The sad history of the Japanese tower and the Chinese Pavilion in Brussels

In 1900 there was a world fair in Paris. The Grand Palais and Petit Palais, as well as the nearby Pont Alexandre III, were built for this fair, and are famous Paris landmarks to this day. The fair showed novelties such as Rudolf Diesel‘s engine (running on peanut oil!), Russian matryoshka dolls, talking films, and escalators.

The world fair also contained a pavilion called Le Tour du Monde, designed by the French architect Alexandre Marcel. The pavilion consisted of a set of buildings showing different architectural styles from all over the world. Within the building were panoramas that showed various places in the world, such as a Chinese city, a cemetery in Constantinople, the Suez Canal, and the Angkor Wat Temple. One part of this pavilion was a pagoda in a Japanese style.

King Leopold II of Belgium visited this world fair, and was so impressed by Alexandre Marcel’s pavilion that he wanted something similar as an ornament for Brussels. He hired the architect to build in a corner of the palace grounds in Laken a Japanese tower similar to that at the world fair, and also a pavilion in the Chinoiserie style. Marcel included a small part of the world-fair pavilion in the buildings for the king, but most of it was newly designed and built. The ostensible purpose of the Japanese tower was to contain a permanent trade show “to stimulate trade with the far East”, and of the Chinese pavilion to be run as a restaurant (a French haute-cuisine restaurant of course, running a Chinese restaurant in it was never considered). I’m not sure anybody took these justifications serious, but the truth is that no restaurateur was ever interested in operating a restaurant in the Chinese pavilion, the effectiveness of the trade show was highly debatable, and in any case it only ever occupied a small part of the tower.

By the way, how did king Leopold II get the money to pay for these toys? In short, by exploiting the people of Congo to the hilt in the pursuit of ivory, rubber, and minerals. A part of modern-day Congo was at the time essentially the king’s personal colony called the Congo Free State. Despite the lofty promises that Leopold made when he aquired the colony, even by the standards of the time Leopold’s reign in his colony was an international scandal. So much so that in 1908 the Belgian government was forced to take over the government of this state from the king. Although it was blood money, the king had vast amounts of money to spend, and spend it he did, including on these buildings.

European artists working in an Asian style may sound like a recipe for kitch, and the result is possibly too sacharine for modern tastes, but both these buildings  were part of much larger art movements. For the Japanese tower, this was Japonism. Starting in the 1860s, many of the most prominent artists of the time, including James Whistler, Claude Monet, George Breitner, Gustav Klimt, and Vincent van Gogh made paintings with notable Japanese influences. These influences were later passed on from Japonism to Art Nouveau and later Art Deco. The Chinoiserie style of the Chinese pavilion is much less defensible, although it mixes well with the Rococo style that is also prominent in the building. Nevertheless, the artistic merit of using Chinese children as exotic cherubs is certainly not as great as that of the Japonism movement.

Both the Japanese tower and the Chinese pavilion were built and decorated mostly by craftsmen from Belgium and France, although the Japanese tower contains some woodcarvings and other elements that were imported from Japan. Recent research has even identified some woodwork as coming originally from Shogun mausoleums; the export of these panels must have been politically convenient at the time. Similarly, the Chinese pavilion contains some wood carvings ordered from China. Nevertheless, both buildings are thoroughly European, even including modern conveniences such as running water and elevators; the Asian appearance is only skin-deep.

The king quickly grew tired of his toys. He celebrated the opening of the Japanese tower in May 1905 with a big party, but during the party the Chinese pavilion was hidden behind a wooden wall; construction had just started. Even at the time there were visible structural problems, the king pursued other building projects, and shortly before his death in 1909 the king donated the pavilion and tower to the Belgian state. The Chinese pavilion was only finished in 1910, and king Leopold II probably never set foot in it.

In 1921 the Belgian government passed the buck to the Cinquantenaire museum in Brussels (originally another project of Leopold II), but that museum also didn’t have the resources to maintain the buildings. Over the years they gallantly tried to use the buildings for exhibitions, but most of the time they only managed to put only one of the buildings in a sufficiently maintained state to open it to the public.

In the early 21st century the fortunes of the two buildings seemed to change. Both the buildings, together with a small nearby building, were turned into the Museums of the Far East, so now both buildings were open for the public at the same time. The museums opened in 2006, still as part of the Cinquantenaire museum. I was lucky enough to visit the buildings in May 2011. Below are some photos I took at the time.

Unfortunately, this happy state of affairs lasted only a few short years: in October 2013 the entire site had to be closed to the public because the Chinese pavilion was falling apart again, and the Japanese tower also was deemed too dangerous for the public. The Cinquantenaire museum still says that it intends to fix and reopen the buildings, but the planning for this is vague, and even the museum itself admits it may not be able to meet any deadline it has set for itself. At the moment they only thing on display are a handful of porcelain pieces that were exhibited in these buildings, and nothing from the buildings themselves.

I also recently visited the Cinquantenaire museum again, and I cannot avoid observing that even the Cinquantenaire museum itself is struggling to keep running, and is slowly deteriorating. Although I wish the personnel of that museum all the strength in the world in dealing with the all their properties, I am not optimistic about the fate of the Museum of the Far East. It may well be that Belgium has more pressing matters to deal with, but it is still a pity that these two eccentric buildings are crumbling and fading away from public awareness.

Click to enlarge the photos.

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