One of the great phenomena of our time was characterised by a happy word from Emile Verhaeren. We are in the age of sprawling cities. Everywhere, in the new world as in the old, the great urban centres automatically attract to themselves all the forces of a country. There is nothing that does not contribute to this, the administrative centralisation, as well as the development of credit institutions, the increasing complications of intellectual work, requiring great accumulations of documents, as well as the taste for theatres and pleasures, the industrial progress, as much as democratic fervour, and not even the development of railways and the motor car, which, enabling the inhabitants of the countryside and small towns to make the great city the ordinary centre of their business and pleasure, contributes to the monstrous prosperity of the capitals. Fifty years ago, there were many people in Wavre, Nivelles and Louvain who had only been to Brussels once in their lives, or who had not been there at all. Today, the people of Ghent, Liège and Montpellier come in large numbers, two or three times a week to see a client, to have dinner with a friend, to go to the theatre. This can be very dangerous. In these congested centres like Paris, Berlin, London or New York, where millions of human lives are literally crammed together, the great social diseases, alcoholism, pauperism, tuberculosis, the revolutionary ferment, develop with incredible rapidity. But, on the other hand, it is also in these great cities, where all the manifestations of life are marvellously intense, that thought, culture and science develop with the greatest force and grandeur. On the other hand, it is there that human ingenuity works its wonders and fights most successfully against the scourges that the very intensity of urban civilisation has engendered.
Therefore, the administration of large cities has become as complicated and delicate as that of a state, even more complicated in some respects, because it necessarily remains dependent on the state, which does not fail to show a certain mistrust towards it. It is this mistrust that has given Paris, for example, a special organisation that makes its supervision more severe than that of the other communes in France. Also, from the administrative point of view, the great cities have often set an example for the most proud states. This is what makes their participation in universal exhibitions so interesting. It is true that their pavilions do not always have the brilliance and picturesqueness that attracts the majority of visitors, but for those who know how to look, they teach with real eloquence what collective effort can achieve.
In this respect, Brussels is second to none, and when one considers the limited territory it occupies in the middle of its belt of suburbs, the small number of its inhabitants and the burdens imposed by its role as capital, one is amazed at the progress it has made in all the public services it is responsible for: police, roads, public works, public education, welfare, and communal authorities.
Well housed in a charming 17th century Flemish-style building, the various departments of the city of Brussels have put their legitimate ambition into showing the constant improvements they have made in the exercise of their functions.
As soon as you enter the building, two rooms beckon you. On the right is the main hall, paneled in oak by the students of the carpentry school and decorated with four admirable panels embroidered by Mrs de Rudder: Spring, Summer, Autumn and Winter. On the left are the souvenirs of Old Brussels: the remains of old houses that have now been demolished, archival documents, watercolours or paintings representing certain aspects of the city in the past. But if Brussels has a very beautiful past, of which some moving memories remain, it has a very honourable present and a more beautiful future. It is to the present and the future that the large rooms of the pavilion are devoted.
Each of the major public services has its own compartment. The police show, through watercolours, the transformations, or, if you like, the evolution of the uniforms of their officers; the charity service establishes, through statistical tables and interesting graphs, the fluctuations and progress of the charitable administration and eloquently compares the situation of Brussels and the other large cities of the country. A careful examination of this stand allows us to measure the intensity of the efforts made in the Belgian capital to fight against pauperism, tuberculosis and other major social diseases.
It has been said so often that it has become a truism that we smile at: the first of these is ignorance. For sixty years, one of the greatest concerns of the city of Brussels has been the development of its schools. To this end, it has made enormous sacrifices which have not been in vain. The school organisation of the city of Brussels is considered to be a model, and its imperfections have their origin in the general organisation of education in Belgium. The concern of the Brussels municipal administration was not limited to primary and secondary education for young people. At a time when female education was still extremely neglected almost everywhere, the city of Brussels opened two higher education establishments for girls, veritable high schools giving their pupils a complete middle education and enabling them not only to devote themselves to teaching, but also to access higher education. On the other hand, it was also concerned with technical education. In addition to the old academy of fine arts, which trained so many valuable artists, it founded professional schools for both sexes: sewing schools, fashion schools, industrial art schools, carpentry schools, watchmaking schools, bookbinding schools, and many others!
The work of these schools is exhibited in the city pavilion in the Solbosch, and in this exhibition the aim is not so much to astonish the visitor with the technical perfection of the objects exhibited - which is always easy when the outstanding masterpiece of the elite student is chosen from each class - as to make him aware of the methods used.
This is what gives the city pavilion a special interest from the point of view of technical education. But the public works are no less interesting. A Brussels citizen returning to his home town after an absence of twenty years would not recognise it. Since the major works to which Burgomaster Anspach attached his name, since the vaulting of the Senne and the construction of the boulevards in the centre, the city has not stopped changing. On the one hand, it gave back to its Grand'Place its exceptional value as an archaeological jewel; on the other hand, it modernised itself with wide openings, happy clearings, and grandiose creations worthy of Haussmann. The only reproach that could be levelled at the administration would be that it had started too many works at once, and perhaps had not always shown the concern for the moving or amusing picturesque that was to be found in the old districts. However, in this respect, one can hardly oppose the reasons of the engineers other than reasons of feeling which vary according to the individual: a city cannot live without transforming itself, and Brussels lives with intensity. The work in progress will be followed by other work, and the city's pavilion at the Exhibition contains a number of extremely interesting models and plans. In particular, there is a project to open up the Palais de Justice towards the Rue Haute and the Rue Blaes, which would turn this old working-class district into a truly monumental part of the city. Unfortunately, it will be said, the execution of this beautiful project would have the first effect of exiling several thousand working-class families from the capital.
This question of workers' housing is one of the most serious contemporary problems in a city like Brussels, squeezed between its suburbs and forced by its situation as a capital to undertake large-scale luxury works. It may not yet have received a definitive solution, but at least it has been seriously considered, and in the Solbosch pavilion there is a very well executed model of a group of tenement houses intended for cheap workers' housing. These houses, of course, do not have the intimate and cheerful charm of the cottages of Port Sunlight; they are true town houses, large barracks where hundreds of households can be accommodated in the forced promiscuity of the "square", of the floor; but as long as one wants to build cheap housing in the centre of large cities, one will have to resolve to this form of communal housing.
Besides, if the flats of the new tenement houses are not worth the cottages of Port-Sunlight and other places, they are, at least, far superior to the infamous hovels with which so many of our fellow-citizens still have to make do, and the effort which the Brussels administration is making to provide salubrious housing for the poorest citizens is truly worthy of all praise. Moreover, if it would be absurd to say that the big cities are solving all the social problems which are of concern to us today, it is at least noticeable that it is there that the most serious work has been done to find a just solution. And this show is one of those that inspire the most confidence in the future of human societies. It shows that where the development of collective life generates the most evils, there are also the most ingenious remedies.
© Exposition Universelle de Bruxelles 1910