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Old Brussels - Expo Brussels 1935

Old Brussels at the Exhibition Expo Brussels 1935
© L'Epi

Reconstructions of old districts contribute so much to the success of World's Fairs that one wonders if they were not born at the same time as them. In Belgium, in any case, there is hardly a World's Fair that has not seen the gables and towers of an ephemeral city rise up in the shadow of the palaces and pavilions of the day, resurrecting landscapes and splendours that have been abolished: Antwerp, in 1894, had the Old Town; Brussels, in 1897, opened to visitors the cheerful alleys of the unforgettable Brussels Fair, raised in 1910 when a fire partly destroyed it; Liege in 1905, Ghent in 1913, Antwerp in 1930, had the "Old Liege", the "Old Flanders", the "Old Belgium". In almost every case, this old district brought together facades that were still in existence or had already disappeared, but which came from the same region. This approach detracted from the unity of the whole. But it offered the visitor, the architecturally curious, a sort of sample map of building methods, a monumental synthesis of Flanders, Wallonia and Brabant.

The Old Brussels of 1935 was the first old quarter to resurrect a city, at a given time and in its essential districts, in its most characteristic monuments: the Court Quarter, at the time of Charles of Lorraine, towards the end of the 18th century and the old regime. A plot of land of three and a half hectares, located near the main entrance of the Exhibition, was reserved for it; beautiful trees, grown in this area, were respected. The presence of a few natural springs made it possible to reconstitute an arm of the Senne and to give a part of the villette an attractive rural aspect; finally, the differences in level of the ground, far from being a hindrance, helped the architects to vary the perspectives and to give the whole an appearance of authenticity. We have said how the Executive Committee of the Exhibition was led to administer Old Brussels.

Among the obligations imposed on the concessionaires was the prohibition of modifying anything in the installations, as well as the exterior appearance. The signs, interior decoration and furnishings had to be approved by the General Management so that the style was homogeneous down to the smallest detail. Finally, employees and service personnel had to wear 18th century clothing, shoes and coats, made according to drawings and models. Very strict measures were also taken to ensure that propriety was strictly respected and that no fog - however slight - was allowed to tarnish the shiny mirror in which the life of our good ancestors under the principate of Charles of Lorraine was reflected.

It was at the beginning of the 18th century that the capital of the Dukes of Brabant experienced, for the first time or so, the necessary respite for artistic achievements. Under the impetus of the Governor of the Netherlands, the sumptuous Maximilian Emmanuel, Elector of Bavaria, Brussels took on the appearance of a large city in 1700. The illustrious historian Henri Pirenne wrote about this:
"Maximilian Emmanuel did everything in his power to make Brussels a capital worthy of a king. He completed the work from which this marvellous Grand'Place was soon to emerge, surrounding the Gothic jewel of the Town Hall with this somewhat heavy framework of sumptuousness, in which the Italian Renaissance is combined with the old Brabant traditions.
"He gave his colours to the harquebusiers, organised parties... His French education brought him closer to the high nobility of the country. The old Coudenberg Palace came alive with a brilliant and pompous court, modelled on Versailles. "

Material prosperity was reborn after a hundred and one hundred years of wars and internal struggles; the whole of the 18th century was full of festivities and joyous events: Brussels saw magnificent receptions in honour of the victor of Ramillies, the Duke of Marlborough - immortalised in popular song - of the Tsar of Russia, Peter the Great. In 1744, Charles of Lorraine formed this pretty Court in Brussels, which was 'cheerful, safe, pleasant, drinking, lunching and hunting', as the Prince of Ligne would say. The architects De Lange and Blockx chose the year 1731, i.e. there were no Louis XV, Louis XVI or Empire style buildings in Old Brussels.

The main entrance was on Place Saint-Lambert, to the left of the Centenary entrance; the large postern with two round towers was reminiscent of one or other of those that pierced the old Brussels wall. There were seven of them and all have disappeared, except for the Porte de Hal. This is where the Steenweg opened, the "stone road", the main road that still crosses the city from east to west, from the Porte Sainte-Catherine to the Porte du Coudenberg.

Nearby, a reproduction of one of the Capital's ancient fountains, the Three Maidens, shows three young women throwing water from their breasts; it was once located near the Saint-Nicolas church.

On the right, a slate turret crowned the guardhouse, where "Sergeant Pipenbois" introduced visitors to the delights of camp life; opposite, the Porte des Poissonniers marked the entrance to the Cour des Métiers, with its pilasters pleasantly decorated with fish of all kinds - plaice and "scholle" among others, the glory of popular menus. From this first thoroughfare, facades or architectural details were borrowed from the castle of the Princes of Merode in Rixensart, from the dwellings in the Rue de l'Amigo, from the manor house of Villegas in Bever, and from Ravenstein - with its delightful ogival bretèque. The "Steen" of the Clèves-Ravenstein, recently restored, is the last survivor of the seigniorial residences, so numerous in the past around the Palace of the Dukes of Brabant.

This Palace was located on the Place des Bailles, which was reconstituted to form the heart of Old Brussels. On the right, after a door from the Marché Saint-Catherine, the "Evesché" reproduced the façade of the "Refuge" of the Abbey of Saint-Michel; its main door was that of the castle of Beaulieu in Machelen, now destroyed. A little further on, one could recognise the façades of the Rue Haute, the former Hôtel de Nassau - now part of the Musée Moderne; the second side of*the Place des Bailles was occupied by seigneurial hotels, rebuilt according to authentic documents, the hôtels d'Aerschot, de Croy, de Maldeghem (or Fuentès), de Rubempré. Next door, a dead end closed by a white house recalled the impasse of Croy, on the ruins of which the Rue de la Régence now opens.

Everywhere, moreover, charming details evoked the decorative art of Brabant: a door (of the castle of Rixensart); a canopied niche on the corner of the Steenpoort and the Rue des Alexiens, sheltering the statuette of Saint Leonard (de Léau). In the breeze, the banners of the Oaths floated: of the Archers, of Saint George, of Saint Michael, of the Great Oath. Above the entrances, the banners of Brussels, of the Dukes of Brabant, of Saint George, of Saint Michael, of Charles V... were displayed.

The square was surrounded by openwork balustrades, bearing from distance to distance elaborate colonettes, surmounted by statuettes of the Dukes of Brabant; this device had earned the old square its name of Place des Bailles. At the corners, masts carried barrels, supposedly filled with pitch or tar; this was how they used to "illuminate" on the days of carillon festivals; here the barrels concealed electric projectors.

Towards the top of the Bailles, at the corner of the rue de Namur, a church recalled the ancient ogival sanctuary of Saint-Jacques on the Coudenberg, the one replaced by the classical temple built by Guimard. The tympanum of the porch was decorated with a Madonna and two angel musicians, as in the Basilica of Hal; the large window was decorated with a stained-glass window offered by the Maîtres Verriers de Belgique. One side of the church was enclosed by shops; behind the choir, an imposing wall crowned with battlements represented the city walls of Brussels. A tall house with a stepped gable and classical balusters was the one referred to in the 18th century archives as the "Peterbrouck House".

Finally, there was the curious façade of the Ducal Palace; this monument once covered half of the present Place Royale, between the Rue Royale and the statue of Godefroid de Bouillon; a fire destroyed it almost entirely in 1731. The building in Old Brussels was therefore the one before the fire; the large gable on the left - the oldest part - was that of the "Magna Aula", built in 1452 by Philip the Good; it was under its venerable vaults that Charles V abdicated in favour of his son Philip II; the Confederates handed over to Margaret of Parma the request that earned them the nickname of "beggars", with which they adorned themselves as if it were a title of glory. The "beggars" had the famous medal engraved: "Loyal to the King until the bag"; the Committee of Old Brussels was inspired by this for the striking of its badge, which bore the motto "Loyal to Old Brussels until the medal is worn".

The tower, built in 1668 above the central entrance, contained a carillon; once you had passed through the archway, you could believe that you had been transported by a magician's wand into the Brabant countryside. Beautiful trees, a grassy embankment, a high wooden turret enclosing the archery pole, gave the illusion of a landscape on the banks of the Pède or the Woluwe - an illusion completed by erected tables, benches stretched out under low branches; on the right, a few steps surmounted by arches (from the manor of Me-rode in Rixensart) led to a garden very similar to those of the Oaths
still alive in Brussels, and there one could shoot with a cradle bow.

From the Place des Bailles ran amusing alleys, similar to those that still wind around the Marché-aux-Poissons, to the dead ends of the Rue Haute; from place to place, a detail caught the eye of the passer-by: a mascaron, a doorjamb, a niche where a Madonna smiled, an almost erased coat of arms. And the gables formed a synthesis of the domestic architecture of Brussels-in-Brabant; some were stepped up to the sky, others, with rounded corners, enriched with gilding, were supported by caryatids. Some of the wooden facades seemed to have survived the fires and bombings that ravaged the ducal city. Lanterns hung from the corners of the alleys, signs decorated the shop fronts or fluttered in the wind: there was "La Frite d'Or" and "Le Pays de Cocagne", "La Cigogne" and "Le Postillon", "Le Diable Amoureux" as in a famous 18th century novel, and "Le Plezanten Hof" of the Brabant countryside...
From the top of a house, three heads, leering at the walkers, decorated the façade of a dwelling that has disappeared, like the street in which it was built, in the former district of Isabelle or Putterie.

At the end of the street, the green waters of the Senne bathed the gardens below the houses of the Place des Bailles; the river came out of a lock with two arches, next to which the wheel of a mill turned; The river flowed past the Quai-aux-Pois-sons, under the "Passage du Meunier" (which was located near the church of Notre-Dame du Bon Secours), and reflected the tower of the former country house of Cardinal Gran-velle in Saint-Josse-ten-Noode, when Saint-Josse was the goal of a rustic pilgrimage. Nearby, at the corner of Rue Courbe, the gables were those of the old "Veerhuys", from which the boats reached Antwerp via the canal, whose design was conceived by Jean de Locquenghien, amman of Brussels, and which was a masterpiece of the engineers of his time.

On the left, a breakaway revealed the terraces of the large restaurant; it was reached by a majestic staircase copied from that of the Parc Abbey, at the gates of Louvain; the colonnade, forming a cloister at the back of the courtyard, came from the castle of the Counts of Villegas. Finally, the sumptuous façade decorated with busts, bas-reliefs and inscriptions was that of the house known as "de la Bellone", which still stands behind the shops in the Rue de Flandre. These elements made up an imposing and graceful picture.

The Rue Courbe, starting from the Quai de la Senne, passed between picturesque houses, and led to the Porte du Coudenberg, such as it was at the corner of the Rue Bréderode and the Rue de Namur; next to it one could see the "Fountain of the Satyrs", which stood near the present entrance to the Galeries Saint-Hubert; and against the door itself, a very old fountain, bearing a Gothic inscription and attributed to Charles V.

In the streets of Old Brussels, there were still other samples of the Brussels or Brabant styles: Spanish-style gables, houses with pilasters and balusters - in the Rue des Bouchers, the Rue Terarken, and the Sablons. And back in the shadow of the Ducal Palace, one descended below the Steenweg, towards the exquisite Cour des Métiers, lined with stalls where the engraver, the lace-maker, the embroiderer, the figaro, in charge of hairstyles, curls and white wigs, which adorned the heads of the inhabitants, worked. Next to it, two pilasters topped by lions (from the Parc Abbey) indicated the entrance to the rustic district, with its guinguettes buried under the trees and in the hedges; another door, decorated with the arms of the Archdukes Albert and Isabella, and the coat of arms of the Grand Serment des Arbalétriers, also adorned this street.

This setting, of a rare power of evocation, of a picturesque and colourful character rarely equalled, was populated most cheerfully by burghers and burghers dressed in the fashion of Charles of Lorraine. There was a brass band with thundering horns, a Guard with uniforms of the most beautiful canary yellow that could be seen. A monkey showman was making his guests gambol to the chords of a slightly anachronistic barrel organ. And over Old Brussels reigned a debonair mayor, Mr. Bouweraerts, elected by his "fellow citizens"; in this capacity he was seen presiding over numerous festivities, receiving distinguished visitors, King Leopold, Queen Astrid, the Duke of York, the Municipal Council of Paris, Ministers, Mr. Adolphe Max, who was a familiar face in the charming city and who, on the evening of the closing ceremony, insisted on coming to greet his "colleague" one last time...

M. Adolphe Max had predicted the bright future of Old Brussels when a commemorative stone was laid in the autumn of 1934; the Guides' band lined up along the façade of the Dukes' Palace and played the "March of Old Brussels" by the composer Pierre Leemans; the Place des Bailles was filled with a crowd of guests, in the front ranks of whom were many personalities and the entire Old Brussels Committee; speeches sprinkled with humour were given by Mr. Frans Thys, President of the Friends of Old Brussels, and the President of the Association of Old Brussels. Humorous speeches were given by Mr. Frans Thys, president of the Friends of Old Brussels, and Mr. Adolphe Max.

By 1 January 1935, the picturesque viliette was almost complete. As soon as the Exhibition opened, it offered visitors the friendly and cheerful welcome of its streets, squares - and its inhabitants. It closed its doors at dawn, missed by all those who had known it.

© Le Livre d'Or de l'Exposition Universelle de Bruxelles 1935