Laeken - City of Glass 2

Join Stephen Becker on the second part of his trip to Laeken, the stunning 'city of glass' in Belgium.
Dr. Stephen Becker, 21 Westfield Grove, St. Johns, Wakefield, Yorks
Chamaerops No. 9, published online 23-09-2002

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A Visit To Laeken

It was Leopold's wish that the Greenhouses be accessible to the public each year. Subsequent monarchs have observed his wishes and in excess of 100,000 people are admitted to the City of Glass during the four weeks in April/May.

The visit to Laeken takes the form of a promenade through the greenhouses and connected walkways over a distance of nearly one kilometre under glass; roughly in reverse order to the dates they were built.

The number of differing species ins not large - as in scientific collections - but the aesthetics of the building and the elegant manner in which the plants are displayed makes for a dazzling and unforgettable experience.

The Palm Tree Pavilion

We queued at the Palm Tree Plateau by the Iron Church and entered the Debarcadere, a barrel-vault greenhouse, the entrance of which is guarded by a deep green Sentry Palm. Past young Phoenix palms, Cibotum regale, Stag's Horn and Elephant's Ear Ferns we slowly moved on to the Palm House, built by Balat's pupil Horta, in the Art Nouveau style. We passed beneath the arching fronds of Tree Ferns and clumping Phoenix and an avenue of fruiting Howea forsteriana. A huge and quite marvelous Musa x Paradisiaca together with Chamaerops of different ages, some single and some multi-stemmed, orchids, Anas, Rubber Tree and Philodendrons were embedded in a mat of Selaginella planted with geraniums, begonias and other flowering plants. The path ended by an immense Strelitzia alba which unfortunately was not in flower, but nevertheless, a mightily impressive sight.

The Great Gallery

The Great Gallery bypassed the Palm Tree Pavilion and Sacristry, which are sadly never open to the public. The Gallery had red-flowered climbing geraniums trained along the walls. Across the glass roof were festooned numerous varieties of Fuschia, Heliotrope and the very distinctive and quite deliberately chosen Abutilon megapotanicum its tiny delicate flowers of red, yellow and black, reflecting the colours in the national flag. The impression was of a giant floral tube, which led to the Azalea House.

I did not appreciate the Azalea House. The path serpentined through lurid banks of Azaleas and fluorescent dwarf Rhododendrons. Photographers and video cameramen were in abundance. I did not share their enthusiasm. The Belgian collection is apparently of world importance.

We continued our stroll through the gently sloping Gallery. One small cul-de-sac provided a tranquil haven. A gravel path, with Cyathea australis on either side set in a gigantic and very varied floral arrangement, led to a quiet seat beneath a drooping array of Medinilla magnifica. Beyond the bench the path dog-legged into another avenue of Tree Ferns. I was beginning to feel more than envious at this point.

The asymmetrical Diana Greenhouse is at the end of the first section of the Great Gallery. Chamaerops humilis and Medinilla, large Bird's Nest Ferns, and enormous Dracaena and Cyathea stood on either side of a Selaginella carpet leading to a statue of the goddess Diana. Behind her stood an enormous banana tree. In the foreground a truly magnificent Dombeya wallichii dominated the right hand side of the greenhouse.

At the end of the next section of the Great Gallery was a Cinnamon tree and above our heads a Cibotum regale was suspended in a hanging basket. The staircase led down to an underground section whose walls were composed of a spongy mat of Ficus pumilla from which at metre intervals, different varieties of Platycerium projected. There must have been hundreds. There was then an abrupt change and the Stagshorns were replaced with thousands of feathery ferns - Polypodium billiardieri. The effect was absolutely sumptuous. It was at this point I began to fantasise about owning the place.

The Embarcadere Greenhouse was originally conceived as a reception area for guests prior to social functions in the Winter Garden or the Dining Room Greenhouse. Large oriental ceramic pots supported by barley twist pedestals - collected by Leopold in the Far East on his 1864 world tour contained very beautiful specimens of Medinilla magnifica in full bloom. I was trying to imagine the number of statesmen and their entourages who had probably made the same journey that we were making.

Turning right we climbed the White Staircase to enter the Congo Greenhouse.

The Congo Greenhouse

The Greenhouse is quadrilateral with curvilinear sides. In each corner are quadrilateral cupolas and rising from the central portion is an octagonal dome upon which perches a star - the symbol of the Congo State. The whole roof structure is supported by slender iron pillars, which are never noticed anyway because the eye is overwhelmed by the astonishing nature of the planting. Commissioned in 1886 it was intended to house tropical specimens from the Independent Congo Free State, of which Leopold had become sovereign the previous year. Due to their apparent unsuitability for greenhouse cultivation, the original plan was revised and tropical species from elsewhere were obtained.

The Congo Greenhouse is an enormous forest comprising Chamaerops, both Howeas, Livistona chinensis and australis, Phoenix and Rhopalostylis and massive Yuccas, in a carpet of club moss with strategically placed Agaves, Alocasia and Philodendrons. Passing though thins sumptuous jungle, the visitor walks through the annexe leading to the Winter Garden.

It is difficult to convey the sheer beauty of the annexe. It comprises three paths between enormous Cibotum regale, C. wendlandii and C. schiedei. The largest specimens were regularly spaced on either side of the central isle. Their furry ginger trunks resembled gothic columns. Fronds, some were as thick as a forearm, vaulted high overhead and the intersecting leaves formed a geometric patterned cathedral roof. The same design applied in the two smaller aisles. I lost count at 30 mature trees as my eye was caught by the sculptural quality of emergent fronds - massive coiled catherine wheels and shepherd's crooks. And of course the ferns were floating on a multicoloured mass of bedding plants.

Balat's Masterpiece

Superlatives were spinning through my head as we entered the Winter Garden, but then I realised it was possible to be astonishingly astonished. The Winter Garden is Balat's masterpiece.

It is mind-bogglingly immense. The total structure is 57 metres in diameter and 25 metres high. 36 stone fluted Doric pillars, one metre in diameter, support a massive entablature on top of which the 36 visible iron arches of the central dome arise. The central dome is 41 metres across, and the arches are kept in position at the top and at the bottom by two giant concentric iron rings, between which are ornamental arches and decorated cast iron pillars. Within the dome are three more decorated concentric rings, which support the glazed sections. The tops of the arches are further secured by a dodecagonal lantern in the form of a corolla, and this in turn is surmounted by a royal crown. The whole of the central dome is self-sufficiently supported, but is structurally linked to the distinct second part of the structure. Surrounding the central portion is a circular gallery forming a promenade 8 metres wide. Its glass roof is supported by 36 flying buttresses of iron, which meet the central dome at the level of the Entablature.

From the outside the 36 visible arches of the central dome and the arches of the promenade appear to be all one piece. This is not the case - the two parts being integrally designed but functionally separate. It is a stunning combination of classical masonry and the new materials - iron and glass. The entire structure is exceptionally beautiful and something to be marvelled at. Balat, and his pupil Horta, thus paved the way for a novel approach to structure, design and materials. At the end of the nineteenth century Brussels became the architectural trailblazer for the rest of Western Europe.

The Great Dome

Whereas the visit to Laker up to the end of the Great Gallery had been directed by the general flow of people, at the Congo Greenhouse and in the Winter Garden we were free to meander to and fro.

Turning right into the gallery we passed by Phoenix canariensis, and a delicious sprawling blue Stenocarpus. Behind this was a fine Sabal minor with fans over a metre across. Then, by a very desirable ginger, hirsute Cibotum, we came to a Dombeya and more Phoenix. Further on were male and female Zamia frederici-guilielmi, both of which were bearing two cones apiece, and both had twin crowns. I was coveting very badly at this point.

No plants prior to the Winter Garden had any indication of what they were but here the names of occasional specimens were indicated by quaintly fading and rusting enamel badges. A moderately tall but typically stocky Butia was labelled Cocos bonetti.

We then moved on to the Central Dome. Drawings at the time of the inauguration indicated that the palms reached only to the entablature, but now some have nearly reached the full 25 metres. The Latania lontaroides with an impossibly narrow trunk had I'm sure made it to the lantern. The blue badge fixed to it was eaten away with rust but 'Latania borbonica' could just be made out. The Livistona australis, likewise, had nearly made it. The silhouette of their fans against the intricacies of the ironwork was very pleasing. This was shown on the cover of Issue 7 of 'Chamaerops'.

Beneath the very high 'canopy' were a number of other layers. Rhopalostylis baueri and a Rhopalostylis sapida were flowering. The massive Phoenix canariensis sported many inflorescences. The Howea belmoreanas were of various ages and abundant. One banana tree was at least 10 metres high. The Sabal palmetto with a five-metre trunk and fantastic foliage, had beneath it on either side, superb Dicksonias.

The 7-metre Washingtonia robusta was matched in size by a Monstera deliciosa successfully negotiating its way up the puny trunk of one of the very tallest palms. Phoenix roebelenii and dactylifera were also to be found. Surveying the central patio with many people milling around, I tried to imagine the two inaugurations of the Winter Garden. The first in 1880 was to mark the official engagement (and the first meeting!) of Princess Stephanie to the heir apparent to the Austrian throne, Prince Rudolf. The celebration involved a 200 strong Viennese choir to entertain the guests, who comprised the Royal party and fifty others, including the entire Belgian government together with ambassadors, court and local dignitaries.

The second inauguration in December 1891 took place when the whole of the Greenhouse complexes had been completed. On this occasion, Leopold arranged a surprise party for all those workmen who had been engaged on the project. 500 people ate in their working clothes in the Dining Room Greenhouse.

They were served strong beer and cold meats, before filing into the Winter Garden, where Leopold and Clementine circulated among them. Finally as dusk approached, those assembled were completely startled as the artificial lighting was abruptly turned on. The frontiers of technology - electricity and the light bulb.

Leaving the dome we wandered along the other side of the walkway. A sumptuous cluster of Phoenix sylvestris must be mentioned and a glorious 4 metre high Datum with white trumpets high in the foliage. I have not mentioned the ginger plants, the enormous number of Cymbidium and numerous other specimens but I should have. I have also omitted reference to the unsurpassed lushness and health of the plants, and the overwhelming impression that lavish care and attention to overall design and detail had obviously been afforded to every item - again I should have.

Through another shorter annexe we reached the Orangery. There were a very large number and variety of citrus trees planted in mammoth tubs supported within intricate wrought iron frames. Some of the trees were apparently over 200 years old.

We wandered and looked, but my mind was somewhere in the city of glass. I now had true insight into the meaning of the term 'rubberneck'. Further, I comprehended what motivated Leopold to regularly get up in the middle of the night to walk around the glasshouses inn order to convince him that all was well with his creation. I also knew why he chose his deathbed to be in the Palm Tree Pavilion.

Leaving the Orangery we passed into eyepiercing daylight. I walked backwards towards the monument that Leopold erected to his father's memory, surveying the Royal Palace and the grounds. As we passed the towering Sequoiadendron giganteum, I knew that I wanted to be the next king of the Belgians - but the question was...how?

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