Walk 1: Parc de Bruxelles and surroundings

2 September 2021 (clear, 21C).

The park itself is clearly the gift of a benign ruler to his subjects. It is built into the former hunting grounds of the Brabant aristocracy that were situated in the gardens of the Coudenberg Palace (destroyed 1731). It is designed for leisure and relaxation, not necessarily for public gatherings of a political nature.

Royal Palace, Brussels.
Royal Palace (Place des Palais).

The park is surrounded by many buildings that house the key political institutions of Belgium, many of them designed by the French architect Barnabé Guimard who was also responsible for the main design of the park. This lends itself to a striking uniformity in terms of neoclassical monumentalism. The most prominent individual building is the Royal Palace at the south end of the park. It was built in the first half of the 19th century on the ruins of the Coudenberg Palace at the request of Leopold I. The original neoclassical facade was designed by architect Tilman-François Suys.

The palace today is, however, something quite different.

First, the palace on Parc de Bruxelles was never the royal residence. The king and his family have traditionally lived at the Royal Palace of Laeken some 5 kilometres north of the city centre. This palace serves mainly as the offices of the court and provides spaces for receptions and other ceremonial purposes. It is, in other words, a purely symbolic building in terms of public power.

Second, what we see today has changed considerably from Suys’s original designs. The facade was continuously developed and enlarged by Leopold II, Belgium’s controversial ’colonialist king’, who apparently felt that the palace was not aesthetically suitable for a monarch of his high standing. The architects responsible for the renovations were Alphonse Balat and Henri Maquet. The enlarged facade as it now stands is, perhaps, at heart neoclassical, but without the ’charm’ that some of the other surrounding buildings possess. It is, in fact, an unusually aggressive and pompous building.

A number of key buildings are situated at the opposite end of the park on Rue de la Loi. Due to the complexity of the Belgian federal state, the make-up of these buildings is slightly confusing. On the southeastern corner of the park, we have the Prime Minister’s office (le 16‘, 1782-1784, architect Louis Montoyer), while the prime minister’s residency Le Lambermont (1778, architect Barnabé Guimard) is on the street of the same name closer to the southwestern corner. Further, again on Rue de la Loi, we have the Palais de la Nation (1783, main architect Barnabé Guimard) which currently serves both chambers of the Belgian Federal Parliament.

But each community or region of the federal state will also have its own institutions, mostly in Brussels. The Flemish Parliament representing both community and region is situated just north of the park in two separate buildings on Rue Ducale and Rue de Louvain (formerly Hôtel des Postes et de la Marine, 1905, architect Joseph Benoit, and formerly Postcheque Building, 1937-1946, architect Victor Bourgeois), while the seat of the Parliament of the French Community (Hôtel de Ligne, 1777, architect Barnabé Guimard) is at the northwestern corner of the park. There is a separate Wallonian legislature representing the region in Namur. Finally, the Parliament of the Brussels-Capital Region (Hôtel de Limminghe, originally 1696, original architect unknown) is situated at Rue du Lombard further west from the park.

There is, however, a certain difficulty when one tries to bring together the area’s neoclassical and monumentalist unity with the complexities of the country’s federal arrangements. The architectural aesthetics are at odds in bringing the separate pieces together under s single national umbrella.

A selection of the photographs from the walks can be accessed here.