Leopold II was the second king of Belgium and was known mainly for his colonization of the Congo during his reign. During his time in power, Leopold’s vision to make Brussels a “Little Paris” through his architectural initiatives would come to be envisaged, but at the expense of exploiting the Congo and its people. We take a look behind some of the architectural masterpieces Leopold commissioned to be built in Brussels: monuments and buildings that are beautiful, but nonetheless shadow a dark part of Belgium’s history.
Leopold bought half of the Congo as his own private possession after convincing the European community that his actions would be humanitarian and philanthropic. Leopold continued his action, even after the Belgium Parliament refused to annex the Congo. In May 1885, Leopold took possession of his colony and named it the Congo Free State.
The Congo area held many resources that were seen as valuable commodities at the time. Rubber, in particular, was seen as a powerful resource due to the invention of the bicycle, and coupled with the growing popularity of automobiles, the Congo’s resources became an opportunity for European colonizers.
The Congo became the jewel of Belgium, but it could also be referred to as a blood diamond more than anything else. The exploitation of resources led to the degradation of natural areas. Further, the cruel acts that took place on the natives constituted what may be considered to be one of the largest genocides to have occurred in history. But as records were not taken, this cannot be officially categorized as one.
Leopold was also known as the ‘Builder King’ due to the many monuments and buildings he commissioned during his reign. He made Brussels a gem of architecture and had, in fact, realized a part of his dream: that Brussels be transformed into a ‘Little Paris.’ Yet, it is imperative to understand how these architectural monuments commissioned by Leopold were able to be realized, as they were funded through the resources of the Congo Free State. Thus, while many of these monuments that stand today are architectural masterworks, they also serve as a reminder of Belgium’s history with the Congo.
The Universal Exhibition of 1897 was held in Brussels. For this occasion, Leopold created an exhibition within a royal estate and used it showcase the potential of the Congo Free State and Belgium’s industrial development. The exhibition itself was split into two sections: the interior section displaying resources from the Congo and an exterior area in the park where Leopold moved 267 Africans to Belgium to stage a traditional Congolese village. The Congo Museum was officially founded thanks to the success of this particular exhibition.
While the original mission of the then-Congo Museum aimed to showcase the Congo Free State and the Central African region, today the Royal Museum for Central Africa has evolved to showcase national Congolese pride through its scientific, historic and cultural exhibitions. The significance of the building and its role today affects how individuals perceive the history of the Congo and its relationship with Belgium. Currently undergoing an extensive renovation period, the new museum (set to open in 2017) plans to deliver a modern exhibition that reflects upon its colonial past with opportunities to expand dialogue and socio-cultural and scientific knowledge about the region.
In the context of the international exposition, Leopold also had the Cinquantenaire built. It is a U-shaped building with a victory arch at its center. The great arch was inspired by the victory arch established by Napoleon in Paris. This magnificent and grandiose piece of architecture is one of the highlights of the Belgian capital’s historical beauty. Its surrounding park counts at 18 hectares. The Cinquantenaire was finalized in 1880, and the name refers to the 50th anniversary of the Belgian independence.
The Avenue Louise of Brussels was named after the Builder King’s eldest daughter. It is still seen today as one of the most prestigious addresses to live on in Brussels. While its name was unfortunately also darkened by the presence of the Gestapo headquarters during WWII, Avenue Louise today is famed for its natural beauty and hosts numerous upscale stores and restaurants, as well as offices and apartments.
Built between 1874 and 1895, the Royal Greenhouses were commissioned by Leopold II and built by Belgian architect Alphonse Balat. An impressive example of Art Nouveau architecture, the enormous complex covers 2.5 hectares of land and was originally built with the intention to house a royal chapel. The Royal Greenhouses today are now a rare site in Brussels, as it’s only open to the public for three precious weeks each year when individuals can view its collection of exotic plants and flowers.