It’s the event of the spring, the opening of the Royal Greenhouses at the Palace of Laeken. Hundreds of thousands of people come to Brussels from all over Belgium and beyond to see this glass and steel wonder. So many, in fact, that it’s difficult to get tickets if you don’t book in advance for this enchanting tour through one of the most beautiful parks in Europe that takes place every year for three weeks. The Royal Greenhouses are currently being renovated to reduce their energy footprint and keep them in good condition for future generations – so that we will still have the pleasure to discover this intriguing plant world under this splendid glass roof for many years to come.
But where do the Royal Greenhouses come from? In the past, it was a sign of superior taste to have a greenhouse with exotic plants to show guests at dinner parties. The host could walk with his guests through his gardens and explain his latest botanical acquisitions. This was to show the extent of his wealth and therefore of his power. The first known greenhouse was the Crystal Palace in Hyde Park in London, built for the Great Exhibition of 1851, the first of the World’s Fairs. The greenhouses were at the time a way to expose the industrial and technical know-how of the country. Other examples soon followed: the Palm House at Schönbrunn (Vienna) by Franz Sergenschmid in 1882 – 111m long, 23m high; the Palm House in the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew (London) in 1844 by Richard Turner -110m long, 19m high. Not even the very wealthiest could afford the luxury of having a greenhouse at home. King Leopold II wanted one.
Schoonenberg Palace was built in the 18th century for the governor of the Austrian Netherlands when Brussels was still under Habsburg rule. The palace fell into ruin until the arrival of Napoleon who took it over as a royal residence in 1815. The first king of the Belgians settled there in 1831 following Belgian independence. The Palace of Laeken is still today the residence of the Belgian royal family. Leopold II added a park of 186 hectares in the form of a garden in the English style in accordance with the taste of the time. Following a fire in 1890, the palace was completely renovated by the Belgian architect Alphonse Balat. He added two wings to the palace, and the king decided to build the greenhouses. The exterior style of the building is neoclassical. The interior is in the Louis XV style. After the Crystal Palace in London, it is understandable that Leopold II wanted similarly to show off his power in front of the European courts.
In 1900, Leopold II visited the tour of the world at the Exposition Universelle in Paris. He decided to have a 40m high Japanese tower built to house his Japanese art collection.
Queen Elizabeth I of Belgium recorded the bird songs of the park on a gramophone for scientific purposes. She had many animals on the estate, including a marcassin (a young wild boar) which she presented to heads of state during their visits.
Alphonse Balat carried out the renovation of the Royal Palace of Brussels under the reign of Leopold II. Balat trained at the academies of fine arts in Namur and Antwerp and won the first prize in the architectural composition competition of 1838. For several years he had to build, enlarge, fit out or decorate castles for the Walloon nobility and upper classes. In 1854, he completed the botanical garden of Meise, still open for visitors today a few kilometers outside of Brussels. The Assche Palace was the first important work Balat did in Brussels. It was built in 1856 and has the austere façade of a Roman palace. Today it houses the headquarters of the Council of State (Place Frère-Orban, 1000 Brussels).
Balat built the botanical garden in Brussels. The young Victor Horta worked in his workshops. He likely developed his skills in working with glass and iron during this period, materials that he used in his future creations as well.
The Royal Greenhouses of Laeken were completed in 1876. A real plant city was built. 36 pavilions, glass and steel galleries 700m in length on grounds of 1.5 hectares. 14km of pipes, 14 boilers. The dome of the largest greenhouse is 57m in diameter and 25m high. The weight of the canopy is supported by a circular colonnade placed inside the greenhouse. It extends beyond the greenhouse by a kind of low side which distributes the weight towards the outside. The weight of the dome of the greenhouse is also distributed on buttresses that are placed in a circle around the greenhouse. The dome itself is topped with a crown. There are no less than 36 arches and 36 columns in the Doric style made of Scottish granite. Walking through the Congo Greenhouse, you forget the limit between the interior and exterior space. Alphonse Balat presented us with a true opening onto the world around us. The greenhouses end with a 97m long classical style building behind the palace theater. Between 1885 and 1887, various elements were added to it: a greenhouse for banquets, two annexes, the Palm House, the Diana Greenhouse and the iron church.
The collection of the Royal Greenhouses of Laeken is one of the most valuable in the world. It includes different varieties of palms, camellias, date palms, sabals (fan-palms), haweas, tree ferns, banana trees and magnificent medinilla. Some specimens are over 200 years old. The collection even contains flowers and plants that have disappeared from their original environment. Leopold II was a great collector. He brought back many species of plants from his travels in the Far East. He had a great passion for camellias. There are 296 varieties in Laeken.
In 2021, the Régie des bâtiments and Brussels Energy decided to replace the system that heats the greenhouses. The goal was to reduce the consumption of fuel oil and to reduce the ecological footprint over the next 25 years. The network was connected to the incinerator in Neder-Over-Heembeek to use the excess heat from the incinerator to heat the greenhouses. A green, eco-friendly approach! This new heating system covers 90% of the greenhouses’ needs, reducing the estate’s emissions by 2,300 tons of CO2. The installation required 4,500m of new pipes and cost 4.5 million euros divided between the different organizations of the Brussels region.
In 2022, the architect Francis Metzger, who restored the Grand Palais in Paris, will carry out the restoration of the greenhouse of the Winter Garden, the two annexes and its surroundings. There had not been any major work on this building for 150 years. The study was entrusted to MA2 and Chatillon. Francis Metzger also renovated the Saint-Cyr house (Square Ambiorix) in 2018, the Villa Empain in 2010 and the Maison Delune between 2012 and 2018. The project includes the installation of a ventilation system, the replacement of the glass tiles and the replacement of the steel of the buttresses which move over time and with changes in temperature. The works will last 2 years and will cost 12 million euros. Beliris and the Brussels Capital Region are financing the project.
But what role do the Royal Greenhouses have in our contemporary world? Today, they are used for official dinners when heads of state visit. They are also used for private receptions by members of the Belgian royal family.
They were first opened to the public in 1891. More than 100,000 people visited the greenhouses last year, with the proceeds from the entry tickets donated to charities. They are the symbol of the Belle Epoque. The royal domain of Laeken has managed to preserve a fauna and flora that cannot be found elsewhere in Brussels, as if time had stopped forever.
Le Botanique, Rue Royale 236, 1210 Saint-Josse-ten-Noode, https://botanique.be/en
Royal Palace of Brussels, Rue Brederode 16, 1000 Bruxelles, https://www.monarchie.be/en
Meise Botanic Garden, Nieuwelaan 38, 1860 Meise, https://www.plantentuinmeise.be/en/
Royal Greenhouses in Laeken, Av. du Parc Royal, 1020 Bruxelles, https://www.monarchie.be/en/heritage/royal-greenhouses-in-laeken