The opening in 2007 of the first contemporary art centre in Brussels in a neighbourhood of the municipality of Forest, which is characterised by a former industrial urban fabric and socioeconomic insecurity, seems to have marked a new era. Located in a former brewery with temporary exhibits, artists’ residencies and mediation activities, WIELS can be seen from a distance: its impressive art deco architecture and the imposing titles of exhibits on the windows attract attention.
Like many other cities, Brussels focuses on culture as a basis for its attractiveness and the redevelopment of its former industrial neighbourhoods. The project for conversion of the former Citroën garage at Place de l’Yser into an international cultural centre is the most recent example of this. Is Brussels also affected by the Bilbao syndrome, a sort of worldwide quest for the biggest museum project? Must we focus on the creative sector as a last hope for urban spaces? Without necessarily entering into this debate, it seems useful to take a step back in order to understand the rationale and the social and spatial effects of urban development through culture.
In the 112th issue of Brussels Studies, Simon Debersaques, geographer at Université libre de Bruxelles, takes an in-depth look at the relationship between a cultural venue and its neighbourhood, with WIELS, the precursor, as a case study. After a summary of the abundant and recent literature on the subject, it recounts the history of these cultural facilities via the production rationale, the strategies of stakeholders and the social and spatial dynamics at work since it opened.
This careful observation shows that WIELS is a hybrid cultural venue whose relationship with the territory has evolved. As a showcase space during its initial phase, to become a community space during its first years of existence, WIELS is now a creative space. However, the social and spatial perspectives overlap: as a community space, it offers new social and artistic activities to inhabitants from the neighbourhood, while as a showcase, it has led to an improved image of this part of the city, seized by certain developers. This leads one to wonder about the tensions between the different perspectives and the social impact on the surrounding environment in the long term.
In the case of WIELS, the transformations at work seem to point to a scenario of gentrification of the neighbourhood. While the showcase and community rationales have put a spotlight on this working-class neighbourhood outside the centre, and at the same time have anchored the institution there, the creative rationale developed more recently has had the more structural effect of attracting well-to-do residents to the lower part of Forest, as well as new activities which do not always provide many jobs for the current residents.
Nevertheless, ten years after its opening, it still seems too early to determine whether, in terms of urban development, WIELS is nothing more than an outpost of gentrification in a working-class area outside the centre. However, one thing is certain for WIELS, as well as for what will emerge at Place de l’Yser: this is not (just) a museum.
Author: Debersaques, Simon, “Cultural facilities and urban development: WIELS contemporary art centre and the transformation of a working-class neighbourhood”, Brussels Studies [Online], General collection, No 112, 03 July 2017.