Factories of culture: forging new from old

Article published on Jan. 17, 2007
From the magazine
Article published on Jan. 17, 2007
All over Europe, former industrial buildings are being rebuilt as centres of culture. Residents cherish the special charm of these old factories

Towns and contemporary architects. The two don't really mix. The latter is always looking for space, ideas and inspiration, whilst the former is something of an obstacle, being inconveniently covered with buildings.

In the nineties, architects began a movement to rejuvenate empty buildings. These areas are located mostly in town centres. Sounds good, but they are often contaminated by chemical waste and scrap metal, not to mention the fact that their conversion usually proves costly and complex. The US Environmental Protection Agency estimates that 600, 000 hectares of industrial land in Europe are vacant. In the meantime, many projects of this genre have proved successful in various European towns and cities. We look at four 'concrete' examples.

Szimpla Kert, Budapest

The 'Szimpla Kert', in the seventh district of Budapest, ranks among one of the capital's best clubs. The interior of the former steelworks has been imaginatively revamped. In doing so, the licensee has attached importance to its original status, thereby retaining the factory's atmosphere. One of the brick walls of the factory has been conserved and a silver cinema screen has been sliced together from industrial materials.

Szimpla Kert was established three years ago by four young Hungarians. They rented a vacant building in the centre of town from a private investor, with the intention of following their vision of turning it into a club. Today, it's home to both a bar and a cinema. Concerts are staged there some weeks, whilst in others there are flea-markets. In the summer, you can sit outside in the 'Kert', the Hungarian word for 'garden'.

Szimpla Kert, VII. ker. Kazinczy u. 14.

Every day 12am-2pm

Carl Mine, Essen

The 'Carl Mine' lies in the old quarter of Essen. This well-known cultural factory, which stretches across and beyond the Ruhr area, hosts regular concerts, parties, exhibitions and workshops.

The buildings date back to the 19th century when the area thrived as a mining town. But the old quarter was not spared the decline of the mining industry in the Ruhr region, and so 1973 saw the closure of the last mines.

The Carl Mine was also affected by this factor. It ought to have been demolished like the other mines in the quarterm immediately after its closure. But local inhabitants refused to accept this. In 1977, they founded the 'Carl Mine Initiative Centre', and persuaded the town of Essen to conserve the buildings. Today the mine enjoys protected as a listed building.

Zeche Carl, Wilhelm-Nieswandt-Allee 100, 45326 Essen. ÖPNV: Essen, U17, U11, Haltestelle "Altenessen Mitte"

Athens: Gazi

On the site of the former Athens gas plant, from the greek 'Gazi', you can find the 'Technopolis' centre of culture. Technopolis houses an industrial museum as well as clubs, bars and restaurants shared over an area of 30,000 squared metres. The centre was opened in 1999, when numerous buildings of the former gas plant were preserved. They bestow the charm of a true cultural factory upon Technopolis.

As with the Carl Mines in Essen, this complex of buildings was also established during the industrial revolution in the middle of the 19th century. In 1983, the gas plant was closed and considered obsolete. Furthermore, the town wanted to curb increasing levels of pollution, as the site of the plant lies in the centre of Athens near to the Acropolis.

London: Tate Modern

The 'Tate Modern Gallery' ranks among the most popular museums in Europe. The permanent exhibition displays a whole range of artists - from the classic modernism of Pablo Picasso and Marc Chagall, to the contemporary works of Martin Creed and Jeff Koons.

In the earlier generations of the power plant, every year from October to April an artist was allowed to present his work in the immense tubular hall. Today huge tubular slides placed there are making news, installed by the artist Carsten Hoeller. Even now, up until April 9, visitors to the Tate Modern have the opportunity to slide down these tubes.

The museum lies within 'Bankside', a former power plant on the south bank of the Thames. Bankside was erected between 1947 and 1963, and then closed in 1981. The most ostentatious characteristic, which lies right in the middle of the building, is the narrow 99 metre high tower, whose height was restricted in order not to overshadow St Paul's Cathedral, which lay across the river directly opposite it. In 1995, the Swiss-based architects Herzog and de Meuron began the remodelling, which was finally completed in January 2000.

Click here to see the Tate Modern and the exhibition by Carsten Höllers.

Fotos: Szimpla Kert. Rasi57/ Wikimedia Commons (Zeche Carl), Matt Adam (Gazi), Michael Reeve/ Wikimedia Commons (Tate Modern)