Léopold II’s (1835-1909) driving ambition was to speed up Belgium’s urban development. He wanted to make Brussels not only a beautiful and prestigious city, but also a wonderful place in which to live, capable of matching the other great European towns.
In 1880 the Belgians celebrated the fiftieth anniversary of their independence: it was an ideal pretext to organize a National Exhibition. Barely a year before the exhibition Léopold II asked the architect Gédéon Bordiau to trace the main outlines of a huge park on an abandoned military training camp outside the city itself: the plateau of Linthout, which covered 12 hectares.
Bordiau designed two buildings for this Exhibition linked by semi-circular colonnades with an Arch of Triumph built in the extension of the Rue de la Loi: an avenue leading to Tervuren was also planned. Needless to say, they were not completed in time for the Exhibition and the colonnades and the Arch of Triumph were made of wood and plaster. After the festivities the authorities had no specific plans for the plot of land although building continued. The park was enlarged by expropriations and purchases to its current size of 30 hectares and was given the name it bears today, the Parc du Cinquantenaire.
Bordiau had the Universal Exhibition of 1888 in his sights and he had a big hall in glass and steel built behind the colonnades. The roof structure had a span of 48 metres, a phenomenal size for the era! On the day the Exhibition opened the Arc of Triumph was still far from finished. Thus, a provisional monument in wood and plaster was erected on its foundations. In 1897 yet another Universal Exhibition was held on the site.
The king asked for the big hall to be divided into two symmetrical halves. Thanks to this a huge esplanade was created giving a matchless view of the Arch of Triumph in the direction of Tervuren. The front and rear facades of the halls were made of glass supported by metallic structures, and the halls themselves vaunted the merits of two industries in which the Belgians were leaders at the time: steel and metal. Both halls still stand today: one houses the Air Museum, and the other Autoworld (since 1986).
In 1905, the Arch of Triumph was finally built. It was designed by the architect Girault who was appointed Bordiau’s assistant by the king. Although the Arch was huge it had been initially refused by the Monuments’ Commission on the pretext that it was too small!
In 1910, two additional walls were built linking the halls to the colonnades, which added the final touch to the monumental structure on the esplanade and enhanced its splendor.
Beginning in 1902 a motor car and cycle show was organized every year in the Parc du Cinquantenaire by the Car and Cycle Manufacturers Trade Association, the ancestor of the current FEBIAC.
Throughout the years the hall that houses Autoworld today was used for different purposes. During WWI it served the German army as a garage. The Mundaneum, whose origins went back to the end of the 19th century, was installed there in 1920. Its founders were two Belgian lawyers: Paul Otlet and Henri La fontaine.
The Mundaneum, which became a universal centre of documentation during the 20th century, was behind the creation of various different international standards dedicated to knowledge and its spread.
After WWII the hall was used for various purposes: office of the ministry of economic affairs, storage area for the equipment of the ADEPS and even a resting place for pigeons taking part in competitions! Little by little the building fell into decay until 1984 when it was chosen to house the Mahy Collection.