Belgian Pavilion

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By Sesan Iwarere

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Essay on the Belgian Pavilion at the 1937 Exposition Internationale in Paris, France created as a final assignment in World's Fairs: Social and Architectural History, HONR 219F, Spring 2001

Essays on the Material Culture of the World's Fairs
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  • Exposition internationale (1937 : Paris, France)
  • Belgium Building. Exposition internationale (1937 : Paris, France)
  • Exhibition buildings -- Design and construction
  • Essay
  • 1901-2000
  • Europe
  • France
  • Paris
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 Source: L'Illustration Vol. 95, No. 4917 (May 29, 1937).

The International Exposition of 1937 marked a competitive showing of national pavilions. The large representation of foreign nations was quite remarkable given that the Exposition was held during the Great Depression. The Belgian Pavilion had pride of place among these national pavilions. Its chief architect was Henry Van de Velde (1863-1957). A major pioneer who at the very beginning of the twentieth century helped Belgium establish a leading role in the Art Nouveau movement, Van de Velde was intrigued by the theme of the fair, the connection between the arts and techniques of modern life.

This photograph was published in a 1937 issue of L'Illustration, a French news weekly which catered to the conservative middle class. The Belgian Pavilion had a prominent location in the fairgrounds as the first structure situated Northeast of the Eiffel Tower along the bank of the Seine River, which French Prime Minister L??on Blum, and Leopold III, the King of Belgium, had agreed upon. Belgium's prestigious location can be attributed to its historical ties with France. In 1794, Belgium was conquered and annexed by France and that stayed under the French Empire of Napoleon until 1815, during which time French became one of the country's national languages.

The architecture of the Belgian pavilion marked a change from its previous pavilions at the 1900 and 1925 fairs, which were patterned after historical monuments in Belgium. The former was an exact reproduction of the City Hall at Audenarde, while the latter related to the gigantic Palace of Justice in Brussels. While these earlier structures stood relatively tall and vertical, the 1937 pavilion was quite low and horizontal, as opposed to the towering Soviet and German pavilions directly across the Seine River.

The Belgian Pavilion stood out from the other pavilions of the Exposition. The motto of the building was "originality in concept / perfect in execution" (Industries). Henry Van de Velde designed the exterior along with collaborating architects, Jean-Jules Eggerick (1884-1963) and Raphael Verwilghen (1888-1963). Van de Velde patterned the pavilion after the Industrial Art of Belgium. It was composed of terra cotta plaques that measured 80 by 60-cm. The pavilion used modern architecture with its simple geometrical forms and uniform surfaces. The horizontal lines of the pavilion are emphasized by its proximity to the ground. Gardens, designed by Louis Van der Swalmen, surround the exterior of the pavilion. The interior of the pavilion showed the refinement and comfort which Belgians enjoyed at home and in their personal life. It contained magnificent tapestries, crystals, and Belgian furniture.

The reactions to the Belgian Pavilion were mixed. The American architectural historian Henry Russel Hitchcock, a champion of modernism wrote,

The Belgian pavilion is a rather disappointing work of the grand old man of European architecture, Henri Van de Velde, for which perhaps his younger associates may be blamed. It is most effective at night when the heaviness of its red terra facing to some extent disappears. But beside the lightness and vitality of the illuminated Eiffel Tower, it appears even at night to belong to another world. Although without much distinction of proportion, its thin curtains of white pale blue and yellow, and its opposite wall of red marble and mirror is vying more successfully than do most of the sumptuous interiors of this building with the comparable splendors

(Hitchcock, 168).

Serge Chermayeff (1900-1996), another well known Modernist architect, wrote: "The Belgian pavilion is very Belgian: solid (perhaps too solid for an Exhibition building) and a trifle unimaginative, but a serious piece of architectural design well adapted to the type of display and in most cases well detailed" (Chermayeff, 109).

The International Exposition of 1937 was a remarkable display of national pavilions, of which the Belgium Pavilion was a vital asset. Following the Exposition, it was demolished and Van de Velde's attempt to reconstruct a replica in Brussels was unsuccessful.

Works Cited

Findling, John E., editor, Historical Dictionary of World's Fairs and Expositions, 1851-1988. New York: Greenwood Press, 1990.
Industries et tiers d'art en Belgique 1937. Bruxelles: [ s.n. 1937].
"The 1937 International Exhibition, Paris ??? An International Exposition of Arts and Techniques Applied to Modern Life.." Architectural Record. Vol 82. Oct 1937. 81-83.
Verger, Pierre. Exposition 37: 60 Photographies. Paris: Arts et Metiers Graphiques. 1937. 22-23.
Chermayeff, Serge. "Circulation: Design: Display The Architect at the Exhibition." Architectural Review. Vol. 82. no. 488. July 1937. 91-96, 98, 107, 109.
Exposition 1937: Introduction de Jacques Gruber Presentation de Henri Martin. Paris: Editions Art et Architecture. 4 vols. Vol 4. Decoration Interieure. 1937. 25-28.
Hitchcock, Henry Russel. "Paris 1937." Architectural Forum. Vol 67. July 1937. 168