Brussels - directions for foreigners

Theaterschrift Dec 1995English
Theaterschrift 10, Dec. 1995, pp. 160-182

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"Those who do not eschew a paradox, who love incongruity, who are not afraid of the absurd, they can love Brussels, as the capital of Belgium: in love and in hatred, with tenderness and in vexation, with a feeling of wellbeing and of discomfort."

(Eric De Kuyper, Een passie voor Brussel- A Passion for Brussels).



It is not simple to sketch a portrait of a city. What can you tell about Brussels? How do you get a hold on its soul? Italo Calvino describes one of his invisible towns: "In Maurilia, the traveller is invited to look at the town, and at the same time to study a number of old post cards showing what the town to be like." Perhaps Brussels is like Maurillia in that one can only decipher the city if one also prepared to penetrate some way into its memory. The charting of the character of Brussels cannot be seen separately from the charting of its history. Many current susceptibilities can only be understood on the basis of past events. Layers of meaning pile up in this city, as if a second configuration had been built on the foundations of the first, and on top of that another, and then another, and so on. Generations of various cultures with different relations towards each other have succeeded and influenced each other. The result of all this is anew, fitful, inimitable structure which you can only begin to decipher by living and working in the city, by reading about yesterday day and talking about today.



Brussels is located on the crossroads of the Latin and Germanic, of the Brabant and Burgundian cultures. One of the most important historical developments that has taken place in Brussels condemns the language or languages that were or are spoken there. In the first place we are talking about Dutch (Flemish? Brabant?) and French, whose respective defenders' aspirations have often brought them into direct confrontation with each other. The extent of the Brussels inhabitant's tolerance has been put to the test since time immemorial.
Since it is the activities of the Kaaitheater that forms the starting point and anchor of our ‘life and work in Brussels', and that the work of this theatre is essentially part of Flemish cultural life in the Belgian capital, our story will naturally be tinged throughout by 'Flemish' points of view. However, we want to deal with the history of Brussels as honestly as possible from this Flemish position and most of all try to interpret it as clearly as possible for the benefit of 'foreigners' who do not know this city and its history.



In 1979 Brussels (whose original name was Bruocsella, meaning 'settlement in the marshes') celebrated its thousandth anniversary. There are various estimates of the precise at which the city was founded on an island in the River Zenne, but what is certain is that in feudal times Brussels was located on the trading route linking Bruges with Cologne and that in the Middle Ages it was the place where the Dukes of Brabant established themselves. In their position as vassals there were left reasonably free to go their own way by their German lord.

When Brabant became part of the Duchy of Burgundy, the dukes, including Philip the Good, also established themselves in Brussels, in a palace on the city's fortified hill, the Cou denberg. Contrary to what is generally supposed, Brussels was at that time still a Dutch-speaking city (in fact it was the Brabant dialect): in the 14th century all acts were made up in Dutch. When the painter Roger de la Pasture moved to Brussels in 1435, he changed his name to Rogier van der Weyden.

The marriage of Maria of Burgundy, who died very young, to Maximilian of Austria meant that Brabant was absorbed into the Habsburg Empire. Charles V and Philip II were absolutist rulers over this region, exercising their power mainly from Spain. In the 16th century there arose in the Southern Netherlands various heretic movements, spurred on for a large part by abuses within the Catholic church. The consequent bloody war with the Catholic Spanish occupier, in which many Flemish and Brabant people died at the stake led at the end of the 16th century to a division of the Northern and Southern Netherlands. In the North the so-called Seventeen Provinces went on to experience their Golden Century At that time their civil constitution was among the most modern in Europe. The Southern Netherlands - the majority of the intellectuals and artists had fled to the North - were to languish for almost three centuries, falling into the hands of one occupier after another.

From the 17th century French was highly regarded in Europe: elevated circles, diplomats and merchants felt attracted by this 'world' language. When the Southern Netherlands again came under the rule of Vienna after the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713, French was the official language in all administrative bodies. When the French Revolution broke out, the French aristocracy fled France and a large part of it established itself in Brussels. And finally, in 1794, the Southern Netherlands were annexed by France after the Batlle of Fleurus. Brussels not only lost its status as a capital, but also administration, justice education became fundamentally Frenchspeaking.

After the defeat of Napoleon at Waterloo, which is very close to Brussels, England pushed for a reunification of the Northern and Southern Netherlands as a buffer state against France. The Southern Netherlands were granted to the Dutch King William I, under whose reign an effort was made to renew economic growth - the first forms of industrialization date from that time - and Dutch again became the compulsory language used in administration, the army, justice and education (by Dutch we here mean 'standard Dutch', a standard language developed in the Northern Netherlands and not one of the dialects spoken in Flanders or Brabant). This encountered resistance in Brussels from both the upper middle classes and the church, as well as from the active core of French immigrants, and finally resulted in the Belgian Revolution in 1830. However, the real support for this revolt came from workers and plebs who hoped by this means to improve their economic situation. The popular story is that the revolution broke out after a performance of the opera 'The Dumb Woman ofP ortici' by the French composer Auber, in La Monnaie, so that art and revolution were allies from the very first moment in this newborn country(!?).



Brussels again became the capital, of a counry which from then on would be called Belgium. The administrative, political and also the financial functions of the country were concentrated in the capital. Though a number of factories were set up in Molenbeek, in the so called canal zone, the economic life of Brussels based for a long time on small-scale or even craft-like activity. The southern part of Belgium underwent a rapid industrialization: thanks to its coal mines and steel industry, Wallony became Europe's second most important industrial area after England. In the poor, mainly agrarian Flanders a number of textile centres arose. Apart from the textile workers the Flemish working population consisted mainly of farmers and seasonal workers: they spoke one of the Flemish dialects, while the upper middle classes were entirely French in language and culture. This elicited from Karl Marx, who was writing his communist Manifesto in an attic room somewhere in Brussels between 1845 and 1848, the thought that he had never seen a country where the relationships between the classes were so clearly marked, since here "the bosses even speak a different language to that of the workers they oppress".



The opposing poles of clerical and anticlerical implanted themselves on the already existing opposites of Flemish-speaking and French-speaking. In politics, Catholics and Liberals were fighting for power. The Catholics to gain an electoral majority from 1884 well into the twentieth century. Since the greatest support for this party came from Flanders, the speaking of Dutch often became associated with clericalism. Brussels was, however, run by Liberal mayors from the time of Belgian independence until 1982. In the meantime a movement had grown up in Flanders and Brussels which supported the reintroduction of the Flemish language into administrative and judicial institutions, into the army and education, in short into the whole of public life. When the first world war broke out in 1914, a number of the members of this Flemish Movement, the so-called activists, thought they could make use of the German occupation to force through certain Flemish demands. This naturally fanned the flames of French speakers against 'Flemish'. In order to avoid difficulties and because they thought they could acquire higher social status in this way, a large number of Dutch speakers in Brussels increasingly spoke French. on the one hand Flemish, and on the other Belgian, was experienced as a contradiction. So patriotism became increasingly associated with anti-Flemish attitude.



However, a number of events that occurred during world war one also led to a swing in favour of the Flemish Movement: 80% of the soldiers who had fought for Belgium (and also 80% of those who died) in that war were Flemish, whereas they had received their orders from officers who were for the large part French-speaking. The Belgian King at the time, Albert I, clearly felt that this injustice should be compensated for by a number of concessions: immediately after world war one, plans were made for the introduction the general right to a single vote, for a number of social reforms, for giving equal status to the two languages and for the switching of the University of Ghent from French to Dutch (there was still no higher education in Dutch).

World war two tore an even greater rift between the Flemish and the Wallonians. Although there was collaboration on both sides, the Flemish were again identified with the 'Blacks', meaning German sympathizers. Two other moments of political crisis that occurred later also revealed that the reactions to events were very different, or even opposite, in the two halves of the country. These two events were the Question of the King, about whether Leopold III should stay on, and the Schools Conflict, which was the battle between the Catholics and the free-thinkers over gaining the upper hand in education. Wallony had come out of world war two with an almost intact but antiquated production machine. In the decades after the war a lot of foreign companies established themselves in Flanders, many in the port of Antwerp or in the Ghent canal zone. On top of this came the replacement of the mainly Wallonian coal by other, more modern sources of energy: the economic balance between the two halves of the country turned to the advantage of a newly acquired wealth in Flanders. This change in the proportions of economic strength was to manifest itself later on in the fields of politics and culture.



There appeared to be no stopping the growth in the separation between the two communities Steps were taken to build a new federal Belgian state, including a revision of the constitution and a number of very complex changes in the structure of the state made in the seventies, eighties and nineties. At the moment Belgium comprises three cultural communities, Dutch, French and German-speaking, and three regions, Flanders, wallony and Brussels, which is composed of 19 boroughs.

Throughout this evolution Brussels, as a capital to both the Wallonians and the Flemish, has remained a complex place, rich in controversy. Sometimes it seems as if neither the Wallonians nor the Flemish can or want to love it. In the city itself, French speakers live alongside Dutch speakers, but in fact they have little contact with each other: Brussels is a city where you can easily live 'anonymously'. There is no need to make your existence there 'known'. Over the last two centuries the numerical ratio between the two population groups has changed completely: in 1780 barely 15% of the inhabitants of Brussels spoke French. At the last election for the Brussels Council (in 1995) the Flemish won 11 seats in contrast to 64 for French speakers.

The growth of Brussels to its present 1 million inhabitants is mainly due to immigration. During the first half of the 19th century the capital exercised a great attraction on the impoverished population of the Brabant countryside. Whereas in 1840 60% of the population were natives of Brussels, by 1920 this had already fallen to 40%. In addition to French speakers and the Flemish, 30% of the population of Brussels today consists of foreigners. On the one hand there are the 'poor immigrants', the guest workers and their families, who mainly come from the Maghreb countries (the Turkish are second in numbers) and on the other are the 'rich immigrants', the citizens of European countries who have come to live there in the wake of all sorts of European Community institutions. They include both Eurocrats and the managers and clerks of companies which have ended up in Brussels as a result of its position as 'capital of Europe'. So apart from French and Dutch, there are plenty of other languages spoken in Brussels' Tower of Babel: several variations on Arabic, Turkish, English, German, etc.

On top of this, Brussels is the centre of an extremely extensive form of 'daily migration': about a fifth of the active Belgian population works in Brussels, only half of whom live in the conurbation itself: the other half comes crawling in hordes everyday from the stations and underground trains only to vanish into them again at the end of the day.



The presence of a number of European institutions in Brussels and the attraction they have for companies and financial institutions, who all want to have their company head office in the Belgian capital, has had some very detrimental consequences. One of them is land speculation: rental and purchase prices have been forced up, whole blocks of houses left to stand empty and decay so that office blocks and/or hotels can be erected there later. The population is increasingly escaping from now uninhabitable heart of the city. Decayed homes are often occupied by the poorest inhabitants: one often comes across a new form of 'cohabitation' there, that of the pensioners and the immigrants who have nothing.

In terms of urban planning, Brussels, which is a treasure house of Art Deco buildings, is one of the most devastated, degenerated of European cities. This architectural mutilation does not date solely from recent decades, however, but has been more or less constant during the last 150 years of Brussels' history.

Between 1865 and 1871 the River Zenne, which flowed through the heart of the city, the so-called Brussels pentagon, was covered over: in order to achieve this thousands of inhabitants from the lowest classes were evicted from their houses and forced out to the outskirts (e.g. Molenbeek). The opulent homes that later arose along the fine avenues above the covered river, and which remind us of Haussmann' s Paris, were of course far too expensive for the original inhabitants. A similar scenario was played out when the gigantic Palace of Justice was built, designed by the architect Poelaert and constructed between 1866 and 1883: in order to make it possible, a part of the Marolles area was demolished, just about the oldest working-class area in Brussels, where the most authentic and the most tolerant 'Brussels' dialect was spoken, a comical, picturesque mixture of Dutch and French. Since then the word ‘architect', usually preceded by the prefix ‘scheyen' , meaning crooked, has become a term of abuse in popular Brussels parlance. This hugebuilding (it measures 160 by 180 metres and its dome is 122 metres high) stands on the boundary between the upper and lower parts of the city and so separates the poor Marolles from the chic Avenue Louise: for this reason it is also referred to as the Palace of Injustice

In 1952 the North-South link was completed: the North and South stations were connected underground. This operation left a trail of mutilation behind it. And a little later, in preparation for the1958 World Fair, the city was once again turned upside down in order to build an inner ring, consisting of a series of tunnels and a centrally positioned ‘temporary’ viaduct that dominated everything and was to remain until the nineties. Added to all this was the megalomaniac Manhattan project, for which the whole of the North district was demolished. The inhabitants were forced out to make way for a series of office blocks. Later the whole project turned out to be a financial flop and a miscalculation and the government took over the empty office blocks. The consequences of these clearances are still visible as wounds in the heart of the city, as weed-covered wasteland. At the present time the Leopold District and the area around the South Station are being turned inside out for the construction of the European Parliament building and the HST route respectively.



But Brussels remains a city of paradoxes. The previous paragraphs conjure up a view of a city that consists of stone tower blocks with great gaps between them, but after Washington Brussels is also the Western city with the most square metres of greenery per inhabitant and the fact that Brussels appears to be one permanent building site, manifesting itself first here, then there, also has its positive sides, according to Brussels-lover and author Eric De Kuyper: "Brussels is a capital of decay. But without a bad conscience. And without the 'laisser-aller' of the southern countries. Brussels deals lavishly and lustily with its decay, without the slightest trace of resignation or fatalism. And though you might think to descry something of this sort, it is still only pretence and strategy. (…) The fascinating thing about urban planning in Brussels is not the result, but the process." In the end one will almost see as a quality the sensible, patient feeling of keeping things in proportion that the inhabitant of Brussels maintains in the face of the constantly temporary character of his city. So perhaps Brussels 'is' Maurilia, which as a world city "has one attractive quality left, that what it has become allows you to look back with nostalgia at what it was".