Paris 1937 – Belgian Pavilion
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 Leon 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.