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© St. Petersburg Times, published March 10, 2001

Occasional excerpts from fertile sources.

Flowers, the best revenge

From "Brussels' Palace of Glass & Greenery," Smithsonian magazine, March 2001.

"Leopold II, king of the Belgians and one of the wealthiest and most reviled men of the late 19th century, was showing his young nephew and heir, Prince Albert, around the palace grounds at Laeken on the outskirts of Brussels. Albert, taking note of the grandiose building schemes the bearded older man had undertaken, thought to please him by saying, "Uncle, this is becoming a little Versailles.' "Little?' huffed the king.

"No one can say that Leopold failed to dream and act big. Chief among the Laeken projects was a series of 16 huge, interconnected greenhouses. Built in stages starting in 1874, these structures constitute a palace unto themselves, complete with dining hall, theater and reception areas. And, in an expression of the king's power, they are dominated by an 82-foot-high dome, the Winter Garden, surmounted by a lantern and an immense crown.

"In their light and airy construction, made possible by refinements in techniques for mass-producing glass, iron and steel, the greenhouses heralded modern architecture. The credo of the man who designed most of them, Belgian architect Alphonse Balat -- "Simplify, simplify again, always simplify' -- anticipated Mies van der Rohe's 20th-century dictum, "Less is more.'

. . ." "Flowers,' said a contemporary of the king, "are his poetry, and his revenge for the demands made by reality.' . . . (H)e was a homely, frail baby and was frequently ill. His cold, German-born father began referring to the boy as "the little tyrant' and took note of his slyness, likening him to a fox. At the age of 10, Leopold began arduous military training, and in his 15th year, he lost his mother, a woman of cheerful disposition who had tried to give him love, though her attachment to her two sunnier children . . . was inevitably stronger."

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