Similarly to the public library and the neighbourhood’s swimming pool, cultural centers are the beating heart of local communities, rays of artistic enlightenment and social advancement for the many different layers of the population. Indeed, far from being the pompous and pretentious premise of, say, a museum or contemporary art gallery, cultural centers fulfill the crucial mission of making culture accessible to all, irrespective of origin, class, age, gender or geographical location, striving for social cohesion through the arts. The undisputed unsung heroes of the neighbourhood, these beacons of cultural empowerment remain a crucial and necessary function of the social landscape, one that, despite increasingly brutal budgets cuts, continues to serve both the country and its people.
Photographer Miles Fischler (c).
Alter Schlachthof, Eupen
Housed in a former slaughterhouse, Eupen’s cultural center benefits from its proximity to several different linguistic hubs and national borders – Flemish in Hasselt, Dutch in Maastricht, French in Liège and German in Aachen. Indeed, its artistic direction reads like a cross-border outreach programme, its mix of music, theatre, dance, contemporary art, lectures, workshops and festivals doing its part in making the capital of the country’s Germanic region a cultural force to be reckoned with. “We don’t want to be this little island, we want to go beyond the borders surrounding us and attract people from all over. It’s also important for us to support local artists and make our region attractive to them or run the risk of seeing them all decamp for Brussels or Berlin,” says director René Janssen. And, the nest embodiment of this curatorial approach remains Meakusma festival, which takes over the centre and the town every year during September, drawing crowds from Germany, France, Holland and Belgium thanks to its impeccable programme of concerts, lectures and DJ sets. More than anything, Alter Schachtof contributes in putting the sleepy, leafy town of Eupen on the international map – and that’s no exaggeration.
A local institution since 1965, Beursschouwburg is housed in a 19th century ex-brewery that was renovated in 2004 by the same architectural team behind La Monnaie / De Munt. Thanks to neighbourhood noise complaints, gigs are now hosted on the fifth floor roof terrace (they used to be held on the ground floor), with a combination of both up-and-comers and established acts. Complemented by an extensive programme of talks, lectures, projections and conferences on subjects ranging from visual identity and graphic design to cinema and politics, it is Beursschouwburg’s willingness to open its doors to local promoters and festival organisers – simple music festival schiev, for instance, Bâtard Festival or, more recently, The Future Is Feminist – that truly make it stand out from the rest, its programme incontestably one of the most forward-thinking and exciting in Brussels.
Originally an electricity plant and the Wielemans-Ceuppens brewing hall, BRASS has been renovated into an urban cultural centre of the municipality of Forest / Vorst, dedicated to new technologies and digital arts. The centre organises concerts, shows, exhibitions, and performances, in addition to exhibitions and artist residencies in the Forest Abbey, just a stone’s throw away. At its core, BRASS aims to capitalise local energies by exploring intercultural, artistic and civic initiatives found in their immediate district as illustrated, for instance, in its participation in a range of multidisciplinary festivals such as SuperVliegSuperMouche and the Kunstenfestivaldesarts, both dedicated to contemporary creations. Putting much of its programme’s focus on the importance of dialogue and impromptu encounters, it is particularly active in bringing both Flemish and francophone institutions closer together, something that is sorely missing on the city’s overall cultural horizon. An inspiring and involved space that manages to cater to both its immediate neighbourhood’s working class population as well as to the wider cultural community.
CC Bruegel, Brussels
Nestled in the heart of Brussels’ historic neighbourhood of Les Marolles, CC Bruegel’s unwavering commitment to local community work has earned it a beloved place in the hearts of locals, its programme of co-productions, workshops, exhibitions and cultural mediation acting as a pitch-perfect reflection of its immediate and diverse social makeup. Housed in an ingenious new building created by architect Serge Roose and sculptor Marco Dessardo, which opened to the public in September 2016, the structure sits proud between the area’s many antique and vintage dealers, an architectural feat in itself when you consider the mammoth task that was renovating the original, decrepit building. Artistically, the center is just as likely to host puppeteers and mime artists as it is putting on a show about old age or organising cross-generational workshops that involve both the elderly and children. A space that excels in widening the scope of its activities and bringing them down to street level.
Originally designed by the renowned Belgian interior designer Henry van de Velde in 1936 as an old modernist slaughterhouse, CC Namur was given a second life after the community protested the city’s plans to turn the building into a parking lot. Hiring the help of a collective working with recycled and recuperated materials, the newly renovated building incorporates yellow doors, bamboo separations and impressive glass frontages whilst still preserving its old orange brick facades. And, thanks to these extensive renovations, CC Namur now boasts a large exhibition space for contemporary art shows and artist residencies. It also, once a year, co-organises the contemporary music festival Beautés Soniques with several local organisations, organising concerts, markets, photography exhibitions and workshops with the principle aim of showcasing the diversity of Namur’s artistic disciplines. In addition to promoting locally based initiatives, the centre also allows for what Marylène Toussaint, its director, calls “improbable encounters” between different groups of people, inviting both professional and underground artists in a bid to, as she says, “Push people towards a certain artistic quality, towards co- creation.” A centre that does a fine job of bringing Namur’s residents closer to their city’s unique artistic identity.
Opened in 1973, CC Strombeek is an intriguing exposed brick building constructed by Walter Steenhoudt in 1973 on a ‘water source area’. Hosting a bewildering programme of events and activities all promoting Flemish socio-cultural life, it is the first in Belgium to receive subsidies as part of the ‘Kunstendecreet’ (art decree) and enjoys a tight collaboration with SMAK in Ghent, which lends the space the use of their archives. The center also hosts close to a hundred theatre and dance performances with artists and companies, in addition to working with local partners such as CVO and Europalia in organising classes, lectures and dance performances, such as Wijde Wereld Weken which focuses on world citizenship and diversity. Priding itself in accessibility and opening up the art scene, director Wim Meert describes the center’s mission as “launching projects that otherwise don’t happen because of financial, material or organisational reasons, meaning we need to initiate what is otherwise never picked up.” Consisting of a theatre stage, a cafeteria and multiple exhibition and rehearsal spaces, CC Strombeek’s exceptional multi-functionality encourages people from all walks of life to access artwork in an approachable and open way whilst also offering meaningful opportunities for artists and locals alike.
CC Westrand, Dilbeek
Dilbeek’s cultural center Westrand was originally built with the intention of reinforcing the Flemish identity in Brussels’ periphery. Architect Alfons Hoppenbrouwers initially drew up an elaborate plan that included a multitude of spaces, each of them connected to the next, to accentuate the communal spirit of the institution, but the ambitious design was never created as such. Instead, a complex consisting of different volumes, standing together yet retaining their independence, were planted next to the Wolfsputten natural reserve and which today consists of the cultural center as we know it. Articulated through three main poles – formation (language courses for migrants, music classes, creative workshops and lectures), shows (theatre, screenings, dance performances and concerts) and community (showing art throughout the neighbourhood) –, the centre touches upon such contemporary issues as identity, migration, sustainability, diversity and interconnectedness, engaging its audience in such a way as to initiate a dialogue around these often very sensitive questions in an artistic and philosophical context and address any tensions that might emerge. Above and beyond its finely-honed curatorial sensibility, this is without a doubt one of the most strikingly beautiful cultural centers in Belgium.
De Roma, Antwerpen
Designed by architect Alfons Pauwels, De Roma is an impressive three-story art deco building complete with marble floors that was once a movie theatre forced to close its doors in 1982. Thankfully, in 2002, the theatre company linked with current gallery coordinator Paul Schyvens, who began staging shows in the theatre’s ruins. He eventually received enough government backing to undertake enormous structural interventions and restore the building to its former glory. Today, the venue holds up to 1,900 people standing, and regularly hosts lm screenings, dance soirées, debates and a wide range of concerts, proudly bringing both local and internationally recognised artists to its stage. And, rather than picking up the threads of the old theatre, the venue added a flavour of social involvement to its many activities, mirroring the words of current communications manager Rob Gielen: “We are a citizens’ initiative, aiming to support even the smallest of groups.” For instance, De Roma also organises film and vinyl markets as well as wegeefbeurs or “give- away markets”, bartering goods or offering them to people for free, reinforcing the cultural centre’s social dimension. Nestled in the heart of Antwerp’s Borgerhout district, De Roma stands proud as the area’s foremost cultural purveyor, one that caters to all pockets of society.
Originally conceived by architect Leon Stynen back in 1968, deSingel’s original aim was to house the studying, making and showcasing of art under one same roof, its main areas of focus being music, theatre, dance, architecture and multi-disciplinary practices. In 2010, a striking new addition was built by Stéphane Beel, who intentionally went for a more transparent approach to Stynen’s that resulted, for instance, in the conservatory’s dance studios facing outward and being visible from the adjoining Ring road. Distinguished by its propensity for risk-taking – “We try to have a healthy balance between the canon and the avant-garde in the different disciplines we represent, which means that we’re just as likely to book a big international name to our halls as we are a young artist who is still very much developing his narrative,” says general director Jerry Aerts – it is deSingel’s firm commitment to also exist as a force for social cohesion, which truly sets it apart. Indeed, be it in its collaboration with integration association Atlas – that translates into newcomers to the city being invited for workshops and performances – or Botanik – that organizes weekend-long festivals around greenery and food – DeSingel astutely straddles the fine line between cultural relevance and social pertinence, lowering the barriers to art whilst making all the right curatorial moves.
Le Vecteur, Charleroi
Le Vecteur was originally a yearly literary festival combining exhibitions, literature and performances, headed by the non-profit Orbital team. This eventually expanded and became a permanent programme, housed in a building with striking facades of black and white frescos, incorporating Le Vecteur’s iconic “V” logo. Focusing on literature, workshops, performances, visual arts and concerts, the centre is in the words of its coordinator Romain Voisin a “multi-disciplinary platform” aiming to “defend young creations, help creative minds and make people question themselves and their place in society through art.” Indeed, the venue mediates the link between their programme and the public, establishing residencies for individuals and collective co-creation projects by offering financial support, resources and an exhibition space. Equally crucial to its existence is Library LeRayon, designed with modular wooden shelves, and carrying books from independent publishing houses – think graphic novels, zine essays and American fiction. All in all, a centre that occupies a crucial function in its city’s cultural landscape.
Les Chiroux, Liège
During the 1960s, a large part of Liège’s historic neighbourhood was demolished, paving the way for futurist, concrete-heavy modernist buildings designed by architects Jean Poskin and Henri Bonhomme. Born out of these very renovations, Les Chiroux was built in a round structure – following its original plans for the construction of a parking lot – with brick walls and decorative patterns seen throughout and stylistically typical for its time. As a cultural centre, Les Chiroux has from its inception focused on photography and visual arts, with large exhibition spaces hosting both the Biennale Internationale de la Photo and Ping.Pong parties. The centre also regularly welcomes projects such as Quartier Sensible, which aims to bridge the gap between locals and those coming from outside of Liège to work or study. Using photography, installation and debate, the initiative seeks to dissolve conflicts between both groups to build on Liège’s social cohesion. Director Lucien Barel explains his desire in “creating, enabling and supporting dialogue and conversations between Liègeois through the visual and performing arts.” In line with the importance Les Chiroux applies to its local communities, it has re-enforced cultural education into its theatre, dance and music programme, its prime location in the city centre makes it a key fixture of Liège’s cultural scene.
From dance and digital art to music and everything in between, STUK is, to some extent, Leuven’s answer to Charleroi’s Le Vecteur. Home to one of the town’s few contemporary cultural institutions, STUK takes in an enormous venue bang in the university city’s centre, consisting of four concert and theatre halls, a cinema venue, its own bar, a photography darkroom as well as three rehearsal studios – all of them surrounding the building’s courtyard. Boasting a rich history, the cultural center was founded through the turbulent student circles of the 60s, and initially functioned under an alternative leftist administration. A legacy which results in it remaining, to this day, the vanguard of cultural innovation and avant-garde art forms.