addition, Expo 58 was used as a deadline to speed up the modernisation of the nation’s infrastructure and as a moment to publically air the nation’s ambitions to play a central role in the new Europe. The organisers of Expo 58 were aware of the need to rethink the fair after the tragedy of World War II. Hence, they introduced a theme that nuanced the belief in progress: ‘Balance sheet for a more human world’. Participants were invited to show their exhibits as illustrations of the advent of a new humanism: the latest techniques and scientific knowledge put into service of Man. In an era of increasing means of transportation and communication, world’s fairs were still useful if they could instigate discussion over a common theme, if they could give sense and coherence to the world. Coherence and unification – of Europe, but also of the world – were key words in the organization of Expo 58. Coherence was also a lingering theme in the design of the exhibition site. Architect-in-chief Paul Bonduelle (1877-1955), who had already supervised the Belgian The pavilion was donated to the Virginia Union University by the Belgian government. The Virginia Union University recently started a campaign to raise attention and funds for the restoration of the building. 26 Problems like: the repression of collaboration, the School Funding Controversy and the Royal Question. 25


Section in 1935, drew the plans for the enlarged Heysel site.27 The Belgian Section, under architect-in-chief Hendrickx van den Bosch, was conceived as “a representative oeuvre of our national unity, symbolised by what we call a ‘collective rhythm’.”28 (image Brussels 1958) This steered approach and its result led to severe criticism.29 The Belgian Section was referred to as a demonstration of banality in modern architecture. Yet what the fair as a whole demonstrated most convincingly, was the worldwide acceptance of modern architecture by the political and financial establishment. From this moment on, most nations were represented in and by works of modern architecture, amidst other works of modern architecture, all claiming authentic national representation, but often interchangeable. Moreover, the simple display of recent national production was no longer a tool to differentiate one nation from another and heritage issues were assessed mainly as scientific or touristic themes: care for heritage through restoration and collections or the evocation of historicizing events and attractive old city centres are among the recurrent exhibits. The next world’s fair was held in Montreal, in 1967. Again, the notion of a united world was central in its general theme, ‘Terre des Hommes’. Nevertheless, a trip through the expo displayed an, often coarse, juxtaposition of pavilions and hence, as Geert Bekaert noted, “showed what individuality still means today”.30 Four small nations, including Belgium,31 prominently sited near the official centre of the fair, were considered illustrative of this architectural competition. Belgium participated with an introvert, brownish pavilion, designed by architect René Stapels (°1922), known for his prestigious office buildings. The main feature of the building was its serrated, monochrome geometry stemming from freestanding geniculated walls. The architecture and the claim to an authentic Belgian identity in this pavilion was motivated mainly in terms of the materials it was composed of: Belgian Franki poles for its foundation, tinted and mirroring Stopray windows in bronze aluminium frames and, of course, the facade’s brown bricks, of a special format, handmade from Rijkevorsel – as a caption to an intriguing image of the façade mentioned. (image 1967 Montreal) This picture was the only image of the pavilion in the guide. The architectural representation of Belgium, thus of Belgian identity, was only a composition of building materials and products made in Belgium. In addition,

He was succeeded by his pupil Marcel Van Goethem (1900-1960), also known for his contemporary National Bank building. 28 Jean Hendrickx-van den Bosch, “In de Belgische Afdeling: eenheid en urbanisatie,” het bestek 1 (1955): 51. Published also as “Eenheid en urbanisatie,” achtenvijftig 9 (November 1955): 6-8. 29 Rika Devos, “Un grand fiasco? Les architectes belges à l’Expo,” in L’Architecture moderne à l’Expo 58. “Pour un monde plus humain,” Rika Devos and Mil De Kooning, eds. (Brussels : Dexia/Mercatorfonds, 2006), 54-79. 30 Geert Bekaert, “Montreal – Expo 67,” Streven 11-12 (1967) as reprinted in Geert Bekaert, Verzamelde opstellen, vol. 2. Los in de ruimte 1966-1970 (Brussels: Stichting Monumenten- en Landschapszorg, 1986), 129. 31 Together with the Netherlands, Belgium, Austria and Switzerland. 27


the exhibition was presented by one general narrative, referring to a rich but small nation: the jewel box. Like a jewel box, the first paragraphs of the catalogue’s texts declared, the exterior was “classical and distinguished,” 32 but of less importance than the interior (by the Belgian-Canadian Jacques Guillon) which had to valorise the ‘jewels’ on show. At the Osaka fair of 1970, Belgium was once again housed in a closed, sculpturally modulated volume. The Osaka fair was themed ‘Progress and Harmony for Mankind’ and is known in architectural history as one of the most spectacular, dominated by colourful inflatable structures, plug-in architecture and the work of several Japanese Metabolists. In this context of spectacle, the Belgian pavilion by André Jacqmain (°1921) was a statement: a modest, enclosed oasis of sensorial calm. The fair’s theme was translated as ‘You and us,’ the general concept of the Belgian participation, which aimed at offering the mostly Japanese visitors points of resemblance with the Belgians. The pavilion consisted of two volumes: the exhibition hall and a lower service building with offices and a restaurant. Jacqmain linked the organisers’ concern for climate control to an architectural reference to the Belgian climate: in his exhibition hall, he emphasised the sloping roof by its size and shape and by covering it in red tiles, a feature borrowed from the farm houses in both Flanders and Wallonia. In contrast, the walls of the pavilion were freestanding, earthquake-proof expressive concrete shells, dramatizing the varying height (up to 13 m) of the hall. In Jacqmain’s and Olivier Strebelle’s unexecuted proposal for the exhibition, these walls were used for moving, dramatic projections. In the end, Jacqmain strongly disagreed with the exhibition concept, which largely ignored the architectural potential and was deemed ‘too baroque’. (image 1970 Osaka) Consequently, Jacqmain’s souvenirs to Osaka became dominated by “an idea that was misunderstood, but that had, paradoxically, entirely determined that peculiar space”.33 Therefore, the representation of the pavilion in a book on his oeuvre is expressly restricted to the plan and to pictures of the model: “We did not want to show the reality. ... We did not want to slip from legend to anecdote.”34 In the post-war period, the discourse on national identity in Belgium and the esteem of architectural representation on this matter had faded from the architectural scene. In hindsight, Expo 58 was the last fair that demonstrated the know-how of a long, continuous line of architects with obvious relations with the Belgian government. For the line of Bordiau and Acker had continued: like Van Neck, Bonduelle had been trained in Acker’s office and van den Bosch had studied with Acker in the academy. Bonduelle was especially known for his pleas for a “Description du pavillon belge,” Catalogue du pavillon de la Belgique à l’Exposition internationale et universelle de Montréal 1967 (Ghent: Snoeck-Ducaju), s.p. 33 André Jacqmain, “Osaka,” in André Jacqmain and Pierre Loze, Over Architectuur (Ghent: Snoeck-Ducaju, 1988), 102. 34 Ibid. Nevertheless, a page-filling picture of the model is printed on the back of the covers of the book. 32


contemporary architecture rooted in (national) tradition, different from the tabula rasa attitude of the Modern Movement. Yet the Belgian architects designing the Expo 58 pavilions for the Belgian industries and organizations demonstrated the variety of influences and tendencies in Belgian architecture, often exploring the latest tendencies in modern architecture. Looks, architectural concept and discourses on progressiveness and national identity could no longer be united unambiguously and new metaphors to link the Belgian message with its architectural appearance were introduced, often by other parties than, and not in tune with, the architect. Architecture in service of the display of Belgian complexities After Osaka, only in 1992 was a new universal exhibition organised, this time in Seville.35 The event was themed ‘The Age of Discovery’. Belgium, now a federal state, was also present in Seville. Its pavilion resulted from an open architectural competition with 90 entries, won by the Antwerp-based office Driesen-Meersman-Thomaes. The architects were aware of the representational role of the building and explicitly addressed the contemporary climate in architectural culture: “A building which enshrines a purely representative function creates considerable expectations.”36 The programme of representation was felt as an anachronism. The pavilion was an almost ‘closed box, robust and solid,’ with facades composed of heavy, white shutters to provide shelter from the Seville sun. The enclosure was intended also as “a shield against the visual exaltation of the World Exhibition,”37 while the open interior contrasted with a juxtaposition of elements and spaces in “a fragile association of space and emptiness ... This offers possibilities for reflections on the country”.38 (image 1992 Seville) Yet the concept of the architects was not only a servicing one – offering a space that can help visitors to reflect on what they have seen – but it was also put forward as a metaphor for Belgian pragmatism in building – the “blatantly opposite components” in the interior – and as an illustration of Belgium’s overall “delicate equilibrium”. The juxtaposition of volumes was presented as “an interpretation of the complex Belgian identity: a liking for comfort and individualised aesthetics, an eye for unusual contrasts and symbolism,” but also “a neutral posture towards the outside world”.39 Yet the introduction to the catalogue also stressed the nation’s “hope of playing a major role in

35After two cancelled universal fairs (1989, Paris and 1992, Chicago) and a series of specialised ones. Other important specialised fairs in this period are: Lisbon, 1998 (The Oceans), Aichi 2005 (Beyond Development: Rediscovering Nature’s Wisdom) and Zaragossa 2008 (Water and sustainable development). 36 Driesen, Meersman, Thomaes, “Objectives of the project,” in Expo ’92 Sevilla (Brussels: Commissariat général du gouvernment belge près l’exposition universelle de Seville en 1992, 1992), s.p. 37 Expo Sevilla. Belgium 1492-1992 (Brussels: Fonds Mercator/Inbel, 1992), 8. 38 Driesen, Meersman, Thomaes, “Objectives of the project,” s.p. 39 Expo Sevilla. Belgium 1492-1992, 8.


tomorrow’s Europe and of making Brussels the capital of the European community”.40 In the publication devoted to the building, stress was put on Belgian know-how and good collaboration with the Portuguese partners. The text in the catalogue confirmed the architectural claims and presented Belgium as a collection of collaborating, interesting opposites, “the junction between the Latin and Germanic cultures”41 – an argument forwarded since Expo 58. In 2000, Germany (Hannover) organised its first universal exhibition, uniting the world under the theme ‘Man, Nature, Technology’. The Architects’ office Group Planning designed the Belgian pavilion. The architects considered it of great importance to stress the fact that the concept of the pavilion fitted their contemporary overall vision on architecture, a vision involving aspects of spatial or urban context, transformations over time and concerns for sustainability. Hence the conceptual problem of the pavilion: how could these concerns be united with a strong representational programme, a strict and short life and an ephemeral setting? As a result, Group Planning designed a building intended for reuse – a leading aspect and narrative throughout the pavilion’s rationale, in tune with the international attention for durability and ecologic concerns. The pavilion, indeed, had a demountable superstructure in steel, from which the rest of the building was hung. This concern also delivered a metaphor for Belgium, comparable to the Seville concept: the architects claimed to realise “an intelligible structure, stressing the image of unity in the Belgian pavilion. Inside, a column-free exhibition space appears in which the diversity of Belgium can be assessed in a qualitative manner”. This interior consisted of two parts: a ‘black box’ with free exhibition space for all communities and regions and a ‘light box’ with spaces for services and meetings. In the pavilions for 1992 and 2000, the architects appeared to avoid the conflict between architectural concepts – valuable and relevant in the discipline of their time – and the representational wishes of the commissioner, which had cast a shadow on their predecessors in the sixties and seventies. Especially the 1992 pavilion demonstrated a critical self-consciousness: about the potential and limits of architectural representation, about the metaphorical fabrication and, first and foremost, about the complexities in speaking about a Belgian identity, especially through images. Belgian pavilions and fairs: the changing role of architecture The question of building ‘a house for Belgium’ is still a challenge to architects. In an attempt to combine rewarding architectural concepts with the commissioner’s message on the complexities

40 41

H.P. Persin, “Foreword,” Expo Sevilla. Belgium 1492-1992, 7. Inbel, “The New Federal State of Belgium,” Expo Sevilla. Belgium 1492-1992, 118.


of Belgium, recent history has demonstrated that Belgian architects often adopt an attitude of restraint in an attempt to counter the visual abundance and chaos of the fair (but what’s actually wrong with architectural bravura?); to offer visitors a peaceful oasis for reflection (but what about a good party?); in the conviction that the representational programme sets limits to, or is in conflict with, contemporary architecture (but why avoid this challenge?). The architectural concepts reflect the concerns of the discipline and try to create, and shelter, an image of Belgium that makes room for the complexities of the nation. Yet these ‘pragmatic, functional and honest’ approaches often ignore the festive and entertaining character of world’s fairs. Remarkably, humour or a critical sense of perspective, especially in the light of national clichés, has seldom lightened up the Belgian presences. Notwithstanding the long list of Belgian pavilions, they are not – apart from perhaps Van de Velde in Paris – part of architectural historiography. Yet it might be argued that it is precisely this Belgian history that suggests an important correction to architects and critics involved with great exhibitions. Still dominated by the historiography of modern architecture, world’s fairs are considered as places of experiment for architects. This is, to cite an early example, illustrated by the Belgian engineer Arthur Vierendeel’s deception after having visited the 1893 Chicago World’s Columbian Exposition: “We have been profoundly deceived. […] they dared no innovations.”42 The American architect Louis Sullivan made a similar remark: “Thus Architecture died in the land of the free and the home of the brave, – in a land declaring its fervid democracy.”43 This preconception is due to the success stories of avant-garde pavilions and experimental constructions, which often forwarded the progressiveness of their buildings as a challenge to the artistic or societal establishment. This is most apparent in the interwar period, but the Eiffel Tower, for example, was also contested: the Parisian cultural elite demanded the immediate demolition of this “useless and monstrous”44 construction, which was considered a danger to good French taste. In the post-war period, modern architecture and design have become the common idiom of the political and economical establishment and the pioneers’ know-how and arguments on progressiveness, avant-garde and modern architecture have lost their polemic force. Belgium has not taken part in this history of avant-garde. This does not mean that forward-thinking Belgian architecture does not exist, but simply that the Belgian government never adopted such architecture to represent the nation. The architectural profile of Belgium at 42 Arthur Vierendeel, La Construction architecturale en fer et acier (Brussels: Lyon-Laesen, 1903), 249 as quoted in Sigfried Giedion, Space, Time and Architecture. The Growth of a new Tradition (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1997 (5e ed., 1st print 1941)), 276. 43 Louis Sullivan, The Autobiography of an Idea (New York: Dover publications, 1956), 324. 44 Subscribers to the open letter, published in Le Temps (February 14 1887) were: Jean-Louis Ernest Meissonnier, Charles Gounod, Charles Garnier, Sardou, Boullat, François Coppée, Charles-Marie Leconte de Lisle, René-François Sully-Prudhomme, Guy de Maupassant and Emile Zola.


world’s fairs has been a moderate, but complex one from the beginning. More than making bold statements, Belgian architects, commissioners and observers have used world’s fairs as moments of reflection on the role of architecture. Often, this self-questioning was filled with complaint. In the case of the applied arts, for instance, historians considered only the backwardness of Belgian production, regardless contemporary successes: “In 1851, in 1855, in 1889, in 1910 and in 1935, after every world’s fair, we find complaints about the regression of our applied arts. It appears to be a kind of weltschmerz.”45 Moreover, Belgian organisers of fairs and commissioners of pavilions already tend to anticipate to this kind of criticism – lack of time, money, inherent modesty, a small country – instead of taking clear positions. That in spite of this restraint, Belgian pavilions evoke discussion in the professional fields of the applied arts and architecture and attract the general public’s attention, at the fair and back home, might well be the true virtue of these pavilions. The history of the Belgian pavilions and fairs reminds us of the central question at stake: national representation and its discontents. The architects of the early pavilions were involved with overt discussions on national style, proper to contemporary architectural culture and the way it related to the young nation, and aimed at a higher class, more specialist public. This coupling of style and identity dissolved over time, but the question never disappeared. For how can contemporary, modern architecture, with its internationalist claims, represent a nation to an international mass audience? Hence the link to building processes, national production and materials, typologies: technical matters that can be easily charged with metaphoric references. Belgian pavilions bear the mark of their designers – often architects with international careers – but also, almost as an unconscious genre, display persistent narratives and architectural reflexes. In this process, today’s Belgian architectural representation at world’s fairs developed its own, modern heritage, through discourses on materials, on national heritage, on restraint, on its geographical location – the crossroads of Europe – or, as a true Belgian paradox (and, unfortunately, with humour) on unity. In the same way as world’s fairs invite nations to take positions according to a central theme, the architecture of a pavilion can invite us to consider this position and, inherently, national identity and how to deal with it.

45 Virginie Devillez, “Een Belgische Werkbund? Het streven naar een nationale kunstnijverheid” in Art nouveau & design. Sierkunst van 1830 tot Expo 58, 162.