The Belgian Pavilion, situated on the left side of the alley that leads from the gate of the Giardini to the Padiglione Centrale, was built in 1907 and has been radically altered three times. Its building history intertwines with those of the Biennale buildings as a whole, since every nation keeps an eye on what the others are doing. But one can read the story also as a simplified but true tale of what happened in Belgian architecture in the 20th century.
The commission for the pavilion went to Léon Sneyers, an interesting but little-known Brussels Art Nouveau architect, who had already designed exhibition pavilions for the World Exhibitions of Liège in 1905 and Milano in 1906. What remains of his building today are the blocks of the central hall with the skylight and the entry section: That means that the original outlook, the first plan, the decoration outside and inside, are all gone. Sneyers clearly took the building of the Wiener Sezession by Olbrich as a model. He designed the pavilion as a temple for the arts, with four pilasters on the corners rising above the roof and a rigidly symmetrical closed façade—just as Olbrich had done in Vienna. But he added a Greek fronton, with an architrave and mutili at the sides, monumental frescos by the Belgian symbolist painter Emile Fabry on the fronton and on both sides of the entrance block, two sculptures by Georges Minne on elegant pilasters on both sides of the porch, and in the vestibule a fountain designed by Sneyers himself with decorations by Fernand Khnopff. The pavilion carried a rich iconographical program on the outside as well as on the inside. But it scarcely pertained to the nation of Belgium. The building was about art: the heraldic motives and the flagpoles came later. The impressive allegorical friezes by Fabry represented essential truths about art: Inspiration, Meditation, Creation.
Sneyers’ pavilion was quickly remodeled, the first time by the architect himself. In 1910, after three years, the paintings of Meditation and Creation on the façade of the entry block were taken away, and the overall outlook became more sober. Subsequently, the building underwent alteration by a Belgian architect named De Bosschère in 1930, then by Italian Virgilio Vallot after World War II in 1948, and finally by Belgian architect Georges Baines in 1997. The building’s history illustrates how each architect tried to be of his time, or rather to be “modern”—which certainly is understandable in a context such as the Biennale, where national identity inevitably is an issue—but it also illustrates how this impetus produces an architecture that quickly feels outdated and invites change in just a short period of time.
In 1930 De Bosschère added side rooms to the hall and at the back and changed the façade and entry section: He took away the last surviving fresco by Fabry, the sculptures by Minne, and the decorations in the vestibule, replaced the Greek fronton with straight cornices, and decorated the building with geometrical motives and oculi. The overall impression was no longer that of a temple, but rather of a sophisticated art-deco jewel casket consisting of boxes, straight lines, and angles. The iconographic program shrank to nothing, but the name of the pavilion and one new element survive to today: the coat of arms of Belgium. The pavilion as rebuilt by De Bosschère still had something to say, but it spoke about national identity, no longer about art.
After World War II the Belgian Pavilion was altered again by the Venetian modernist architect Vallot, who also designed the railway station of Venice. Vallot further simplified the pavilion by stripping off its art-deco decoration and giving it a more austere, moderate, modernist look. He redesigned the central hall as a white rectangular block without any ornament or detail and took away the pilasters, as well as the inner architectural ornamentation. The most striking additions are the stone cover of the entry section decorated with a pattern of rosettes, the concave doorway, the flagpoles on the façade and, in particular, the heraldic device written underneath the coat of arms: “L’union fait la force.” It is clear that this is a nationalistic statement, made just before a violent political quarrel on the king’s role during the war would deeply divide Belgium and threaten its unity.
The exterior of the pavilion has hardly been touched since Vallot’s alterations in 1948; it still looks almost as he designed it.
The building was neglected, and serious structural problems became manifest in the early 1990s, to the point that plans were made to demolish it and build an entirely new pavilion. But the building was renovated by Georges Baines in 1997. What was called a renovation, though, is in reality a real alteration. Baines kept the outside as it was, but he continued his predecessors’ work of simplifying and reducing to essentials the building by remodeling the interior into a kind of central-plan church. He made two major changes. He replaced the narrow doorways from the central hall to the side rooms, located in the four corners, with two large openings in the middle, aligned on the axis. And secondly he lowered the floor of the back rooms to the level of the floor in the central hall and enlarged that room’s doorway in the middle by almost completely breaking away the wall. In this manner Baines transformed a hierarchy of bigger and smaller museum rooms into one clearly structured constellation of white cubes, creating the impression of one continuous open space, a space that can be immediately perceived and understood.
So, what do we have? No views, no references to a world outside, but instead a divine, white light. Not a house or a temple, but “space” for art. No signs, no ornaments, no details, but rather emptiness and silence. This is what a hundred years of Belgian architecture looks like after the party: The make-up, the masks and the veils, the many faces have disappeared, the dressed-up appearance has been replaced by naked (at first austere, and finally elegant) simple beauty. So, we have the temple again. Inspiration and Meditation! But the temple now not explicitly, or as allegory, but incarnated and hidden in sacred emptiness, divine whiteness, and wordless pure architecture. After a century of architecture, the pavilion claims to be true and essential, even more than it was on its first day.