WORD OF MOUTH

Notes from Brussels’ WTC

Photos by Maxime Gourdon

I

The three towers of the World Trade Centre cast long shadows over the area by the North Station in Brussels. It is not so much for their imposing appearance — which stands out in no particular way from the homogeneous background of high-rise development — as for their controversial past and uncertain future. The towers are the heirloom of a grandiose and never-realised ‘modernisation’ plan, the so called ‘Manhattan-plan’, that outlined transformation of the area across three municipalities (Brussels City, Schaarbeek and Sint-Joost-ten-Node), into a modern business district. The first draft of the plan was created already in 1960, on the wave of enthusiasm following the global Expo of 1958 in Brussel, and the final version was approved 7 years later [1]. That plan, outlining the erection of among others 58 skyscrapers, met with wide public protest. Particularly controversial was the transformation of the 62 ha of residential area, which required the eviction of ca 12,000 people by 1967 [2].

The Brussels’ WTC was conceived as a complex of eight massive skyscrapers; the first two towers were completed in 1976, as a cornerstone for the upcoming business district. The third tower opened its doors in 1983, after the original plan had already been discarded, among the contestating voices, coming also from within the field. Kasper Demeulemeester provided a thorough critical analysis of this context in his thesis, where he compared the ‘Manhattan’ of Brussels to its New York archetype (2006). ‘An urban wasteland had been created,’ writes Demeulemeester about the aftermath of the plan, ‘where halfway torn-down houses stood next to their towering, half-empty neighbors. During the nineties, as the economy picked up again, the idea for a business district in the North quarter revived. One by one skyscrapers started to rise from the ruins, although every sense of a plan had been abandoned’[3].

The plan to create a vibrant administrative centre has not been fulfilled until today. The WTC complex, despite downsizing from eight two three towers, has never reached it’s full working capacity. Even more, around 11% of office space in the district remains empty (according to data from 2016) [4].


II

While the WTC III stands aside, as if indifferent to its role in this extinguished corporate love triangle, the WTC I and II are still intertwined, connected by a passage on the second floor. Despite being an enclosed system, the circulation of bodies within the two towers follows an entirely different rhythm. While the second tower still carries out its corporate duty, the first one became hollowed out and gained a second life only after the group of artists and other creatives had taken the space over.

By 2016, 25 out of the 28 floors in the WTC I had been emptied. The first ones to discover the potential of this transitional space were the collective Overtoon, bringing together artists working with and around sound. After successful negotiations with the owner of the 25th floor, the group of enthusiasts managed to rent out the entire condignation [5]. In the two following years, the building became more and more animated, with new initiatives joining in and renting out spaces. Today, the WTC I brings together a diverse group of people: artists, curators and other creatives, associated under Jubilee, LabNorth, Luca Art Academy, Overtoon, Open Source Publishing, the Office for Joint Administrative Intelligence, and others.

The history of the Northern Quarter has been marked by a series of shortsighted decisions and temporary measures taken to ameliorate them, with the WTC as the embodiment of the failure of laissez-faire practices in urban planning.

In the last years, the air around the building has thickened due to the planned revitalisation of the district. The arrival of the KANAL — Centre Pompidou in the Northern Quarter has stirred as much excitement as unrest, and ‘transformation ’ became a word on many people’s mouth. In order to ‘streamline’ it, the eight main real estate operators of the district have founded the nonprofit Up4North [6].

Last summer, the WTC I has been turned into a centre for debate on the future of the entire district and urban planning policies at large. The exhibition You Are Here (06.2018 – 07.2018 and 09.2018 – 11.2018), organised in Brussels within the framework of the International Architecture Biennale in Rotterdam, took place nowhere else but in the WTC I, temporarily renaming the tower ‘World Transformation Centre’. But just as other activities within this context, the Biennale constitutes merely a temporary presence and its long-term impact on the building and its neighbourhood can only be assessed in perspective [7].

Recently, 51N4E a Brussels-based architectural office and a French office l'AUC – both working on the new vision for the Northern Quarter within the framework of Up4North — has shown interest in the WTC complex. They are currently developing a renovation project which is to be submitted by 2023 [8], however the interim plans for the towers remain, at best, vague. It has been, however, already established that the artist studios on the 25th floor of the WTC I have to be vacated by December 2018.


III

On one of the last warm days in September, I met with two fellow curators in a sandwich bar — the only functioning enterprise in the derelict shopping mall in the WTC I. The gaudy opulence of this interior in combination with the penetrating emptiness gave off a peculiar, almost surreal vibe. That’s how future looked like in the 1980s. And now, remarkably, the Future is Here [9] again.

The three of us discussed our approach to this extraordinary spatial context. We have been fascinated by the aura of the WTC for a while now but, as we know, naive fascination leads, more often than it doesn’t, to romantic disillusionment. This is why we decided to speak with the artists working there and try to see the building through their eyes. This was an important day for the residents of the WTC I — in the afternoon, they were supposed to meet and discuss practical issues connected to the impending relocation. We managed to speak in depth with two artists, Raffaella and Eduardo, who were among the first ones to move into the 25th floor. The floor has been divided into co-working spaces, shared between 40 to 60 people (the numbers are constantly fluctuating) and also equipped with a kitchen and a common space. Especially the last one is worth attention; from the desolated interior, furnished with amassed furniture and an old office carpet, opens an extraordinary, panoramic view on the entire Northern Quarter. Only a few months ago, we caught a glimpse of an equally exclusive view, during a guided tour through the Proximus art collection, on display in the neighbouring penthouse, and here it was to enjoy for anyone resting in the common space. The Northern quarter is one of those few places in Europe where higher up doesn’t necessarily mean ‘better off’. Even though such exceptional localisation must compensate for at least some of the inconveniences, upon several visits to the studios, and from conversation to conversation, we started noticing certain shortcomings. In fact, the original office infrastructure and bureaucratic restrictions still hold a grip on the 25th floor; the walls and carpets must remain intact, the windows don’t open, and many artists have to get by with small working stations, unable to fit much more than their laptops. ‘Nothing here is practical.’ – concludes Eduardo.

Those seemingly insignificant details are in fact limiting the artists and might have a physical impact on their work, in terms of both scale and the use of materials. At the same time, the artists are not given much choice when it comes to ateliers; the problem with finding a suitable and, even more, affordable studio space in Brussels is very present. While there are plenty of coworking spaces across the city, they have proven to be too expensive for many and usually more suitable for entrepreneurs and start-ups working behind the screen. Therefore, renting out vacant (office) spaces – like the WTC I – under studios would seem like a viable solution, if not for the little stability and often poor working conditions they offer. Such spatial concerns – not unique to Brussels – impose a constant imperative of mobility over artists and, therefore, in long run might actually affect the development of artistic practices.

But despite all those issues, when speaking about the WTC, both artists could not hide their affection for this bizarre space. Eduardo, one of the ‘pioneers’ who moved there all together from another studio at the Rue de Canal, remembers arranging the empty interior under studios, with the artists’ own means. Raffaella joined soon after, having heard about the studios from a fellow artist. ‘Everything here occurs through word of mouth’ — she adds.

There is a cook coming in regularly to the artists’ studios to prepare lunch for them and the other creatives from the building, who care to join in. Since the residents of WTC I don’t follow the nine-to-five rhythm regulating the rest of the neighbourhood, they almost never cross paths with the crowd from the second tower. But Rafaella remembers one of those rare occasions, when a few office workers came up to the 25th floor to enjoy a meal — word of mouth had reached even them.

IV

Looking from up high, it might be easy to overlook what’s happening below. When we visited the WTC I, we expected to talk about the precarious situation of the artists, or the exploitation of their image for the purpose of gentrification, but instead, we ended up facing the problem of displacement on a much greater scale. From the windows of the WTC, one can see the Maximillian Park, which in 2016 became the location of a migration camp. The park has already seen ‘several far-reaching police actions, specifically targeting migrants’ [10] and has become an arena of conflict between the opposing politicians (remarkably the representatives of the Reformist Movement and the New Flemish Alliance) and the NGOs and volunteers supporting the migrants.

The artists we spoke to shared their — at times very confronting — memories and observations of the camp. From the heights of the tower, they have seen how the bureaucratic machine is used against the migrants. They recalled people provisionally accommodated in one of the vacant office buildings and the asylum seekers queuing every day in front of the Office of the Commissioner General for Refugees and Stateless Persons, located at the base of the WTC II. But they also spoke about an overwhelming public support for the migrants and told us many uplifting, personal stories of those who decided to help migrants and share their apartments.

This text has proven difficult to conclude because the story of the WTC and surrounding it people has so far found no conclusion itself. It is enough to say that this particular temporality and spatiality of the WTC, as a place out-of-time, was worth portraying, especially just before the next potential transition. You will probably get to know about it by the word of mouth, so keep your ears open ●


An interesting voice in the debate surrounding this complicated context had been delivered by the three Belgian architects, Léone Drapeaud, Manuel León Fanjul and Johnny Leya, working under the name Traumnovelle. In their short story WTC Culture Palace, they envisioned an alternative future for the towers, supported by dystopian visualisations [11]. Courtesy the Traumovelle.


Raffaella Crispino, Untitled (Time Zones), 2018
organza textile, cotton, nylon, lead, 1000 x 500 cm
Courtesy the Artist and KANAL — Centre Pompidou, Brussels

Text ALICJA MELZACKA
Photos MAXIME GOURDON
© 2018, GUEST ROOMS

Acknowledgements to RAFFAELLA CRISPINO and EDUARDO MATOS for showing us around the studios and sharing their experiences and to TRAUMNOVELLE for sharing their work.

[1] Kasper Demeulemeester, Manhattan New York – Manhattan Brussels: Postwar Urban Planning in the Grip of an Island, MA of American Studies, Universiteit Antwerpen, 2006, https://www.scriptiebank.be/taxonomy/term/35 (accessed 10.11).
[2] Albert Martens, De Hedendaagse Erfenis van Tien Jaar Onteigeningen en Uitzettingen in de Brusselse Noordwijk (1965-1975), Brussels Studies, no. 29, 2009, http://www.briobrussel.be/assets/andere%20publicaties/nl_116_brus29nl.pdf (accessed 10.11).
[3] Ibid.
[4] Jean Marie Binst, Nog Meer Leegstand Verwacht in Noordwijk, BRUZZ, 01 January 2015, https://www.bruzz.be/economie/nog-meer-leegstand-verwacht-noordwijk-2016-06-01
[5] Jean Marie Binst, Lege WTC-toren niet Afgeschreven voor Kunstenaars, BRUZZ, 19 October 2016, https://www.bruzz.be/samenleving/lege-wtc-toren-niet-afgeschreven-voor-kunstenaars-2016-10-19
[6] LV, Noordwijk Heeft Ruimte in de Aanbieding, BRUZZ, 26 October 2017, https://www.bruzz.be/samenleving/noordwijk-heeft-ruimte-de-aanbieding-2017-10-26
[7] Recyclart spoke about, among others, the aims and hopes of the Biennale in the interview for BRUZZ. Heleen Rodiers, Recyclart Reconstrueert de Toekomst in WTC 1, BRUZZ, 31 May 2018 https://www.bruzz.be/expo/recyclart-reconstrueert-de-toekomst-wtc-1-2018-05-31
[8] Tim Gatzios, Brusselse Architecten Hertekenen WTC-Torens, BRUZZ, 21 November 2017, https://www.bruzz.be/samenleving/brusselse-architecten-hertekenen-wtc-torens-2017-11-21
[9] The Future is Here is the title of the show located on the 23rd floor of WTC I, organised within the framework of the exhibition programme You are Here and presenting social change projects from acties Belgium and the Netherlands.
[10] Lars Andersen, Brussels City Council Does not Want non-Asylum Migrant Cases in Maximilian Park, The Brussels Times, 20 July 2018, http://www.brusselstimes.com/belgium/12023/brussels-city-council-no-longer-wants-migrants-in-maximilian-park
[11] Traumnovelle, WTC Culture Palace, an Architectural Fiction Story, Brussels Newsroom, 12 December 2016, http://www.brussels.shht.eu/brussels/wtc-culture-palace-an-architectural-fiction-story

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