Two years ago I participated to my first ‘Journées du patrimoine’ where I discovered some amazing hidden places, like the Aegidium. Ever since, this annual event is one of my favorites and automatically enters my agenda. It is an occasion to enter buildings that aren’t usually accessible to the public and have a historical and/or an architectural value. It also allows to visit places that are regularly open to the public (like theatres and museums) and to see them under a different light: through activities and special exhibitions or simply by accessing staff areas.
Although I love this initiative I always feel a little frustrated at the end. The offer is so rich and the time so little that I’m forced to make a choice, but I’m such an undecided person that choosing between so many things I’m curious about ends up being a painful process. This year was particularly hard since the theme was one I’m especially passionate about: ‘Workshops, factories and offices’.
From a practical point of view, two days are nowhere near enough to be able to visit all these wonderful places. I do understand this has a cost and that it isn’t easy to organise, but it would be great if we could have a ‘Semaine du patrimoine’! Especially since many sites are open a few hours a day, are accessible only with a guide and therefore at certain hours only. Don’t get me wrong, I actually like the guided visits since they add information about the history of the building as well as its current use and future plans, but this system limits your options even further. In addition, some visits of neighbouring buildings take place at the same time and group sizes are logically limited to 20/30 people.
Regardless of my personal indecision, I enjoyed this years’ discoveries and would like to share them with those who haven’t had the chance to see them.
Imprimerie NIMIFI (or IMIFI)
rue du Houblon 47
As the name suggests it is an old print house located in the centre of Brussels and surrounded by a number of industrial buildings. The building itself is not impressive and I was underwhelmed by the architecture: very plain except for some metal work and some marble stairs. I was also expecting to see some old machinery, but that wasn’t the case either.
What was interesting though was the story of its reclamation and what’s become its current use. In 1999 the building was up for sale. A handful of citizens were interested in buying the property and creating a community. Little by little the group became big enough (about 20 people) to acquire the property. The rules they established are quite simple: each owner gets a loft space which is private and all expenses related to its furnishing are individual; each owner also has access to the common spaces, for example the meeting room, and shares their management and costs.
The primary rule though is that the building must be kept as it was since it’s listed in the Brussels Heritage catalogue. This is understandable seen the history of the building but isn’t always an advantage for the inhabitants. For example, the original structure isn’t well insulated and changes can’t be done without destroying part of it. However, the owners manage to balance these disadvantages with a sustainable way of life: they use solar panels, they have a system that collects rainwater and they agree not to heat the common areas.
The best part of the visit was the rooftop garden. The soil helps the insulation of the roof and part of it is used as a vegetable garden. Not to mention the nice 360° view on downtown Brussels.
place de l’Yser 7
I really wanted to visit this site for a number of reasons and have sacrificed other visits for it, but I don’t regret my choice. For those who aren’t familiar with this building it is one of the symbols of Brussels, no one that has lived in Brussels for a while doesn’t know where it is and what it looks like.
Recently it has become front page material due to the Region’s decision to buy the building to create a Contemporary Art Museum. There are positive and negative aspects to the proposal: it would allow to preserve the building (a rival proposal was to build housing units, but this would entail the demolition of the original building) and to find a place for the contemporary art collection (stored in a humid and dark archive at the moment). But it might not be the best space for an art museum (notably it’s too bright) and could serve other cultural projects better. So you can probably understand my curiosity.
The guide was a good narrator and started from the beginning of André Citroën in France and she explained how the building has changed in the 50s due to a larger production. We visited the showroom building first which is less impressive than it used to be, now that is separated by multiple floors.
The most interesting part was the descending corridor that links the showroom space to the workshops. The iron structure is fascinating. Nowadays there are few workshops left, but in the 50s the two floors were occupied and each workshop had its specificity and its team.
Another interesting aspect of the visit was the temporary exhibition of the projects from the students of the University of Architecture (ULB) who, after having studied the specificities of the building, proposed different approaches to rehabilitate it for culture. It was exciting to see so many ideas (some really linked to the social structure of the canal area) inspired by a building who’s fate is still being discussed.