By Jürgen Klute and Zhou Yi

The Chinese Pavilion in the Royal Palace Gardens in the Laeken district of the Belgium und European capital Brussels is awakening from a deep slumber

For over ten years, the Chinese Pavilion in the Royal Palace Gardens in Laeken has been lying empty and unused in a kind of slumber, threatening to fall into disrepair. Until 2013, the Royal Museums of Art and History used the pavilion to house part of its Far Eastern collections and present them to the public.

Although the historic building was renovated in the early 1990s, it was closed in 2013 for safety reasons – until today. But that is now set to change. In mid-May 2024, an association was founded specifically to renovate the Chinese Pavilion and put it to a new use in the future.

The driving force behind the project is Diane Hennebert, who is also a member of the board of the newly founded association. The project should be in good hands with her, as she has experience in renovating important Brussels locations. It is thanks to Diane Hennebert’s commitment that both Brussels’ most famous landmark, the Atomium, and the historic Flagey square in the Brussels district of Ixelles have been renovated and preserved.

This initiative is supported by State Secretary Mathieu Michel, the brother of former Belgian Prime Minister (2014-2019) and President of the Council of the European Union (2019-2024) Charles Michel. Among other things, Michel is responsible for the maintenance of buildings worthy of preservation (Régie des Bâtiments) in Belgium. On 18 June 2024, he hosted a press conference in the Chinese Pavilion, at which Diane Hennebert presented the plans for the future use of the building.

Diane Hennebert considers it unacceptable that the Chinese pavilion, which has been a heritage-listed building for a number of years, should not be put to good use again. The project aims to preserve this part of Brussels’ cultural heritage in the long term and to breathe new life into the Chinese pavilion under the new name “Palace of the Silk Roads”.

Hennebert is thinking of founding an institution in which Belgian and Asian representatives of companies and institutions that support the project are represented. According to Hennebert, the honorary chairmanship of this association should be entrusted to a member of the royal family.

The institution will initially be responsible for restoring the building and ensuring that it is equipped with modern facilities so that the pavilion can be used for exhibitions and cultural activities as well as for conferences and tourist purposes in the future. After all, there are two other tourist attractions in the neighbourhood of the pavilion: the Royal Greenhouses and the Atomium. The renovation and revitalisation of the pavilion will be carried out in close consultation with the Royal Commission for Monuments and Sites and in collaboration with the Royal Museums of Art and History.

According to Diane Hennebert, the theme of the Silk Roads is to play a central role in terms of content. She recalled that Silk Roads have characterised trade between East and West since ancient times. This project is inspired by the importance of the Orient in the 21st century for trade, the economy, tourism and ultimately also for peace. With the Chinese Pavilion, Brussels as the Belgian and European capital has an exceptional location, said Hennebert. This location has been a symbol of Belgian-Chinese trade and Belgian-Chinese relations from the very beginning. It is therefore an ideal place to develop activities that reflect both the original objectives behind the construction of the pavilion and the current situation.

According to Hennebert, future activities could again include exhibitions, but also cultural events that provide an insight into the development of China and other Asian countries today. These types of events and exhibitions should also be of particular interest to tourists.

However, the centre also offers the opportunity for representatives from politics, science and business to meet at conferences, congresses, workshops and lectures. In view of global developments, these types of events at this unique location would offer the opportunity to get to know each other better and achieve a deeper mutual understanding between Orient and Occident. This would also create the conditions for future peaceful co-existence and international cooperation to tackle political challenges such as global warming and migration.

State Secretary Mathieu Michel also attaches great importance to the Silk Road Palace in the future as a symbol of good political relations between the Orient and the Occident. This is why the Belgian Foreign Ministry is also interested in the project, emphasised Michel.

Diane Hennebert’s aim is to complete the renovation by 2027 so that the Silk Road Palace can then be put to its new use. The costs for the renovation are estimated at around 5 million euros.

The first steps have already been taken. In 2015, Diane Hennebert initiated the “Out of the Box” association (www.ofthebox.be) for creative education with the support of the European Union. The organisation supports school dropouts between the ages of 15 and 19. Young people from this project cleaned the pavilion and prepared it for the press conference.

However, Hennebert is relying on financial support from sponsors in Belgium and Asia, particularly China, for further work. Initial contacts have already been made. It was learnt that it is not yet possible to say any more details at this stage.

The Chinese Pavilion looks back on a remarkable history. It was designed by the French architect Alexandre Marcel for the World Exhibition in Paris in 1900 and was built in the Royal Park in Laeken between 1901 and 1909 on the initiative of King Leopold II. The building was intended to symbolise the good relations between Belgium and China.

The pavilion, which is decorated with elaborate carvings and traditional southern Chinese elements, was manufactured in Shanghai and assembled in Brussels.

Inaugurated in 1913, the pavilion was originally intended as a restaurant, but never served this purpose. During the First World War (1914-1918), the pavilion was closed. After the First World War, it was handed over to the Science and Art Department of the Royal Museums of Art and History. Instead of a restaurant, the pavilion thus became a permanent exhibition centre in which Belgian trade and cultural relations with the Far East were presented. The exhibition also included an extensive porcelain collection, which was transferred to the Belgian state in 1946.

The Chinese pavilion is considered representative of the fashion for “chinoiseries” and “follies” that was widespread in Europe at the end of the 19th century. There are no comparable examples of Chinese culture in Europe. In addition, the carved woodwork in the Chinese Pavilion has become a very rare cultural heritage, as comparable works have also become rare in China today.

With the advancement of the Silk Road Palace project, Diane Hennebert and her team are working hard to restore and rebuild this historically and culturally significant building. It is hoped that through this effort, the China Pavilion will once again become a center for cultural exchange and international cooperation in Brussels. This project is not only an important symbol of the historical relationship between Belgium and China, but also a powerful witness to cultural and economic exchanges between the East and the West in the 21st century, foreshadowing deeper interactions and cooperation in the future.

Photo Gallery

By Jürgen Klute

Featured photo: Jürgen Klute

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