The universal exhibitions, microcosms of the modern world's activity, reproduce quite exactly, in our twentieth century, the image and the psychology of those great periodical fairs which in times of slower activity centralised all the commercial movement of a country or a region. At these great gatherings of traders, then as now, people came from far and wide, each one bringing his own products and displaying them as artfully as possible. Cloth from Flanders, furs from Russia and Germany, wines from France, Spanish armour were exchanged, and then, as now, festivities and celebrations of all kinds broke up the harshness of the trade, preparing souls for confidence, giving men reasons to live and to trade. At the fairs of Champagne or Bohemia, mysteries were performed, and the jugglers and comedians who set up their trestles between the merchants' stalls provided a necessary element to this great market where, for a few days, sometimes for a few weeks, the whole life of a corner of the world was concentrated.
In our modern fairs, in our universal exhibitions, the "attractions" are perhaps even more important, because it is they that bring in the general public, the real public.
It must be admitted that most of the manufactured products on display can hardly interest anyone but specialists. If everyone can enjoy looking at beautiful furniture, you have to be a tanner to appreciate the quality of a leather, or a draper to distinguish one piece of cloth from another. If the average person found nothing in the halls of a world's fair but pieces of cloth, leather samples, machines or collections of bottles, he would take a walk because it would interest his onlookers, but he would not return. If he is to really enjoy an exhibition and take an interest in it, his curiosity must be aroused, his sense of the exotic must be aroused, and above all he must be amused. One of the reasons why the Brussels Exhibition is sure to succeed is that it will be a lot of fun.
There will certainly be plenty of entertainment in all the exhibition gardens. But the festive atmosphere that we are looking for will be found especially at the Brussels Fair.
I believe that all the inhabitants of Brussels remember the picturesque and joyful district that was built under this sign in a corner of the Parc du Cinquantenaire during the 1897 Exhibition. For a whole summer, it can be said that the entire population of the city paraded there. Rich and poor, honest bourgeois, young revellers with a bar break, everyone, in the charming setting of an imaginary old town, which nevertheless resembled the Brussels of yesteryear enough for the old men who strolled through it to be moved by it, found something to entertain themselves. The district was so popular that it became known as the 'Brussels Fair'. After such a success, there was no better way than to start again. So we started again, under the same management and in the same spirit. But we started again and improved.
The improvements are numerous. First of all, the district is bigger, or at least it looks bigger, because there are so many alleys, squares and winding lanes. There is even a river, the Senne, which meanders through the streets, passes under the houses and makes a thousand twists and turns. Then the type of houses was varied. Finally, to this evocation of the festivals of yesteryear, a playground has been added where the most modern amusements can be found, a sort of Luna-Park where all the most American fantasies meet.
But you have to go through the district in detail to appreciate all the picturesque aspects. The plan of M. Jules Barbier, completed and finished by M. F. Van Ophem - M. Barbier having fallen ill in the middle of the work - is of the best conception.
There are two entrances: one to the left of the Exhibition's facade, consisting of a triumphal arch executed after a design by Rubens: it is majestic, sumptuous and solemn. The other, immediately at the entrance to the gardens, on the Avenue Emile De Mot side, is perhaps more picturesque and even more amusing. From this side, Brussels-Kermesse, enclosed by walls with watchtowers, looks like an old fortified town, clinging to the side of a hill and dominated by the graceful silhouette of the Chien-Vert restaurant, housed in a delightful Louis XIII château, whose terraces overlook the Exhibition gardens, facing the Bois. It is the most poetic place in the world to dine.
You enter the villette through a pretty door decorated with turrets. Immediately the visitor is offered a sloping street, a terribly steep street, something like the Montagne-de-Sion, the steepest ramp in Brussels. It winds its way between houses, 15th-century bourgeois mansions, fortified houses, jagged gables. It is immediately a marvellous evocation of the cities of the past. It's like being in a Lynen painting. And the uneven, bumpy street continues to climb. It passes under an archway dominated by a tower, the Clock Tower. In reality, this tower connects the salons of the Chien-Vert with the kitchens of this pantagruelian restaurant housed in a mysterious castle. But beneath the charm of the decor, nothing similar can be seen. It is indeed the corner of one of those tragic cities where family rivalries bloodied the streets. At dusk, the site is truly romantic, and you have to feel the staff walls to realise that it is only an illusory setting.
But suddenly the dark alley widens and brightens. You come to a small square, and the impression changes completely. There is nothing tragic, nothing mysterious. One no longer thinks of Everard T'Serclaes surprising the Flemish garrison, but of a happy Brussels Sunday a hundred years ago. Houses from all eras lie side by side, like good people of different ages, but who have become accustomed to living together: grey stone houses, red brick houses, white, pink or yellow plaster houses, like those seen in our old Flemish towns. And here, opening up next to one of those turreted houses which in Flanders are invariably called het casteeltje - the little castle - appear the columns of the market.
This market, with its covered galleries, is a small marvel of fantasy architecture. It is not a reproduction of any famous square, and the architect has not tried to be an archaeologist: he has let his ingenious decorator's imagination run wild, he has vaguely remembered a house in Bruges, a house in Ypres, a corner of old Brussels, of the Brussels that no longer exists, and he has composed something charming, cheerful, intimate, where the small shops of the traders and cabaret owners will add life.
This market is, if you like, the heart of the city. But what other little squares, what corners, what crossroads!
The marvel of this plan is that you can get lost in it like in a labyrinth. In fact, the Brussels-Kermesse district is not very big, and it feels enormous, and the Senne River, which meanders, disappears and reappears through the squares and alleys, adds to this impression of vastness. And one of the charms of the district, which completes the necessary illusion, is that the architect has managed to preserve the trees that once stood in this corner of the site, particularly in the garden of the Capouillet villa, which is included in Bruxelles-Kermesse. At the bend in each alleyway, an old elm can be seen; the branches of a poplar caress a mossy roof. Here, at the end of a courtyard with a small wall, is a glimpse of a park. The little wall is the fence of the Exhibition; the glimpsed park is a neighbouring garden. It doesn't matter, the illusion is there.
The fact is that the illusion is wonderfully achieved everywhere. There are amusing details everywhere, a costumed Virgin in her chapel, a sign which grimaces above a door, a sculptured mullion, a door surmounted by one of those absurd and charming pediments as the Flemish bourgeois of the seventeenth century liked them. In truth, one could wander around the neighbourhood for eight days and make new discoveries all the time.
But as we walked along, with our noses in the air, as befits a tourist visiting a city of gables, we came to the edge of the old quarter. It is a quay, a quay bordering a basin, and which makes one think of one of those little norts where the young Robinsons of a hundred years ago dreamed of embarking on the conquest of the Blessed Islands. At the far end, a diorama closes the view and extends this dream beyond the century. It forms the other side of the basin, which seems to have been abandoned by the lighters and ships. In reality, it is the water-chute basin, one of the main attractions of the playground which is attached to Brussels-Kermesse, and which occupies all the gardens of the Capouillet villa. What do you want? There is no old town so remote that does not have its own cinematograph. Why shouldn't Brussels-Kermesse have its water-chute, its scenic-railway, its electric theatre, its racecourse, and even a menagerie, that of Bostock?
And then, if Brussels Fair is designed to evoke the life of the past, it should not have the melancholy of dead things; one does not come to a world exhibition to exalt one's imagination according to the romantic formulas. So the past was evoked, but the cheerful past, the laughing past, the past of old songs, of cramignons, of kermesses. In these pretty alleys, which remind us of Bruges, Ypres and Nieuwpoort much more than of Brussels, you can imagine that you will not meet any beguines, but rather cheerful merchants, smiling cabaret owners and cheerful innkeepers. We are in an old town, but in a town that is celebrating, in a town where people drink, eat and dance, in a town that celebrates its guests. Some of these guests dine at the bourgeois' or at the inn, others dine at the castle.
This castle is the sumptuous restaurant of the Chien-Vert, whose vast salons will be able to receive innumerable guests, and whose terrace, dominating the wood, will certainly be one of the successes of the Exhibition. Imagine the district illuminated, not only by the electric lighthouse which, from the top of the Chien-Vert tower, will cast the radiance of its 45,000 candles over all the gardens of the Exhibition, but also by the illumination of all the façades, by the lights of the shops and cafés, enlivened by the music of its orchestras, by the comings and goings of its merchants and visitors. Think of the thousand distractions to be found there: puppets, cinematographers, theatrical performances, singing cafés, picturesque cabarets, street singers, the retreat, the famous retreat which, every evening in 1897, drew the joyful crowd, and you will understand that it will necessarily be there above all that the life of the Exhibition will be concentrated, when, in the evening, the halls are closed. The district will then truly represent Brussels as a fair.
The difficulty with creations of this kind is to satisfy both the taste for art or history of a certain public and the love of pleasure of another public. If one is content with skilfully evoking the past, by means of brilliant architectural reconstructions, good schoolwork, one interests the cultivated people, the people who have a taste for history, but one bores the others, and the others are the great number. If you exaggerate the kermesse aspect, you push aside this educated public which, although it is not very numerous, is very influential, because it is the one who gives ideas and tastes to the others. This is a very delicate measure to observe. The Brussels-Kermesse Committee realised this very well, and it has very happily resolved the problem: the architects, Messrs Barbier and Van Ophem, have designed exquisite façades, but they realised that it was much better to give in to their imagination, to their sense of the picturesque, than to try to do archaeology. Their city does not exactly reproduce any corner of old Brussels; but it evokes the whole of old Brussels, as we imagine it when we read the memories of Joë Dierickx de ten Hamme, or the lovely novel that Mr Carton de Wiart has just published, an old Brussels that is cordial and joyful, an old Brussels where one regrets no longer living.
© Exposition Universelle de Bruxelles 1910