Since 1997, much has been written about the “Bilbao effect”. But is the creation of “mega-museums” still adapted to our society today? We probe this question by examining Charleroi, which has chosen to privilege depth over gloss in a project that combines urbanism and culture.
Sometimes nicknames linger long after the reality they point to has vanished. Does Charleroi really still deserve its reputation as the “world’s ugliest city”? Ever since it earned this title from a Dutch magazine in 2009, its municipal authorities and various private initiatives have been getting involved — and investing — to restore this Belgian city to its former glory.
Charleroi enjoyed its hours of glory during the industrial era, firstly thanks to coal mines, then thanks to the production of glass and steel, but also thanks to the chemical and mechanical industries. While its population multiplied by seven between 1800 and 1900, subsequent deindustrialisation triggered the exodus of 35,000 inhabitants, leaving no more than 200,000 residents in the city. The move had severe consequences: Charleroi still carries the marks of this transition, which occurred as quickly as the city’s collapse.
With ten years separating their respective developments, Charleroi has confronted similar issues to those faced by Bilbao. But the Belgian city, holding less architectural strength, has chosen to follow a different path from its Spanish sister. Instead, it has adopted a double strategy. On the one hand, the creation of cultural and urban coverage with the means to breathe new life to the city. On the other hand, safeguarding and promotion of its industrial heritage.
What remains of the Bilbao effect?
Ever since the successful integration of the Guggenheim Museum into an abandoned landscape, we’ve heard about the “Bilbao effect” again and again. For good reason too, when we note how niftily the strategy has paid off. According to The Financial Times, between 1997 and 2000 — in other words, its first three years of activity — the Guggenheim Bilbao generated €500 million in economic fallout by attracting four million visitors.
Yet grafting of this type has not always worked, and the strategy of blending strong architecture with a cultural locomotive in order to (re)vitalise a space has also resulted in a few failures. The Ordos Art Museum (China), a superb structure designed by MAD Architects and completed in 2011 in the ghost city of Ordos, is one eloquent example. This museum was part of a larger project adopted by local authorities: “New Ordos”, namely including 100 houses created by Herzog & De Meuron and Ai Weiwei. The project, costing 6 billion dollars, basically consisted in setting up a city in the Gobi Desert — and was a total flop.
This type of strategy is now waning in popularity. In a recession context, the exorbitant costs of these structures, and also the “starchitects” behind them, are prohibitive factors. In this way, the opening of the Louvre Abu Dhabi, designed by Jean Nouvel, has been delayed — originally, the museum was scheduled to open in 2011. Meanwhile, the Guggenheim Helsinki is in the midst of a crisis as the city authorities recently rejected the museum’s new financing plan in a series of soap-like episodes that have taken on an increasingly melodramatic turn.
We can also note that this year, the Pritzker Prize — often called the “Nobel Prize of architecture” — was awarded to Alejandro Aravena, a Chilean architect at the helm of the Venice Architecture Biennale in 2016; an architect of sustainable designs, poor materials and societies in peril. This symbol — because he is one — is the sign of a society seeking to find urban and architectural paths that display more integrity.
This, indeed, is the path chosen by Charleroi. It is a development that is more prudent, less dazzling. Quite clearly, we distinguish a desire to create strong cultural coverage, integrated into a changing urban fabric. The focus is less architectural, more urbanistic — even if Guggenheim’s integration in Bilbao was not a creation from scratch either, but was backed up by an urban renovation plan.
“Twenty-five per cent of the city centre is going to be rebuilt,” points out Jean Yernaux, a Charleroi-based architect and city planner for nearly five decades. “The aim is to take advantage of the beneficial effects of culture but without taking recourse to unique architectural gestures that risk becoming an unmanageable financial drain for the municipality.” The memory of Helsinki is still fresh…
“We’re not taking a clean slate”
“We have a heritage to promote. We’re not taking a clean slate,” continues the architect. Some megacities such as Berlin have succeeded in revealing their heritage. For now, Charleroi landscapes in the Pays Noir (“Black Country”) region are in a state of abandonment. And they’re not so much black as brown. Panes of stained glass are broken and hangars stand empty. Fireplaces stay unlit and piles of waste dot the city. Yet this panorama is not as terrible as it might sound. Charleroi offers a number of first-rate spots for lovers of urbex (urban explorations) and the brown iron carcasses have a charm of their own. Not much is needed for them to rebecome places of life — take the example of the Rockerill, the concert and exhibition hall set up in 2010 on the site of former Providence forges of the Cockerill factories.
More centrally located, we find Quai 10, a museum featuring animated and interactive images. This museum comprises screening rooms, an exhibition space and a business incubator. Quai 10 has recently opened its doors after seven years of works and the renovation of an old building once used by Belgium’s national bank. The project cost totalled €18 million: 40 % financed by the European Union, 50 % by Wallonia and 10 % by the city. Michail Bakolas, its director, is enthusiastic about the city’s project: “The aim is no longer to circulate goods but ideas.”
Charleroi is not taking a clean slate as far as culture goes either, for the city relies on interesting, dynamic infrastructures endowed with considerable means. First of all, there is the Musée de la Photographie. This photography museum has a sizable collection including 80,000 prints and 3 million negatives, lodged in a former Carmelite monastery which, in 2008, was expanded by a new wing intended for more contemporary exhibitions. The museum itinerary offers a beautiful dive into the history of photography. Alongside displays of cameras, its chronological route shows daguerreotypes as well as prints by Talbot, Muybridge, Nadar, Brassaï, Cartier-Bresson, right up to more contemporary photographers including Francesca Woodman.
Charleroi is also home to the BPS22, a busy art centre. Housed in a large glass industrial hall dating back to the 1911 Industrial and Commercial Exposition, the BPS22 was inaugurated in 2000, then reopened in 2015 after a year and a half of renovations, to be part of Mons 2015. The centre offers a programme that tends towards the cutting edge. According to one of the museum heads, Fabien de Reymaeker, “we show contemporary art as well as non-official arts, our aim being to tackle society’s issues”. The museum has a collection of 6,000 works gathering the best-known Belgian artists such as René Magritte, Jan Fabre or Wim Delvoye, but also international stars like Andy Warhol, Cindy Sherman or Kendell Geers. Until 22 January, the BPS22 is hosting two exhibitions. The first, “Panorama”, revisits landscapes in the light of the contemporary era, showing works from the museum’s collections. The second, “Metamorphic Earth”, is an immersive video by the duo Gast Bouschet & Nadine Hilbert.
Finally, the Musée des Beaux-Arts de Charleroi holds works by great Belgian artists including James Ensor and Félicien Rops, but also a huge fresco by Magritte, La Fée ignorante (1957). In addition, the city plays host to many festivals, such as the Charleroi-Danses or the Festival Bis-Arte, and its Carnaval.
What about street art?
For several years, Charleroi has been changing its status, shifting from the “world’s ugliest city” to “the capital of street art”. Unfortunately, Charleroi’s second urban art biennale, Asphalte2, concluding on 1 January, has not shown the same lustre as its predecessor. Perhaps because its artistic programming has been handed over by BPS22, namely Alice van den Abeele and Raphaël Cruyt, to city hall authorities. And while the 2014 edition brought in artists such as Invader, Boris Steve Powers, Sixe Paredes, Maya Hayuk, Hell’O Monsters, Huskmitnavn and Poch, this year, street art yielded its place to a more events-based programme…
It is thanks to two graffiti campaigns carried out in the 1990s — Urban Dream and the Asphalt biennale — that Charleroi has emerged as the “capital of street art”. The city overflows with frescoes but more will need to be accomplished for the 2018 edition in order to re-inject substance into what, today, sounds more like a marketing term.
In short, after several years of budgetary and political negligence, the city seems to now be in the hands of competent and dynamic authorities. Will culture have the means to be this engine that can re-launch the city’s population and economy? Will the “Charleroi effect” be possible without any strong architectural gesture to give the city an identity among international cities? The coming years will be rich in lessons. “Charleroi, take a stand!”, as its residents sometimes urge their city.