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The genesis of Kanal, the institution for contemporary art and architecture in the former Citroën garage on Saincteletteplein in Brussels, is an improbable story of quarrelling governments, a failing national museum policy, and a bold leap forwards by the Brussels Region. Yet they got it right: even though the building is not ready for use, it has won over the hearts of Brussels residents thanks to a ‘test period’ called ‘Kanal Brut’. In the meantime, the final renovation plans for ‘Atelier Kanal’, a joint venture between Sergison Bates (London), noA (Brussels) and EM2N (Zurich), are on the table…
In 2011 the art-loving Brussels public reacted with shock and disbelief when Michel Draguet, director of the Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium (rmfab), announced the closure of his institution’s collection of modern art. Given that Brussels boasts more artists per square metre than any other city and that the country is bursting with top collections that are kept under lock and key, it seemed absolutely crazy – and above all short-sighted when every single European metropolis is committing to culture as a way of putting itself on the map.
Tate Modern in London has shown that it pays: in its short existence, visitor figures have shot through the roof. Its success is proof that people are not just interested in the art, but also visit the museum as an alternative public space for (self-)expression. If Kanal Brut is anything to go by, Kanal takes that potential and elevates it to new heights. But it hasn’t all been plain sailing.
The plan for an alternative Museum of Contemporary Art run by the Brussels Region started to circulate in 2011, with the initial idea to maybe take over the role of the rmfab. The iconic but dilapidated Citroën garage from the 1930s on Place Sainctelette quickly became the favoured location, although decontamination and redevelopment were far from self-evident due to soil pollution and the enormous size of the complex: the garage occupies around 80 per cent of a building block measuring some 100 x 200 metres.
The garage is located right in the heart of the Canal Zone, however, and boasts a magnificent view over the Canal and Quai des Péniches. A museum on this site, analogous to Tate Modern, would evidently contribute to the revitalization of this impoverished former industrial zone. This is also a spearhead of the regional policy. Moreover, the internationally renowned Kaaitheater, which has been striving for years to reinvigorate the neighbourhood, is located within the same block.
The federal government, however, threw a spanner in the works. All kinds of political motives were at play but the then minister, Elke Sleurs, and her advisers, alighted upon a seemingly insurmountable issue: environmental conditions within the building. The project would never be able to meet museum standards. In doing so they mainly demonstrated a lack of insight and imagination, as the current plans show.
Nevertheless, Rudi Vervoort, the minister-president of the Brussels Region, pushed the plans through at the end of 2014. A problem remained, however: a museum without a collection … is not a museum, but an art gallery. In 2016 the Region found a way around this sticking point by hiring the services of the Pompidou Centre in Paris for ten years for the considerable sum of 11 million euro, of which 2 million go towards the salaries of the staff based in … Paris. It was not the most elegant solution and remains controversial to this day. Critics speak of ‘cultural colonization’.
But the input from the Pompidou Centre put wind in the project’s sails. In May 2018, Kanal opened its doors with a ‘collection’, newly commissioned artworks and loan agreements with Belgian collectors. In so doing, the Region outperformed the federal government, which managed to elevate ‘treading water’ to the status of an art form vis-à-vis museum policy.
In the meantime, the results of an internationally acclaimed competition were announced. It was won by the team of noA, Sergison Bates and EM2N, and this was no coincidence. The architects intuitively understood that additions or changes to the existing building and its patina should be kept to a bare minimum, simply because the existing structure already seems to have been conceived as a public building.
This is obvious in the showroom on Place Sainctelette. It is a colossus, with a plinth measuring 20 by 50 metres and a height of 25 metres. In 1933, Alexis Dumont designed the façades as a transparent skin of steel columns and glass, running from pavement to roof, without any intermediate floors. This resulted in a magically light form, a modern beacon in the city. The introduction of mezzanine floors would later diminish this impression, but it remains a small miracle.
The workshops and offices behind the showroom offer even greater opportunities. These comprise two floors (six floors at the level of the offices) measuring more than 120 by 100 metres. Here too the spaces are enclosed by streamlined steel walls, with rounded corners and acres of glass. The interiors, with their sloping roofs and steel trusses, look less modern, but remain hidden from the outside by the high roof edge. Furthermore, the roofs have been fitted with skylights so generously that the entire building is bathed in light.
The great advantage of the workshops, however, is their organization: a 15-metre-wide street cuts through the complex from Quai des Péniches to the Avenue de l’Héliport. Voids reveal the full height of the complex. At right angles to this axis, impressive ramps, voids and a raised roof define the interior circulation. The ‘street’ and the ‘nave’ thus define four easily traversable quadrants.
The problem remained that the volume was far too large for the basic programme: a museum, a library, archive and exhibition space for civa (Centre International de la Ville et de l’Architecture), and a ‘rassembleur’ (convening point) for lectures, offices and so on. It was almost impossible to adapt the entire building envelope to the strict conditions required for museum spaces. The design skilfully avoids this problem, which the federal government had made such a fuss about, by meticulously inserting new beam-shaped volumes between the rafters in three of those quadrants. These rise above the eaves yet are unobtrusive. The fourth quadrant, behind the Kaaitheater, remains more or less open.
The new ‘boxes’ are perfectly air-conditioned. Where they sink through the old floors, heavily glazed walls demarcate a second, partly air-conditioned space. The remainder of the building serves as a buffer between the indoor and outdoor climates, as was once the case in the workshops.
This three-part organizational plan allows for a diverse range of uses. The buffer space is a semi-public sphere, and thus resembles the Turbine Hall in Tate Modern, only much larger. It has the potential to be a stage for neighbourhood activities or even a market. The partly controlled spaces, on the other hand, enable every form of contemporary art to be shown, up to and including ‘live art’. And there is plenty of room for ‘top-notch art’, but also for a library, lectures, theatre performances, etc.
It all seems perfectly logical, but the plans are actually the result of painstaking efforts to strike the right balance between new elements and the conservation of the existing building. What makes the design truly unique, however, is that the architects set up camp in the building and actually tested the validity of their competition ideas on site and in real circumstances during Kanal Brut. The design bears the traces of the many artistic interventions and wide-ranging activities that took place at Kanal in just under a year. Indeed, close inspection of the plans shows that they respond to this artistic diversity in a seemingly casual, but cunning and clever way.
One must pay tribute to the Region for taking this grandiose gamble against a narrow-minded approach to museum policies. This ‘museum’ will make history.
Architect Atelier Kanal founded by noAarchitecten EM2N Sergison Bates architects
Official project name Kanal – Centre Pompidou
Location Quai de Willebroeck 6, Brussels
Programme Transformation of the former Yser Citroën car factory into an arts and cultural centre
Procedure Competition, 1st prize
Client Fondation Kanal
Consultants Arvico, Buro Happold, Cartlidge Levene, Egeon, ELD, FESG, Gevelinzicht, Greish, Kahle, iArt, Up&Cie
Total floor area 45,000 m2
Budget € 125,000,000 (excl. VAT and fees)