In 1913, the Belgian city of Ghent hosted a World Expo in the Sint-Pieters-Aalst district, a spot now occupied by the ‘Citadelpark’. The idea of a World Expo in Ghent came from the success of the city’s Provincial Exhibition in 1899, as well as the desire to compete with Liège, which organised an Expo in 1905.
The Expo site covered 130 hectares, making it larger than any Expo previously held in Belgium. The major European nations, the United States, Canada, Argentina and Persia all participated with their own pavilions, and other countries were present in the International Hall. The British and French pavilions were the most prominent of the 24 international pavilions.
The transformation of Ghent
The Expo was an opportunity for Ghent to undertake a major renovation of the city centre, and notably the iconic Graslei (grass quay). The Graslei consists of riverside stone facades dating from the 18th century, and to this day it is one of the city’s biggest tourist attractions.
Additionally, the city’s Sint-Pieters railway station was built for the Expo, as well as the neighbouring 600-room Flandria Palace Hotel, which was designed by Jules Van de Hende in a late Art Nouveau style and which overlooked the Expo site.
The centre of Ghent was impressively decorated with flowers and plants for the opening of the Expo, as the city’s celebrated Floralies floral exhibitions were organised to coincide with the Expo.
The Pavilions: The Old and the New
One of the most popular sections, reminiscent of the ‘Brussels Kermesse’ in 1897, was the ‘Old Flanders’ district.
Old Flanders was designed by Valentin Vaerwyck, who was also the architect of the Expo’s ‘Modern Village’. The juxtaposition of these two sections allowed visitors to appreciate the difference between the past and the present. ‘Old Flanders’ featured stunning examples of classical Flemish architecture based on the sketchbook of Armand Heins. The ‘Modern Village’ had a symmetrical layout of houses and modern farms featuring the latest technology, such as mechanical milking machines.
Among the amusements of the Expo were the world's highest water slide, a 5km scenic rail ride around the site and a 'joy-wheel'.
Ghent’s World Expo was Belgium's largest Expo of the time, and was also the last major Expo in Europe prior to the outbreak of the First World War. Most of the structures built for the Expo were destroyed during the war or dismantled in the aftermath.
One of the few remaining buildings from Expo 1913 is the Sint Gerardus School, which formed part of the original Modern Village. Designed to showcase modern pedagogy and hygiene at the Expo, the building served as a school after the Expo, and has since been classed as an historical monument.
The Flandria Palace Hotel was subsequently used as offices by the Belgian National Rail Company SNCB, and became protected as national heritage site in 1995.