Belgium pavilion to serve up 'belgitude' (with fries)

24 September 2020
Belgium's participation at Expo 2020 Dubai will build on the nation's famed approach to innovation and culture

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In the year 1958, Belgium played host to the first major World Expo after the Second World War, beating competing cities including Paris and London.

Belgium was no stranger to World Expos – it was the country's sixth time hosting the event.

This occasion was different though. 

Expo 58 took place as the traces of war were fading away. There was a need for a progressive shift in mindsets and participation was seen as a symbol of peace.

A change in pace

Earlier expos, from 1851 until the First World War, focused on technological innovation and brought forth the best of the industrial revolution.  

However, the theme of Expo 58 – “A world view – A new humanism” – implied the need for human-centred progress while pursuing innovation. This idea of humanism formed the basis for many world fairs to follow.

A significant number of attractions were showcased at the event, including Belgium’s iconic landmark, the Atomium. Intended to serve as a symbol for the peaceful use of nuclear technology, the Atomium became a central fixture of Expo 58. It was meant to stay only for the duration of the expo, but continues to adorn the skyline of the capital Brussels to this date.

In the years that have followed, Belgium has continued to play its part as a powerhouse of innovation and culture, not just within Europe but globally.

Today, it is one of the most urbanised and industrialised European nations, housing more than 60 headquarters of international associations including the European Union, North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (Nato) and the European Organisation for the Safety of Air Navigation (Eurocontrol).

Expo 2020 participation

At Expo 2020, Belgium promises to showcase its culture in the same way as it has done throughout history: with an emphasis on diversity and innovative ideas.

“Belgium is and has always been at the origin of ideas and innovation,” says Patrick Vercauteren Drubbel, commissioner general of the Belgian pavilion.

“The pavilion will showcase our identity through a mix of Latin romanticism in the field of art and Anglo-Saxon technical precision in the technical branches. We plan to bring out the best that Belgium has to offer in all of these fields.”

Belgium was one of the first countries to sign the participation agreement with Expo 2020 Dubai, following which the Belgian Commission General for International Exhibitions (BelExpo) was appointed to oversee all aspects of its participation.

Located in the Mobility District, the concept of the Belgium pavilion is based on the theme ‘Smart and Green Belgium 2050’. The pavilion resembles a giant green arch, which Vercauteren Drubbel describes as an “arched monolith, sober and elegant, reflecting our "belgitude”.

BelExpo wants to highlight Belgian expertise through its pavilion partners, which include the governments of the three Belgian regions – Brussels, Walloon and Flemish – as well as Belgian architects Assar and Vincent Callebaut, general contractor Besix and its subsidiary Vanhout, and scenographer Krafthaus.

BelExpo is also working closely with the Belgian Buildings Agency, which is a federal agency that looks after state-owned real estate.

“Our main goal is to showcase a pavilion that reflects the expertise of our designers,” says Vercauteren Drubbel.

“Our second objective, however, is just as important. We want to ensure our pavilion can be demolished/rebuilt after the expo. Therefore, we are building a light structure, with natural materials. We want to highlight the Belgian companies providing us with these materials by putting them to use in a new concept after the expo and thus giving them even more exposure. We count on Besix-Vanhout and their vast experience in Dubai for the execution of these objectives.”

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Work is currently underway on the pavilion, and only moderately affected by the Covid-19 health crisis and resulting lockdown.

“We have adapted the work regime of the workers to the new dates of the expo in such a way that we can offer them optimal welfare conditions and avoid working outside of the normal working hours,” says Vercauteren Drubbel.

“Aside from delays regarding certain materials and replanning the schedules of workers to ensure safety for everyone working on the Belgian pavilion, we are on schedule.”

Besix is finishing the mechanical, electrical and plumbing works, and in a significant milestone the tower crane has been removed, signalling the conclusion of the large infrastructure works. 

Construction work on the casco (the shell) is scheduled to finish in December, after which the building will be closed off for two to three months.

In March, work will start on the interior finishing and the installation of sensitive equipment and the many plants and trees that will adorn the pavilion. It is planned to be fully completed by the end of August 2021.

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Programming and features

Belgian influence on modern fine cuisine, art and architecture is well-documented. The ground floor of the pavilion will host various fast food stalls featuring Belgian specialties such as fries and waffles, and shops selling Belgian chocolate and souvenirs.

The second floor will include exhibition spaces dedicated to the mobility-inspired scenography. Krafthaus has collaborated with BelExpo to create a space that is “both informative and playful”. The space will depict the themes of sustainable mobility and the green future of Belgian cities through an immersive and participative display.

“Belgium is a leading country in pharmaceutics and bioscience,” adds Vercauteren Drubbel. “These subjects were planned to be a part of our programmes before Covid-19 occurred and will of course be a part of our presentations in 2021 as they have become ever so valuable and relevant.”

The restaurant, business centre and VIP room will be located on the third floor, topped off with a rooftop space for special events. The restaurant is partially opened to the outdoors, capable of seating up to 200 guests. Meanwhile, the business centre offers the possibility to organise events for around 130 people in a theatre/auditorium arrangement.

The Brussels, Walloon and Flemish governments will each organise week-long activity programmes that mirror their own identity.

The Flemish week will take place between 24-28 October 2021. The Walloon week will take place between 7-13 November 2021 and the Brussels Week will take place between 31 January-4 February 2022.

The pavilion will also celebrate Belgium's national day with great fanfare on 5 February 2022.

Ultimately, BelExpo wants to use Expo 2020 Dubai as a reminder of the opportunities that Belgium offers.

“Our presence at Expo 2020 Dubai contributes to the key points and objectives of our organisation,” says Vercauteren Drubbel. “To encourage people to visit Belgium, invest in Belgium and ultimately drive collaboration with Belgian companies and initiatives.”

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