October 28, 2010

Belgian Fries Museum.

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Let's make it clear once and for all: there really is no such a thing as "French" fries. It may seem futile to protest, but the tremendously popular side dish's origin in Belgium is supported by what little evidence there is. Much of it is on display at the Frietmuseum ("Belgian Fries Museum") in Brugge (Bruges), the first and only of its kind in the world, and in itself indisputable evidence of Belgians' passionate preoccupation with the deep-fried potato strips.

However, it's the Americans — the people responsible for coining the specious misnomer — who have done the most to popularise the dish worldwide. Having themselves become obsessed in the latter half of the 20th century, to a point where only 16 of the 54 kg of potatoes each American consumed in 2006 weren't deep-fried or otherwise processed, they have acquainted the world with fries mainly through their fast food franchises; becoming the world's largest producers as well as consumers of fries in the process.

Unfortunately, their frozen, pre-packaged, pre-fried slices — often dusted with natural or artificial flavours — soaked in animal fats for 15 to 20 minutes, and treated with a sugar solution in order to caramelize the cooking fat to provide the "golden" colour Americans have been taught to expect, have very little in common with fries the inhabitants of the Meuse (Maas) river valley, somewhere between Dinant and Liège (Luik), began supplementing their diet with toward the end of the 17th century.

Genuine Belgian fries, as every Frietmuseum visitor is informed, are made from freshly sliced potatoes, cooked in unrefined beef tallow for six minutes at 130 - 140˚C, then left to rest for ten minutes, before being cooked a second time at 165 - 170˚C for at most another three minutes. While this procedure still results in high absorption of fat and significant reduction in mineral and ascorbic acid content, it makes for a culinary experience far removed from the mushy sticks of lard dished out in North American slop-shacks.

Established by the Van Belle family, who've also created Choco-story (the Belgian Chocolate Museum) and Lumina Domestica (a domestic lighting museum), the Frietmuseum opened to the public in May 2008. It's housed in the Saaihalle (Serge Hall), the oldest building in Brugge displaying a date (1399) on its façade, and though it was expanded in the 15th century to house the Consul of Genova (Genoa), the structure retained much of its original form, and required very little alteration in order to be converted into a museum space.

The museum's first two levels trace the history of the versatile, propitious tuber, from its humble South American origin to its current position as the world's fourth-largest food crop (after rice, wheat, and maize), through its metamorphosis into Belgian fries, and the impact the dish has had on Belgian culture, while its third level essentially is a friet shop. So while it seeks to educate a little through its entertaining displays, the Frietmuseum chiefly provides a venue for savouring the world's best fries — satisfying more than a craving for knowledge.

October 20, 2010

Book Tower.

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Towering atop Gent's Blandijnberg ("The Hill of Blandijn"), the 64 metre tall, 24 story Boekentoren ("Book Tower"), housing the Gent university library, is surely one of the most remarkable library buildings in the world. Devised in 1933 by Henry Van de Velde (1863 - 1957), as part of a new complex including the library and the institutes for Art History, Pharmaceutical, and Veterinary sciences, it was the Antwerpen native's first public commission in Belgium. An established architect, decorator, industrial designer, painter, and — along with Paul Hankar (1859 - 1901) and Victor Horta (1861 - 1947) — one of the leading proponents of Art Nouveau in Belgium, Van de Velde was a professor at the Gent university at the time, having previously mostly worked in Germany.

The site chosen for the new complex, atop the Blandijnberg, had been settled since Roman times, and would allow the tower to not only dominate the city's skyline, but complement its three "classic" towers — those of the belfry, the St. Bavo Cathedral, and the church of St. Nicholas — which made Gent renowned as the "medieval Manhattan". A fourth tower could've been added in the 16th century, had the megalomaniacal project to make the tower of St. Michael's church the tallest in the land not been aborted by religious wars. Van de Velde saw a chance to not only obscure St. Michael's stump of a tower, but add a structure on the highest ground in the city that would stand not only as a symbol of the university, but also as a beacon of science, wisdom, and knowledge.

However, the university's librarians and administrators were less than taken with the idea, commissioning an alternative, conventional building plan from architect Armand Cerulus (1896 - 1963). Yet Van de Velde managed to get his way, and construction of the tower began in 1936, with structural work and most of the façade finished three years later. To emphasise the building's modern nature, Van de Velde chose to erect a tower of reinforced concrete, relying in particular on the skills of colleague Gustave Magnel (1889 - 1955), the main proponent of prestressed concrete in Belgium. His Laboratorium Magnel vor Betononderzoek (Labo Magnel), dedicated to researching concrete and concrete structures, had been part of the Gent university since 1930. (Magnel also designed the first prestressed concrete bridge in North America, the Walnut Lane Memorial Bridge in Philadelphia.)

Then economic crisis and world war prevented completion of the project, forcing some materials to be replaced with cheaper or more readily available alternatives; Congolese Rosewood and marble replaced the metals, linoleum, and rubber consumed by the war. And although, at Van de Velde's insistence, 1% of the total building cost was dedicated to decoration, only Karel Aubroeck's sculpture De Runenleester ("The Rune Reader") and Jozef Cantré's relief were delivered, while commissions by leading Flemish expressionists Gustave de Smet (1877 - 1943), Constant Permeke (1886 - 1952) and Frits Van den Berghe (1883 - 1939) were unfulfilled. Quite unwittingly, Van de Velde's tower, crowned with an impressive belvedere, also provided German forces with a most excellent surveillance post during their four-year occupation of Gent.

Surviving the war unscathed, the structure remains a splendid example of Van de Velde's modernism, as well as one of the primary examples of interbellum modernism in Belgium, the structure's curved lines, rounded corners and edges perhaps being his most obvious signature. But he also had a hand in creating its black iron window frames, floor patterns, doorhandles, furniture, even radiator covers. Modernist principles guided the design, with — for instance — incidence of light determining the position of reading rooms; the main and the periodical reading rooms faced south and received the most exposure, while the manuscript room faced north, remaining shielded from light.

Home to a unique collection some 48 km long (or nearly 3 million volumes, using Library of Congress classification — though in one librarian's words "not systematically"), the Boekentoren is due to undergo long overdue restoration, the urgent need for which has been recognised for at least the past 25 years. Limited space and inadequate climate conditions have rendered it unsuitable as a repository for its vulnerable and irreplaceable collection, dating back beyond the founding of Gent's first university library in 1819. Not to forget that it also fails in providing a healthy work environment for its 72 employees (62% of whom were women, with an average age of 41 in 2008) and numerous patrons.

In 2005, the university board invested € 30 million (≈ C$ 42.5 million in '05) in the restoration project, though to reach the 2003 estimate of € 41 million (≈ C$ 63 million in '03) individual sponsors were invited to purchase each of the 23 million cm² of the Boekentoren's façade at a rate of € 1 per cm², or one of 352 steps in its staircase for € 250 (≈ C$ 354 in '05) per step. During the restoration, scheduled to take place between 2013 and 2019, the most sensitive parts of the library's collection will be housed in a brand new underground repository, to be constructed beneath the library courtyard between 2011 and 2013. The repository is intended to continue providing a space for storing parts of the collection in optimal conditions even after the main restoration is completed, its three air conditioned floors — the lowest equipped with a sprung floor and doubly high shelves — containing some 40 km of compact book shelves.

What makes the Gent university library's collection unique is its origin in collections of various local abbeys, churches, and monasteries abolished in the wake of the French Revolution, as well as the rapacious expansion undertaken until the First World War, adding private collections and archives, numismatic collections, posters, prints, engravings, and ephemera. Whether storing the sensitive materials underground, while retaining the lending collection in the tower, will change the level of access remains to be seen. Though currently anyone can register as a patron, only librarians and staff have access to the tower (what in library parlance is referred to as "closed stacks"), with requested materials being delivered in small metal baskets by a paternoster.

When the original construction ended in 1942, it left Henry Van de Velde dissatisfied; the finished result clashing with his desire for unity in design as well as materials. It was also considerably smaller, lacking not only some of the original plan's structures (such as the archeological and ethnographical museum) but also many of the minor details he was so keen on (like the specially designed steel furniture). One can only wonder what Van de Velde would've made of the considerable facelift in store for the library, which plans to deposit the majority of its collection in a direction directly opposite of the symbol he helped create — to represent the power of science and the book as a universal medium of communication.

(More images of the Book Tower.)

Additional input by Sarah Polkinghorne.

October 10, 2010

Botanical Garden.

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Gent's first botanical garden was established in 1797, at the former Baudelooabdij (Baudeloo Abbey), in the wake of Napoleonic conquest and subsequent educational reform, which — among other things — called for the creation of such gardens in cities of Gent's stature. When the University of Gent was founded in 1817, the Baudelootuin (Baudeloo garden) was placed at its disposal, with the professorship in botany linked to the directorship of the botanical garden. It's an arrangement that persists to this day, with the university's Faculty of Science currently acting steward.

Once the garden outgrew its original location, the Botanisch Instituut (Botanical Institute) as it was then known was relocated to its current site, southeast of the then recently-created Citadelpark (Citadel Park). It's occupied that same location since opening up its gates in 1903 onto a new complex consisting of an open air garden, a greenhouse, a palm house, an orangery, and a number of experimental greenhouses, as well as a new institute building.

To meet the requirements of its expanding collection, new greenhouses were constructed between 1931-32, which were in turn replaced 40 years later with a new palmarium in 1970, and three large public greenhouses constructed between 1971-72. A rock garden was added in the early 1950s, while the Gothic Revival institute building was razed and replaced with a Modernist steel, glass, and concrete high-rise which continues to completely dominate the scenery to this day.

The Plantentuin Universiteit Gent (the Ghent University Botanical Garden), as it's known today, is currently home to more than 10,000 plant species inhabiting the 2.75 hectare (≈ 6.8 acre) site, including 4,000 m² (≈ 43,060 Sq Ft) of heated and unheated greenhouses. Three large greenhouses and a succulent house are open to the public, presenting tropical and sub-tropical plants, while over 20 smaller ones are dedicated to research and specialised collections are open only to staff and students.

In the tropical hothouse, banana, baobab, cinnamon, kola nut, mango, and rubber trees can be found, while the sub-tropical hothouse includes specimens of the camphor laurel, citrus, eucalyptus, and pomegranate trees, as well as castor-oil and tea shrubs. The indoor pond of the Victoria greenhouse and its giant water lillies, adjacent to the other two greenhouses, is in turn surrounded by "economic" plant varieties like cacao, coffee, cotton, papaya, rice, and sugarcane.

Hardy plants are grown in the open air garden, dominated by a large pond, arranged into several areas: the rock garden (mountain species and alpine plants), the medicinal, mediterranean, and vegetable gardens, and an arboretum divided into European, Asian, and American "zones" — reflecting the phylogenic relationships between the plant taxa. Additionally, the Faculty of Science houses a herbarium (over 300,000 specimens), and a seed (diaspores) collection, as well as a small botanical and horticultural library (some 500 volumes).

The botanical garden, open throughout the year, is not only a major source of study material for students (including primary and secondary school pupils) of biology, biochemistry, biotechnology, geology, geography, and related sciences. It also lends out plants to other university departments, while its palmarium and Victoria greenhouse in particular are a popular venue for exhibitions, receptions, and serve as the venue in which biology masters students defend their theses.

(More images of the botanical garden.)

October 5, 2010


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A nowadays largely gentrified, residential area in the middle of Gent, the Visserij ('Fishery') owes much of its character to the revival of the city's once-dominant textile industry. During the Middle Ages, Gent was the centre of one of the first industrial areas in Europe, but centuries of (mainly) religious wars devastated its once-flourishing textile trade and the manufacturing base that underpinned it.

As mechanisation revolutionised textile manufacturing at the end of the 18th century, Gent's surviving textile merchants began erecting new factories at such a rapid pace the city soon became known as the "Manchester of Flanders", turning into the a leading centre of the cotton industry, and employing some 12,000 people by 1816. At that time, most of these factories still relied on power generated by either wind or horse mills.

Then, some enterprising chaps struck upon the idea to utilise the change in water level caused by tides upon the rivers flowing through the city — a difference of as much as a metre, twice daily — to generate power with water wheels. The idea found application along a new canal being constructed parallel with the Beneden-Schelde (or, formally, Neerschelde), quite literally the lower arm of the Schelde river.

By the time the new Visserij canal was dug in 1752, the narrow man-made island it helped create had become a compact industrial zone. Though its name derived from the sea access it provided ever larger vessels the shallower river arm couldn't accommodate, it soon became more closely associated with the numerous factories that had filled it.

Many of these factories were connected to both the Visserij canal as well as the river (hence known as Achtervisserij, the 'hinter-fishery') by subterranean tunnels. Water wheels installed in these tunnels were powered by the water flowing into the canal from the river at high tide. At low tide, the water flow would reverse, returning from the canal through the tunnels, over the wheels, back into the river. The result was a regular, reliable power supplement to the wind and horse mills.

The activity and noise arising from the many factories and mills on this narrow strip in the centre of the city soon made the Visserij known locally as the "Rommelwater" — the 'cluttered waters'. No doubt the pervasive practice of relying on waterways to carry away refuse also helped inspire this bric-a-brac evoking nickname — particularly when steam power replaced the much more environmentally friendly mills and wheels by the end of the 19th century.

Between 1907 and 1909 quays were constructed along the banks of both the Visserij and the Achtervisserij, and the once-industrial island began acquiring the mostly residential character it's retained to this day. Among the few remaining reminders of its industrial past are some of the best-preserved beluiks in the city of Gent — unique residential cul-de-sac alley ways.

Erected by local industrialists, products of the city's rapid industralisation, the beluiks once provided the only affordable shelter for the masses drawn into Gent in search of employment. Though the surrounding waterways no longer act as open sewers, its beluiks no longer home to the working poor, many of the Visserij's structures remain some of Gent's most notable examples of industrial architecture.

(More images of the Visserij.)

With images from the collection of Philippe Bockstael.

Additional input by Nico Smets.

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