Beginning its journey in the Gaul region of western Europe under the dictatorship of Julius Caesar, the formation of modern Belgium reached a halt after the Second World War. Present-day Belgium is well known for hosting the United Nations, NATO, and the headquarters for numerous multinationals and corporate companies.

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As the political overview of the country got more complex and structured based on regional and linguistic background over the years, the architectural space diversified. This unique blend of varied architecture formed due to the constitutional differences affirms the structural basis for the Belgium inhabitants.

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NATO Headquarters, Belgium_©Dylan P White
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United Nations, Brussels_©Alliance
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The Gaul Region of Western Europe_©Feitscherg

Political Overcast of the Country

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Belgium, as it prevails today, declared its independence in 1830 following the Belgian Revolution. The country is institutionalized as a constitutional monarchy with a parliamentary system and functions as a federal state. This complex system is entirely structured based on both regional and linguistic grounds. 

In the current day, Belgium is divided into three autonomous regions: the Flemish Region (Flanders) of the north, the Walloon Region (Wallonia) of the south, and the Brussels-Capital Region. The Belgian community is divided among these regions based on the languages spoken. Mainly the Dutch-speaking Flemish community, the French-speaking Wallonia community, the bi-lingual (Dutch and French) speaking community of Brussels capital, and the German-speaking community located in the eastern part of Wallonia.

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An overview of Belgian community_©Wonderful Wanderings (youtube)

Over time, to bring harmony and peace to the nation, the country established one government each for the three autonomous regions alongside the federal government. In addition, a new set of governments were found by the constitution for each linguistic community (Dutch, French, and German). During the 1980s, the Flemish politicians decided to merge their constitutional bodies of the regional and linguistic division into one. 

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Hence, the Belgian bureaucracy is an amalgamation of six governments and six parliaments, where the newly formed five government has an almost equal weightage to that of the federal government.

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An overview of the Political System of Belgium_©Wonderful Wanderings (youtube)

The Story before Independence

From the 12th century to the 14th century, Belgium was under the control of various dictators from different dynasties who expanded the country’s dominance in terms of wealth and military power. The iconography of buildings played a massive role in showcasing the political power of a ruler. And Neo-Gothic architecture fitted in perfectly. 

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The “Town Hall” present in each city implemented this style and proved the architectural dominance of an entire region. This is the place where officials gather to conduct a meeting on the critical aspects of their country. The bigger and intricately designed the buildings are, the better the outlook of the dynasty.

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Bruges Town Hall in 14th century_©Image Archive of the Institute of Art History, Mainz
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Leuven Town Hall in 15th century_©Image Archive of the Institute of Art History, Mainz

The proper introduction of Neoclassical Architecture to the Austrian Netherlands (current Belgium) began during the late 18th century of the Austrian period. The aristocratic families who had migrated from various parts of Europe built small Neo-Gothic castles and sometimes renovated the existing estates to their needs. It led to the flourishment of impoverished and run-down cities into a Neo-Gothic building community. 

During this period, the monarchs guaranteed freedom of religion to their nation. This boosted the morale of Christians (the major religion during the era) and started to create a vast number of Churches and expanded the educational network by constructing schools and colleges.

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Gembloux Abbey_©Benoit Brummer
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St James Church, Coudenberg_©Benoit Brummer
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Palace of the Nations_©EmDee

In between the long-running French Revolution and Napoleonic War (1792-1815), the majority of the areas were annexed by the French First Republic, ending the Austrian rule. These areas together formed the United Kingdom of the Netherlands (current Belgium). Most of the developments were focused in the regions with a higher concentration of French people, which led to a brief movement of upscale in the Walloon Region. 

The Neo-Gothic style continued to flourish in this time. After the fall of Napoleon I, an international diplomatic conference named “Congress of Vienna,” took place and empowered the Dutch ministers to lead the United Kingdom of Netherlands. Under Dutch rule, the most important neoclassical buildings were constructed in the Flander Region, including the Academy Palace, the Palace of the Nations, and the Royal Palace.

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Royal Palace of Brussels_©Charles Lecompte
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Academy Palace_©EmDee
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Brussels Stock Exchange Building_©EmDee

A New Beginning for Belgium

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After attaining independence, the new constitution gave primordial importance in reshaping the political structure of the country. New public sector buildings also rose during the mid-nineteenth century under the reign of King Leopold II. He introduced the eclectic design by mixing neo-Romanesque, neo-Gothic, neo-Renaissance and neo-Baroque, to demonstrate the prestige of his monarchy. 

Since Belgium had participated in the Industrial Revolution, there was no shortage in raw materials and procured at a meagre cost. The flexibility in their trade laws allowed them to reduce the taxes and exchange material between other countries via trucks and railways. During this period, some of the constructed buildings were the Brussels Stock Exchange, the Palace of Justice, the Royal Museum for Central Africa, etc.

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Palace of Justice, Brussels in 2009_©Martin Mycielski
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Royal Museum for Central Africa in Tervuren, Belgium_©EmDee
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Cinquantenaire Arcade_©EmDee

Another chapter that shook Belgium was their participation in the first and second World Wars. Before the precedent catastrophe, neoclassicism slowly disappeared, and a new modern architectural style was brought into the designs in the early 19th century. Architects introduced design styles such as Art Nouveau, Art Deco, and Functionalism. Bruxelles is nicknamed the world capital for Art Nouveau and has more than 300 Art Nouveau buildings. A few of the famous buildings include Hotel Tassel, House of the Five Continents, etc.

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Hotel Tassel in Belgium_©Karl Stas

One of the latest design moments that defined Belgium architecture was the Postmodernism movement. This emerged during the late 1970s due to the modernist and functionalist architecture that took place after the Second World War. This movement first grasped Belgium’s office buildings and then slowly started to take its place among the Belgian citizens. Belgium has gone through a wide variety of architectural changes over time due to the political impacts and helped define the country for what it is today.

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Royal Library of Belgium_©EmDee
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Hotel Meridien in Brussels_©Micheal Paraskevas
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St Mary Magdalene Church, Brussels_©Extraneus
Baudouin Tower in Belgium_©EmDee

References

Köhl, S., 2018. Brussels Town Hall in context. Architectural models, historical background, political strategies. [online] Cairn.info. Available at: <https://www.cairn.info/revue-studia-bruxellae-2018-1-page-236.htm#s1n2> [Accessed 27 July 2021]. 

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En.wikipedia.org. 2021. Belgium – Wikipedia. [online] Available at: <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Belgium> [Accessed 27 July 2021].  

De Bièvre, D., 2018. Trade, Political Coalitions and Neo-Gothic Architecture. European Review, 27(02), pp.175-186.

En.wikipedia.org. 2021. Neoclassical architecture in Belgium – Wikipedia. [online] Available at: <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Neoclassical_architecture_in_Belgium> [Accessed 27 July 2021].

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Author

Milan Denny is an architecture student who has just begun to explore his way into architectural journalism. He is genuinely passionate about architecture and technology and constantly seeks new experiences to widen his knowledge to blend them. Tea is the shortcut key to his heaven.

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