February 14, 2013 by kittynh
I covered in a previous blog the belief that some people suffer from a belief they must “build or die”. Usually there is some curse involved. Almost always usually there is some imaginative tour guide involved. What is not usually involved is actual proof the cursed builder ever said “I have to build or I will die” in any form.
I was recently reminded of another “build or die” legend. As with the home of Sara Winchester, this builder could easily afford to indulge his building whims. His family still owns many of the properties he built, though they are sometimes opens them to the public.
The crazy builder, who also is probably one of the most hated men in history even during his lifetime, was King Leopold II of Belgium. Mind you, Leopold (he doesn’t deserve the title King) never cared what anyone, his subjects, his family, other royalty thought of him. He was just interested in making money, and indulging himself in women, and building. He made money exploiting the Congo, at that time owned not by Belgium but by Leopold personally. His brutal methods, truly indicative of why he rates as one of the worst rulers in history, can be read about in the book “King Leopold’s Gosts”. He was criticized by even proponents of Colonial rule such as Arthur Conan Doyle, and when he died the people of Belgium “booed” his coffin as it passed through the streets.
So what did Leopold build with all that money? You have to remember this was his personal fortune, and he didn’t get a hoot what anyone thought of him. He built what is one of our families favorite places to visit when we lived in Brussels, the Chinese Pavilion and the Japanese Tower. While the upper levels of the Japanese Tower were closed for safety reasons, the lower level has a wonderful collection of Japanese armor. The Chinese Pavilion was first built for the French Exposition. Leopold had it moved to Brussels, where it sits as a monument to what a Westerner of the time might think a Chinese Pavilion looked like. Chinese I am sure have always scratched their heads in wonder at the inventive, and culturally incorrect, building. Leopold decided he wanted one room to be full of blue and white china, and so it is. Totally out of keeping with the rest of the building, but he was paying for it so he got it.
It is a delightfully small sized building for a palace, and I am told a favorite for him when he wanted to “get away” from the huge splendor of the main Palace at Laken nearby. We found it often bereft of tourists, except ourselves, and enjoyed exploring. The main Palace still belongs to the Royal Family and is private, but once a year what might be Leopolds biggest building project is open to the public.
The Royal Glasshouses are a must for any lover of flowers and gardening. They do go on and on and on. Not all of the glasshouses, which interconnect, are open, some have been allowed to deteriorate. It’s simply too much money in upkeep even for royals! Still, each room is breathtaking, and you are told by guides that Leopold and his mistress liked spending time in the quiet areas of the glasshouse, just to get away from all those complainers and do-gooders. They would take tea and live a simple life among the greenery and flowers. It’s a bit overwhelming, and after walking and walking you come out with a feeling of “Well that WAS something!” and are glad to see a tree that has not been pruned and is natural. I loved it, but was also reminded of F.Scott Fitzgerald, “The rich are different!” Like the Congo at one time, these glasshouses are still in private hands.
The one thing I was most distressed about was that one of the workers there told me “Well he had to keep building or he believed he would die, that’s why there are so many of the greenhouses.” It did seem a bit like over kill, but I am a skeptic so I asked my Belgium neighbors. They all felt that Leopold was “crazy”, and that of course that is why he kept building. He believed if he ever stopped he would die. His own children, of whom he was far from fond and kept away from as much as possible, were distressed by the extent of his building. Probably they pictured how many gardeners they would need to hire after he was gone.
This belief, that Leopold was “nuts” and his building mania was just proof of his being insane, is part of what I came to feel was a cover up for a ruler that was not a source of pride. The guy was just a jerk, and he built because he liked building. He enjoyed his greenhouses, and he had the money to pay for them. It may have seemed crazy to the rest of us, but the rest of us aren’t heartless psychopaths with an unlimited budget. I don’t think he built to keep from dying. He built because he wanted to, and it probably annoyed his family which was a real plus for him.
Once again, someone that likes building, is accused of “build or die” mania. I hardly think there is any proof, even when my neighbors brought in the “curse of all the Congo natives he had killed” as the reason he had to keep building. If the natives in the Congo that he killed were capable of cursing him, no building of greenhouses would have stopped them from getting this horrible ruler.
Today, we can enjoy all he built. When I took my children, I reminded them that the beautiful Chinese Pavilion and Japanese Tower was built from profits from horrible exploitation and torture. We still enjoyed visiting and they are worth a short trip on the Tram to see. Since they are in Laken, not near the main tourist site of the beautiful town square (said to be the most beautiful in Europe) not many tourists make the trip out to see them.