- The interdynastic clashes among rulers in medieval western Europe, development of early forms of industrialization in the textile trade, and migration from countryside to town to meet the labor demands of the latter comprise the central features in the growth of Brussels from hamlet to city.Information on the founding of Brussels is scant and historians differ about details. Still, the area has been inhabited continuously since Roman times. It was the construction of a castrum by Charles of France in ca. 977-979 that launched the town's beginning, leading to the building of adjoining houses, chapels, dockside facilities, and marketplaces. The settlement's geographic location as a frontier outpost of, first, the county of Leuven and, later, the duchy of Brabant led to growth spurred by military necessity. By the 12th century, the military camp was moved to the Coudenberg hill overlooking the Senne River and the emerging town, which, together with the building of the Coudenberg Palace, further solidified a royal presence.The ruling aristocracy, the merchants and artisans, and the Roman Catholic Church each contributed to the city's growth as an administrative center, a commercial entrepôt, and a place of worship.The small settlement extended gradually beyond the three small river islands and adjoining riverside marshland to the surrounding high ground, which was enclosed by the first town wall, completed in 1100. The area within witnessed steady growth as it offered security from both invaders and river flooding. The wall defined the boundaries within which political and religious authority—centered on the Coudenberg Palace and the collegiate church of Saints-Michel-et-Gudule—held sway. The separation of the urban space between a lower town and an upper town, which proceeded henceforth, would define subsequent patterns of socioeconomic growth.By 1300, Brussels was a growing commercial and industrial town in Brabant, a political borderland between the kingdom of France and the Holy Roman Empire. It was also becoming an increasingly important ecclesiastical center. Convents, monasteries, and church-run hospitals and schools acquired an ever-growing presence in the community, a pattern that would continue, except for a brief hiatus during the wars of religion, until the end of the 18th century.By the 13th century and continuing through the 14th century, Brussels bustled with activity stemming from woven wool manufacturing, leather making, and metalworking, among other trades. The Grand' Place was founded near the earliest riverside settlement in the 10th or 11th century, and covered markets (halles, hallen) were being built in the midst of open-air markets by the 13th century. The 14th century marked the start of rapid urban growth in the wake of commercial and industrial development that in turn engendered greater political rights and a flowering of art and architecture, which would continue for the next two centuries. Population growth and better defenses necessitated construction of a second town wall, and city authorities, now vested with greater powers, began building on a grand scale. The foundation stone for the Hôtel de Ville was laid in 1401. A department for public roads was set up and street paving began. A plan was drafted to enlarge the central market place and lay out a rectilinear square. Dwellings occupying the site were expropriated and demolished to create the current Grand' Place. The guilds emerged triumphant following the rising of 1421 and set about building grand guild houses. The arrival of the Burgundian regime spurred prosperity and considerable construction after 1430, including the Hôtel de Ville and the church of Notre-Dame du Sablon.By 1550, the urban landscape extended beyond the first line of walls and had spread into the area enclosed by the second series in a trajectory that ran from the rue Haute north to the collegiate church to the portes de Schaerbeek and Leuven and from rue de Flandre and the rues Sainte-Catherine, Marché au Poulets, and Marché aux Herbes to the Coudenberg hill south along the road leading to the porte de Namur. The population was concentrated most densely around the Grand' Place, along the Senne, and in the Sablon and Béguinage districts.The bombardment of 1695 destroyed much of the center city, erasing much of its heritage in Flemish Renaissance architectural style. Ornate guild houses replaced demolished structures, but, aside from some minor corrections made in the rectilinearity of the Grand' Place, no major alterations were made to the streetscape in the city center, which retained its characteristics of winding, narrow streets lined with long, rectangular buildings densely conjoined.During the 18th century, the city remained centered on the Grand' Place, although development of the upper town was much stimulated by building of the place Royale and the edifices surrounding the Parc de Bruxelles. By now, the pentagon of fortified walls enclosing the city had been transformed into tree shaded promenades and the walls would be demolished beginning in the 1780s, the grounds serving as the site for wide boulevards. A decree of 25 June 1784 closing down city cemeteries opened up space for development.The designation of Brussels as the capital of an independent Belgium in 1830 launched the city on a major urban renewal drive. A national capital demanded government and administrative buildings, diplomatic residences, justice courts, and military installations. However, these were difficult to accommodate in a city with scant amounts of open space within the central confines and interlaced with narrow streets. Beginning with the opening of rue Royale before the end of the Dutch regime, entire medieval areas were demolished and most thoroughfares outside the central core were torn up and replaced by planned streets. Between 1830 and 1914, the area encompassing the city doubled from 415 ha (1,025 acres) to 1,046 ha (2,585 acres). City limits extended to the west, where development of the Leopold district, acquired in 1853, attracted the wealthy and upper middle classes eager to abandon cramped quarters in the center. The abolition on 21 July 1860 of toll posts at points along the circumference line of the former town walls served as a spark for the start of extensive development beyond the pentagon to neighboring communes. The arrival of trams and railroads transformed the urban landscape, a potable water supply system was started in 1857, a sewage system was built between 1840 and 1870, and the vaulting of the Senne River and emplacement of modern boulevards, begun in 1867 and completed in 1871, spawned modernization of the central city. Construction of government buildings, the Théâtre royal de la Monnaie, theaters, museums, and schools manifested the city's capital status.Much mid- to late-19th-century development stemmed from the grandiose designs of King Leopold II and his municipal backers. The city was transformed as districts were razed to the ground, reconstructed around wide thoroughfares, interspersed with squares adorned with sculptures and lined by public buildings, gardens, and town houses. Projects included completion of the Bourse in 1873, demolition of the old working-class quarter Notre-Dame aux Neiges in 1874, widening of rue d'Arenberg, construction of the Evere cemetery in 1875, and creation of the Cinquantenaire in 1880. Sections of the Marolles were demolished to make way for the Palais de Justice, the crowning embodiment of monumentalism. To create an elegant approach, the rue de la Régence was extended across the Sablon district. The Leopold district became an upscale development area while the layout of the avenue Louise and its extension to the Bois de la Cambre (1864) and the establishment of the Nord-Est quarter (1875) launched development to the east and southeast and gave this area a decidedly Parisian stamp. To the north, the Squares district was laid out between the 1880s and 1905.By 1900, the stucco or stone, eclectic or neoclassical façades of town houses built after 1830 had become the norm with only sections of the ancient town offering examples of what the city looked like before Belgian independence. Completion of the Port of Brussels in 1922 spurred alterations to former riverside areas of the old town, and annexation of Laeken, Haren, and Neder-over-Heembeek in 1921 facilitated development northward.Following World War II, communes to the south and southeast developed rapidly and upscale residental and office buildings blossomed. Urban renewal was sparked by the need to update transportation links, notably completion of the Gare Centrale, in 1952, which had left sections of the city torn up for decades, and modernization of the road network around and through the city, which King Leopold II had advocated since 1905, began in earnest in the 1950s, prompted by the World's Fair of 1958. The Mont des Arts was transformed into the Albertine complex in giving a completely new look to the area linking the upper town with the lower.Developers evinced a preference for high-rise buildings in the postwar years, the Tour du Midi being a conspicuous example of these edifices that would come to dot the skyline. The Espace Nord with its World Trade Center in the business district near the Gare du Nord came to resemble a miniature Manhattan.Beginning in the late 1960s, the arrival of the institutions of the European Community, later the European Union, and the accompanying multinational governmental agencies and organizations, lobbying groups, and commercial and investment firms necessitated renovation and construction in sections of the Leopold district, which was largely transformed. Many mansions built in the 19th century have been acquired by corporate buyers and either renovated or torn down and replaced with glass-and-steel office and residential complexes.A distinctive feature of much urban redevelopment in Brussels entails the usage of buildings in which ground floors are reserved for commercial space and upper floors for residential occupancy.Haphazard and wholesale redevelopment, resulting in the brus-selization of the city, led to a backlash and efforts began in the late 20th century to ensure more careful urban planning. At the same time, a distinct sociospatial contrast has emerged between more affluent, upscale communes to the south and east, where the bulk of the city's large numbers of expatriates lives, and working-class areas both inside of and directly adjacent to the pentagon as well as in communes to the north and west, where immigrants have congregated. Some older, central city districts, notably the Sablon and Îlot Sacré, have seen extensive urban renewal in recent years.
Historical Dictionary of Brussels. Paul F. State.
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