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Visiting the Free University of Brussels, Belgium, with its neo-Baroque architecture: remembering Theodore Verhaegen

Updated on September 9, 2014
Flag of Belgium
Flag of Belgium | Source
Free University of Brussels clock tower, Solbosch, Brussels
Free University of Brussels clock tower, Solbosch, Brussels | Source
Statue of Theodore Verhaegen, Brussels
Statue of Theodore Verhaegen, Brussels | Source
Marie Popelin (1846-1923)
Marie Popelin (1846-1923) | Source
Map location of Brussels, Belgium
Map location of Brussels, Belgium | Source

Bilingual issues and various strands of radicalism

The main building of the Free University of Brussels (French: Université Libre de Bruxelles; or ULB)(1) is situated on Franklin Roosevelt Avenue, Solbosch, Brussels and was the work of Alexis Dumont. This work was undertaken from 1924 to 1928. Architect Dumont was retained for this work, following a competition. This architect was particularly influenced by styles from the Netherlands, dating from 1650 to 1750.

Features of this building include a striking, neo-Baroque frontage, on which there are symmetrical stone and brick patterns. At intervals, feminine allegrical figures are discernible. A Latin inscription includes the date 1928.

The frontage is complemented by a Memorial Tower, thus named to commemorate the leadership of an American foundation. This group was the Commission for Relief in Belgium Education Foundation , through the generosity of which the building work was undertaken, coming as it was just a few years after the devastation suffered by Belgium during World War One.

The university reckons Théodore Verhaegen (1796-1862) to have been its main founder. A lawyer, who also served for many years as President (or Speaker) of the National Assembly, his educator's aspirations came into prominence particularly following the Belgian Revolution, in which he did not take part. His personal outlook combined strong religious practice with close involvement in freemasonry and a pointed conviction regarding the limiting of clerical influence. When the Belgian bishops founded a university at Mechelen in 1834, it was thus Verhaegen, together with others of similar, liberal outlook, who sought to provide educational opportunities to a rising generation which would not be coloured by what they saw as excessive, clerical influence. Other leading figures of this movement included Auguste Baron (1794-1862), who became the first secretary, and Adolphe Quetelet (1796-1874), a leading astronomer and mathematician. Thus in 1834, the university which became known as the Free University of Brussels was born.

During the 19th century, the Free University became established as a leading centre of learning. Women were admitted from 1880; a noted alumna in the 19th century was Marie Popelin, Doctor of Laws, 1888. The distinguished Belgian chemist Ernest Solvay worked to develop scientific research and medical training at the Free University. Beginning in 1890 in the law faculty, and later extended to other subjects, some courses were made available through the medium of Dutch. (See also note 1, below.)

Just as the university's main founder was too liberal for some people and too conservative for others, so, too, the Free University, in the course of the 19th century, may be said to have faced pressure from both ends of the ideological spectrum. For the Belgian bishops, the university was too liberal. But in the 1890s, a socialist university Rector was fired by the university council, a student of anarchist disposition had been disallowed from continuing his studies and lectures by anarchist geographer Elisée Reclus were curtailed. Resulting from these ideological conflicts, a rival university, claiming to be the true Free University, was started in 1894 by educators of a more radical mindset. This rival institution did not, however, survive World War One.


(1) The Dutch name for the Free University of Brussels is: Vrije Universiteit Brussel , which, since 1970, has been separate from the French-speaking part, and is based at another site. In a manner that students of Belgian institutional history will readily appreciate, however, the separate identities of these two institutions does, however, have linguistic and referential implications. French-speaking students and faculty are expected to refer — in French — to "la Vrije Universiteit Brussel" (or: VUB), when speaking of their Dutch-speaking counterpart. This is in order that Francophone students and faculty may clearly distinguish the Dutch-speaking institution from references to themselves.

Also worth seeing

In brief, while in Brussels it will be very worthwhile visiting the Grand' Place ; adjacent to the striking Royal Palace is the BELvue museum of the Royal dynasty; the Erasmus House, Anderlecht, has exhibits regarding Renaissance scholar Erasmus of Rotterdam.


How to get there: Brussels Airlines flies from New York to Brussels Airport (Brussel Nationaal / Bruxelles-National ), from where car rental is available. However, the public transit is a very convenient way of getting around Brussels; bus 71 travels to ULB. Visitors should note that some facilities may be withdrawn, without notice. For up to date information, please check with the airline or your travel agent.

MJFenn is an independent travel writer based in Ontario, Canada.

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