A City Without Water Is A City Without A Soul

Washington has the Potomac, London the Thames, Paris the Seine, Berlin the Spree, Rome the Tiber, Budapest the Danube. Have you ever wondered what Brussels is missing? The Capital of Europe is the only European capital without a waterfront. It has not always been that way. As so often in the history of Belgium, King Leopold II (1835-1909) is to blame.

In the 1870s and ’80s, Brussels became the focus of the King’s urban and architectural attention. He wanted it to become the worthy centre of an Empire; not just a European capital but the European capital. The city had to be a propaganda showpiece. It had to give little Belgium the spirit and emanation of a great country. The King started by eradicating the Dutch character of Brussels. For centuries, the city had been part of the Netherlands, a pre-capitalist and proto-democratic society dominated by its burghers, the hard-working, productive and prosperous middle classes. The Dutch cities were remarkably alike, in the sense that their pride was their belfry or city tower, symbolising municipal autonomy, their guild halls along the main market square, and their burghers’ houses along the canals and the smaller market squares. In the middle of the 19th century Brussels resembled present-day Bruges or Amsterdam. It had many winding streets and market squares along the Zenne (Senne) River and its branches and canals.

In 1871 Leopold had the Zenne vaulted and the canals filled up. Brussels became the only European capital without river banks. With the exception of the immediate neighbourhood of the Grote Markt (the Great or Main Market, renamed in French as Grand Place) and the Zavel and Marollen district along Hoogstraat (High Street), all quarters of the old town were demolished and replaced by straight boulevards lined with buildings in the so-called Napoleon III style. “In Paris we find the examples we must copy to embellish Bruxelles,” Leopold said. He envied the French capital its grand avenues, palaces and arches. The demolished medieval quarters of Brussels were, according to Leopold’s collaborator Gustave Stinglhamber, “but a jungle of narrow little streets of no historic importance. The gem of the Grand Place only shines more brilliantly next to the modern style arteries.” The ancient Gothic cathedral suffered the same fate. Today it stands alone, as an abandoned jewel, surrounded by 19th and 20th century office buildings in a district that is dead after office hours.

With the new look came a new language. The new Francophone elite came to live along the new boulevards. The Dutch language disappeared together with the former inhabitants into the Marollen. Towering high above the latter, Leopold built the Palais de Justice, described by Neal Ascherson as “a black ziggurat approaching the size of Gibraltar which throws the whole city into its cruel shadow.” Actually the building is white but even Leopold’s man, Stinglhamber, referred to it as “Babylonian.” Started in 1865 and finished in 1883 at a cost to the Belgian taxpayers of 50 million francs, it is a truly colossal building complex, bigger than the Vatican’s St. Peter’s basilica, with a huge dome-covered tower. This Tower of Babel is the seat of the Cour de Cassation, the highest judicial authority in Belgium. It served as a warning to the Flemings living in the district below, signalling to them that their native tongue was no longer officially tolerated in Brussels. One of the locals dared to protest. He was Joseph Schoep, a Brussels baker, who did not understand French. Schoep was brought to court because he refused to have the birth of his son registered in French. A stubborn man, Schoep demanded a trial in Dutch. In May 1873, as an immediate result of this case, Cassation ruled that the use of Dutch at courts in Brussels was forbidden. Schoep, who did not understand the verdict, was fined 50 francs for “civil disobedience” and ordered to pay the full costs of the trial. Nine thousand people held a protest demonstration in support of Schoep, but the baker, his resistance broken, had his next child registered in French.

Another district that was totally destroyed was the Saint Rochus borough along the Hofberg, a steep slope covering the 40 metres between the town hall in the Zenne valley and the royal palace on Koudenberg Hill. It was a buzzing neighbourhood of small streets and 17th century houses. Leopold renamed the area the Mont des Arts and planned to redevelop it with museums and a national library among terraced gardens. The Mayor of Brussels, Charles (Karel) Buls, a Fleming who gained international renown as the author of the book Esthétique des villes (1894) in which he defended the idea that cities should grow organically instead of through constructivist planning, was an outspoken opponent of Leopold’s urban schemes. After his election as Mayor in 1881, Buls tried to stop the demolition of the old neighbourhoods. He quarrelled with the King for many years and was vehemently attacked by the newspapers under Leopold’s control. The fiercest was L’Indépendance Belge whose editorials about the Hofberg were occasionally written by the King himself.

Buls resigned in 1899. He was, he wrote in his diary, sick and tired “of the constant interference of the King to have us adopt in our public works plans of which I disapprove.” These plans, Buls said, were “disastrous for the city.” Nothing, however, could stop the King. During the demolition of the Hofberg he had a special box suspended from an adjacent building, from which he could get an overall view of the Saint Rochus neighbourhood being destroyed. He wanted to witness its destruction, just as the Romanian dictator Ceausescu was to witness the destruction of the old town of Bucharest in the 1970s. The Hofberg remained a desolate wasteland for decades. The Mont des Arts project, including the Belgian national library, the Albertina, was not finished until twenty years after the King’s death. The many conflicts between the King’s architects and Mayor Charles Buls left their mark in the local Brussels dialect. The word “architect” became a term of abuse, a “Charles” is a popular daredevil, and “it is buls” means that an effort will have no result.

A building project that was never finished because it was discontinued after Leopold’s death, was the construction of a national memorial on Koekelberg Hill to the north of Brussels. There Leopold planned to build an enormous Greco-Roman temple to commemorate Belgium’s national heroes. He called it the national “Walhalla,” referring to the after-world where in ancient Germanic mythology the heroes lived on after their deaths in battle.

Though he had no respect whatsoever for the historical record of Brussels, Leopold was all the more concerned about his own record in history. He believed that a statesman who wanted to be remembered by posterity had either to wage war or to construct monuments. Indeed, he believed monuments were even more important than war. “The glory of Athens and Rome has survived to this very day in their monuments,” he said, “while their power and their conquests are but history.” The King attached great importance to the impression that ruins would make on future generations. In this, too, he seemed to presage the totalitarian era. Adolf Hitler had his architect Albert Speer build a model to see what his new German capital would look like in ruins two thousand years later, before giving his approval to Speer’s plans for reshaping Berlin into the metropolis of “Germania.”

The Belgians paid the bill for the Babylonian Palais de Justice, but when the King proposed to erect a gigantic Triumphal Arch to commemorate the Cinquantenaire, the fiftieth anniversary of Belgium’s independence, the government refused to bear the costs. Consequently, Leopold built it on his own, paying the full price of 7.5 million francs with Congolese rubber money. The Arch was finished in 1905. The Cinquantenaire, situated amidst exhibition halls in the Jubilee Park in Brussels’ fashionable East End, is one of the marvels of Brussels. However, since it was financed by the slave labour of African natives, Belgium’s Jubilee Monument is actually a monument to the Congo genocide. As clearly as the judiciary’s Tower of Babel symbolises the oppression of the Flemings, the Jubilee Arch symbolises the oppression of the Congolese.

Not far from the Arch was the convent of Berlaymont. It was demolished in the 1950s to make room for the 230,000 square metres of the 13-storey Berlaymont building. The “Berlaymonster,” as it is known locally, is the headquarters of the European Commission. It is situated at the eastern end of the mile long Brussels Rue de la Loi. At the western end of the same street are Belgium’s Parliament, the offices of Belgian Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt and, just around the corner the PM’s residence, Lambermont House – the Lambermonster.

The name Brussels is etymologically derived from the old-Dutch Broeckzele: the dwelling in the swamp. Like the mythological Hydra, the multiheaded beast which lived in the swamps near the ancient Greek town of Lerna in Argolis, the “Lamber” and the “Berlay” ends of it are but two heads of the same Brussels monster. Belgium considers itself to be the prototype of the European Union as a multinational superstate.

The idea of writing a “European Constitution” originated not in the Berlaymonster, but in the Lambermonster during Belgium’s presidency of the European Council in the second half of 2001. Verhofstadt suggested it at the EU Summit in December 2001, which was held in Laken Palace to the north of Brussels. The idea subsequently made its way into the so-called “Declaration of Laken.” The symbolism of the place was not lost on the Belgians. Laken Palace is the official home of the Belgian King.

Belgium has long been aiming to reshape Europe in its own image. “Belgium is the laboratory of European unification,” Verhofstadt said in a 2003 interview, echoing a mantra that all Belgian Prime Ministers and Kings have been repeating for over a century. “Have we not been called the laboratory of Europe,” the Belgian ideologue Léon Hennebicq wrote in 1904: “Indeed, we are a nation under construction. The problem of economic expansion is duplicated perfectly here by the problem of constructing a nationality. […] The solution is economic expansion, which can make us stronger by uniting us.” Jean Monnet and Robert Schuman, whose statue stands in front of Leopold II’s Arch, said the same thing. Monnet and Schuman are the fathers of Europe, Leopold II the father of the European capital.

The major characteristic of artificially constructed states, however, is that they cannot respect democracy and the Rule of Law. Belgium’s 175 year history is replete with instances of blatant violation of democratic majority rights, while laws and even the Constitution are simply disregarded whenever the existence of the state is perceived to be in danger. In 1909, the Belgian lawyer Auguste Beernaert, Leopold II’s former PM, formally introduced the concept of the “theoretical violation of the letter of the Constitution,” as opposed to the (genuine) violation of the Constitution. The former, Beernaert said, was something “one had better smile about and forget,” while the latter never occurred. In Belgium the Constitution is not a charter guaranteeing the Rule of Law; it is merely a symbol of the state’s permanence. Belgium, as Professor Roger Lallemand of Brussels University wrote in 1998 is “a discontinuity perpetuating itself in a vague consensus and a permanent state of constitutional reform.”

When the ancient Greeks chopped off one of the Hydra’s heads the monster perpetuated itself in its permanent state of reform by growing two new heads. The Eurosceptic dragon slayers would do well to remember how Heracles finally succeeded in killing the hideous beast: he had to tear off all the heads and bury them deep in the ground. When that happens perhaps the spell that Leopold II cast over Brussels will be broken and the Zenne River will rise to the surface again, giving the city back its soul.

Too bad

such tragic history lessons remain carefully hidden for most Flemish natives. But as an old Dutch saying goes, "Al is de leugen zo snel, ..."

Hydra's heads

Very interesting piece! I must admit that I previously thought of Belgium as a rather irritating country that had caused trouble in Europe and Africa disproportionately to its size but which had struck lucky in acquiring a nice little earner from the EU institutions. I can see now we'll have to take it more seriously in future, and set about tearing off and burying a few heads.

Bob Doney