In the heart of Brussel, in a truly unobtrusive corner, a beautiful commemorative plaque reminds us of one of Brussels’ most beloved mayors, Charles Buls. Let me explain why it’s there, and turn this post into a little history lesson…
Industrialisation of 19th Century Europe
During the 19th century technological advancement and mechanization caused farm productivity to increase abundantly. Farmers replaced most of their workers with machines. And those workers headed for the cities hoping to find employment in one of the factories there. At the same time, increased farm productivity made food more affordable and eating habits change. And people became healthier. In short: farm workers moved to the city and life expectancy increased which caused cities to explode.
Negative effects of this population growth were the emerging of slums, dilapidation of existing neighborhoods, outbreaks of epidemics, and chaos in general. In Paris, Napoleon III asked Georges-Eugène Haussmann to transform the city. The project included the demolition of crowded and unhealthy medieval neighborhoods, the building of wide avenues, parks and squares, the annexation of the suburbs surrounding Paris, and the construction of new sewers, fountains and aqueducts. Working classes were banished to the suburbs and the center of Paris became spacious and organized. And no one was ever more than a ten minute’s walk away from a park.
In London, the government could not do much due to aristocratic ownership of land. As a result, the city became crammed with factories, offices and slums, and traffic got stuck all the time. To improve their living circumstances, well-to-do families moved away to the outskirts where laborers could not afford to live.
Charles Buls versus King Leopold II
In Brussels, a similar transformation as in Paris and London took place and King Leopold II played an important role in the reconstruction of the city. The king wanted wide lanes and parks like in Paris; he dug canals and built railway stations. And by improving the infrastructure, he facilitated the workers to move to the suburbs while commuting to work in the center of Brussels. At the same time Leopold II created suburbs for the rich.
Being a freemason and a member of the liberal party Charles Buls became mayor of Brussels in 1881. Buls was a supporter of progressive causes, especially in language issues and education. From 1879 on he played an important role in the development of Flemish education in Brussels. At his initiative policemen had to be able to speak both French and Dutch and bilingual signposting was established throughout the city. His most lasting achievement was his opposition to the ostentatious architectural plans of King Leopold II, and the resulting preservation of old parts of Brussels.
Buls was a steadfast defender and admirer of the Mont des Arts and the Grand Place, now a UNESCO World Heritage site. He successfully proposed the 1883 city ordinance to protect the facades of the Grand Place buildings and provide funds for their restoration which took place between 1883 and 1923.
A great example of Buls’ achievements is the guild house ‘The Star’ at the Grand Place. It had been demolished in 1852 under the decluttering pretenses of Leopold II as it was hampering traffic. Mayor Charles Buls ordered its reconstruction in 1897 in its current form. The building now rests on a portico and facilitates movement of traffic at street level.
In 1899, the architects of Brussels who had been involved in the restoration work of the Grand Place buildings paid for a memorial commemorating Buls, designed by Victor Horta and executed by Victor Rousseau. The plaque was placed under the rebuilt ‘The Star’ in honor of Charles Buls. Also, the street between ‘The Star’ and the Town Hall was named after Charles Buls.
In his publication ‘Esthetique des villes’ Buls described his love for the organically grown city. A love that would cause him to have a conflict with King Leopold II more than once. Dissatisfied with the urban ambitions of Leopold II in regards to the construction of the Mont des Arts, Charles Buls ostentatiously resigned as mayor on December 16, 1899.
Karel/Charles François Gommaire Buls 13 oktober 1837 – 13 juli 1914
Charles Buls, le bourgmestre esthète et voyageur / de estheet en reiziger burgemeester
Educatief pakket tekst “Esthetiek der steden”
Karel Buls (1837-1914), burgemeester van Brussel
Landbouw en voeding in de 19de eeuw
L’Esthetique des Villes – Charles Buls (English excerpt)
The Brussels of Horta (PDF)
Wikipage Karel Buls (Dutch)
Wikipage Charles Buls (English)
Wikipage Grand Place (English)
Wikipage Georges-Eugène Haussmann (English)