MORE THAN A QUARTER OF A CENTURY
The saying goes that ‘true value does not need the test of time’. And yet! The love affair between Brussels and the Botanique is not one that was born yesterday… and their complicity was not always all beer and skittles… Read on and be the judge… Good old Victor Hugo, who sung of Waterloo, morne plaine (Waterloo, gloomy plain) before writing his admirable masterpiece Les Misérables in Brussels, once declared, ever the fine, enlightened connoisseur: ‘Brussels possesses two unique wonders of the world, its Grand-Place and the panorama of the Jardin Botanique’.
Although the Grand-Place has managed to preserve its place and perimeter at the heart of a city that is increasingly astride a provincial, unpretentious and endearing aspect and American-style metropolitan extravagance, the panorama of the Botanique has unfortunately long lived. It withers as the city has invaded and trampled it. Worse still, it died as buildings were erected and as the boulevards confined it to a second role of green space, suffocating at the heart of inextricable crossroads.
Surviving these disasters, the Good Old Botanique never shed its loveliest attire: its green lawns and the glass walls that we still marvel at, as yesteryear the hearts of our elders missed a beat as they gazed upon it. On the inside, the Botanique is no longer what it was. Is it merely a question of vocabulary? Is there any difference between its original culture –Belgian chicory, the witloof was invented there– and the culture it defends today?
Indeed, it feels as if a ghost of merry knowledge protects it.
‘Brussels possesses two unique wonders of the world, its Grand-Place and the panorama of the Jardin Botanique.'
From 1823 to 1939, the Botanique was a haven for science and botanical studies. The building made do without governance for roughly forty years before being reconverted into a space for culture and imagination fifty years later when, on 23 January 1984, it became the cultural centre for the French Community of Belgium. Bull’s eye: for the past twenty-five years, it has successfully completed its mission. What conclusions should we draw? From the diversity of disciplines exploited in its early days, the Botanique is ever-increasingly dedicated to musical discoveries and art demonstrations. Better still, since the explosion of its activities in the past fifteen years, it boasts the title of one of Belgium’s most visited and active cultural centres.
Let’s put the cards on the table. Today, the Botanique represents each year:
• More than 280 concerts
• Around 10 art exhibitions and activities, 30% of which focus on photography, today’s leading medium
• 100.000 tickets issued
• May’s Nuits Botanique: more than 60 concerts and 110 artists over ten days
• 560 artists all disciplines confounded, around 35% of whom are from Belgium, mostly from Wallonia and Brussels
A TOUCH OF HISTORY
The Brussels botanical gardens were formerly located within the palace of Charles of Lorraine, on the rue de Ruysbroek. Exit this haven of peace in around 1826, when the first shovels threaten the palace. At the time, the young Belgium intended on extending its Royal Library, demolishing the walls of the city, and subscribing to urbanistic prescriptions worthy of a country in full economic growth. Using the sole force of their persuasion, a handful of amateurs (who generally had little or no say in the matter) managed to finance the creation of a new botanical garden that would border the city. Scharbeek, which was only a village at the time, was about to play host to the Dutch royal horticultural society, which had set its heart on the six hectares of soil covering the grounds between the gates to the future “City of Donkeys” and the current Place Rogier.
The building and its gardens, planned by architect Charles-Henri Petersen, were inaugurated on 1 September 1829. Closecall… Since every rose has its thorn, a shambles of financial problems soon forced the management to privilege the commerce of plants. Fair trade? The didactic and scientific vocation of the gardens seemed threatened from its very start. Thankfully, the State assumed its responsibility and acquired grounds and building in 1870. For a while at least, this would guarantee the panorama, scientific vocation and public esplanade of the Botanique. This was its golden age and would go on for a good 50 years.
Inexorably, the city is on the move. No rest for the wicked. Very soon, the exiguity of the site drives into a dead end. Particularly since the between two wars seems to be the ideal time for new projects.
The creation of a northsouth train junction for instance… and the dead end becomes martyrdom. In 1939, the Jardin Botanique as such is forced to immigrate and settle in Meise’s Bouchout domain while the war already rages at the doors of Belgium.
As was to be expected, nothing stops progress. That is, a progress that is born of the minds of deciders and entrepreneurs who are too happy to pinpoint successes that will sometimes turn their heads... And that leave us raging mad, angry, disappointed, incredulous, powerless. The repercussions of the Second World War will further reduce the quaint horticultural testimony of the town centre. The development of the ring and the creation of the Boulevard Saint-Lazare slice the gardens in two parts. Still, this is not the deathblow.
In 1979, the French Community of Belgium takes over. The good old Botanique has another lifespan. One that is completely different.
FROM 1984 TO TODAY
How can a scientific tool be transformed into a concert hall that must respond to the standards of soundproofing and safety of public areas?
The site being listed, the outside of the building will be preserved, intact.
Inside, the specificity of each room will be respected in harmony with the demands of a renovation programme. The Centre Culturel du Communauté Française
• 1988-1990: music and cinema festival Eté Botanique, followed by Le Botanique fait sa rentrée and, in September 1994, the first edition of the Nuits Botanique
• Choice exhibitions: Félicien Rops (1985) retrospective, Topor (1989), the inventive genius of Nadar (1995), the graphic Botanique is inaugurated on 24 January 1984. From its very first day, it emerges as the privileged place for meetings and exchanges between artists from Brussels, Wallonia and elsewhere. In its early days, the diversity of activities comes first: the arts, theatre, music, cinema, and dance.
• 1986: first Festival de Chanson en works of poet Henri Michaux (1995), the subversive creativity of Jean Dubuffet (1996), photographs of the Magnum Agency (1993 and 2001), the creative profusion around René Magritte (1997), Henri Cartier-Bresson’s mythical photographs (1998)… and, more recently, hangings by Bettina Rheims, Elliott Erwitt, « Blow Up », Michel Vanden Eeckhoudt, « Le Congo en marche », « Chaplin et les images »…
• Cutting edge music programming in the mid-nineties: Oasis, dEUS, The Smashing Pumpkins or Jeff Buckley…
With such a plethora of activities, the Botanique can only specialize: music and graphic arts will come first! This by no means neglects other areas of creation. In parallel, the Botanique opens to joint productions and collaborations with specialized partners: theatre, dance, cinema, and spectacles for a younger audience complete its bill.
At the dawn of the millennium, the Botanique takes over the Cirque Royal, renovating it into a polyvalent and modern hall capable of hosting every type of show imaginable. Its 2000 seats hall is an ideal setting for confirmed artists and attracts a much wider audience.
Today, the Cirque Royal has taken its independence, but remains the privileged partner of the Botanique.