Holiday in The Sillon Industriel
Every year or so I go on holiday with my Dad and my brother and/or sister. It's usually Belgium, as he likes a) medieval squares with cafe terraces and b) ticking off obscure beers on a beer gazetteer. I can take or leave these things, but thankfully Belgian architecture is as weird and specific as its brewing. Liège was my idea, due to a recommendation from J Meades and a train journey through it on the way to Maastricht convincing me that it would best combine our respective interests. It didn't quite - Liège, and the industrial belt of which it is a part, is apparently a beer desert - heavy industry, not cottage industry. Architecturally, however, it is strange indeed, hence the extreme length of this post. Unlike similarly long posts on English or German cities it doesn't have the benefits of extensive research or political axe-grinding, so is as near as I'll get to being Dezeen. Liège is, however, very much the sort of city I like - sombre, industrial, topographically melodramatic, utterly modern, and, occasionally, revolutionary, with a tendency to Jacquerie, General Strikes and such. None of these things are very popular at the moment, alas, so Liège is undergoing some tentative attempts to pull architecture tourists. And so there I went.
Santiago Calatrava and Socialist Realism
Not that there's anything remotely tentative about Calatrava's massive, expensive Liège-Guillemins station, a place I did not at all expect to like when I changed trains here a few months ago, but fell for embarassingly. I'm familiar with Calatrava's bridges, etiolated, silly things - but, although I'm fully aware of how much he rips off Eero Saarinen and the perniciousness of Bilbao-effect-courting, I can't deny I found the station utterly thrilling. Perhaps my liking for it can be explained via this Martin Filler piece on Calatrava - the basic argument being that he is a purveyor of space-age nostalgia and kitsch. I'm unfortunately susceptible to both of these things.
Perhaps what made me surrender my critical faculties was also the usefulness of the building - rather than housing interactive exhibits, luxury flats or Jeff Koons sculptures, it's a railway station, and you don't get many good ones nowadays, let alone demented, no-expense spared, over-the-top ones. Of course, the city is now flogging its Calatrava connection for all its worth, with the Musee Grand Curtius housing an exhibition of models and pots, but its an exhibit in the station itself that gets my sympathies.
Bilbao-effect buildings aren't supposed to emerge out of human labour. They go from computer screen to magazine to digital camera. This being a proper industrial city, though, the labour in question is immortalised at the entrance. There's a canvas with photographs of every one of the building workers, which leads into a small exhibition, where photographs of the construction go alongside portraits of construction workers. Calatrava himself appears in only one photograph. Yet, click on the photograph above to see what these steel arches looked like originally, and you notice something interesting.
Liège might be keen on showing off the labour that built the station, but the architecture finesses it out of existence. In the photos exhibited, you can see standardised steel sections being clipped together - their aesthetic is indistinguishable from that of any 19th century railway station, its industrial nature undisguised - not remotely 'organic'. Then, each of these is shaped into one of these impeccable, smooth, bone-like surfaces. They're beautiful in their relentless repetition and obsessive purity, but that too comes at a price in labour - we watch staff vacuuming the escalators, a process amplified by the vast, echoing space into a Merzbow-like scree. Accordingly, the concrete elements feel a bit less creepy.
As an urban object, this is a strikingly free space, for an English visitor - you pass through it to get to the upper levels of the city behind, and a series of car parks are built into it, with equally dramatic structural repetition; and at no point, through all this flowing space, is there a single ticket barrier. And yet, although they do not check for fare-dodgers every five seconds, the nationalised Belgian railways are capable of building enormous rail sheds and running TGV trains through them.
The Moors/The Meuse
At the risk of being merely derivative, this post is indebted to Meades' description of Liege as being part of the Calder Valley, West Yorkshire. The Sillon Industriel definitely feels like the West Riding in places, though I'm not so sure which part; the size and density of Liège (city boundaries 200,000ish, real extent 700,000ish) is roughly that of Leeds, with little of Sheffield's dreamlike spaciousness - and the urban motorway is also very Leeds. Yet the steelworks and dereliction that stretches between Liège and Huy evokes that between Sheffield and Rotherham. The sharp, steep contrasts are definitely Halifax or Bradford. Yet what none of the above have, to my knowledge, is anything like the Montagne de Bueren.
This is 400 steps leading to a citadel, with terraced housing piled all the way up it. I've not seen anything like this anywhere else - Liège has more than one example. It's the 19th century equivalent, no doubt, of the way favelas cling to unsafe hills, the action of unscrupulous speculators exploiting an industrial proletariat - but, at this distance, it's a masterpiece of surrealist townscape.
From the top of the hill, two-up-two-downs spill down it, more normally...
...but there's nothing remotely normal about this, a canyon and a mountain combined and inhabited. It evidently does things to those who live here - one has this in their window.
At the top, to close the view, is a war memorial, of the art deco variety. Elsewhere, this might lead to some medieval remnant or some sort of stadtkrone, but in Liège it leads to a concrete hospital and an array of ruined defences.
Liège was close enough to the German border to be justly paranoid in the 1930s. At the city's second-highest point, a flowing mass of concrete seeps out from earlier fortifications, terminating in a pillbox, currently overtaken by undergrowth and graffiti.
Next to that is a corten steel viewing platform, from which you can survey the capital of the sillon industriel, although not its factories - a serendipitous bend in the river screens it from polite view.
What it doesn't screen is the city itself, a staggeringly dense mass. From this distance it might look like the sort of riverside you could promenade along, but thoughtfully, traffic engineers placed dual carriageways along them to make that as inhospitable as possible. No Calatrava buildings are going to change that, not even useful ones.
There's another mountainous architectural melodrama at the other end of the city, just behind Guillemins station. Up the escalators, then along appallingly paved roads, you reach more of northern England:
and another one of the malevolent outdoor staircases, this one further from the trickle of tourists, and hence allowed to get overgrown, without the benches thoughtfully left along the Montagne de Beuren.
Here, though, you can see something special has been left at the top. Not only the view of two monumental buildings, but a very convenient public convenience.
It's alarming and fantastic to see a row of straightforward industrial workers' housing leading to something like this...
It's a war memorial that wants to be a Raymond Hood skyscraper, designed by one J Smolderen in 1924, designer of actual skyscrapers in Antwerp. It's part of a complex, along with a gigantic basilica, modelled very obviously on Brussels' manaical Koekelberg.
Like the Brussels one, it's a doomed attempt to make the metropolitan moderne into a religious architecture - the actual effect is of sheer spectacle and lumbering, almost thuggish architectural force. It was never entirely finished, and is now in a partly ruined state. It suggests parallel architectural histories, parallel universes.
Interestingly, given the obsessive differentiation of Belgian architecture - which we will get to presently - there are two of these in Liège, both emulating the Brussels precedent, and apparently the subject of a plagiarism suit...
Next to the basilica and the skyscraper is a series of stelae, closed to the public, for rituals on behalf of the dead. The architecture does have a ritualistic tone to it - it's hard to garner a feeling of grief or remembrance from it, more a small (albeit barbarically imperialist) country's assertion of power, warped by a refusal of architectural conformity into an extraordinary, haunting oddity. Like an English monumental building, it has no axial planning - it's visible everywhere in the industrial suburbs around, but has no presence in the city centre. The way down is merely through more Magritte-in-West-Yorkshire terraces.
The Meuse Valley, being a transplantation of the Don Valley - the main steelworks were the product of English entrepreneurs - is actually belching out a large quantity of smoke and steel, though given that the main sign there is Arcelor, we can expect that very few people are making it. The train from Liege to Huy travels through an extremely dramatic landscape, the steelworks and terraces having the Ardennes rather than the dales as their backdrop. When you arrive, you find something less spectacular, although not without a certain charm...
Huy has more of its pre-19th century self preserved than Liege, but sees fit to immortalise its industrial classes. This statue on the Meuse is called 'Les Bourgeois'..
Here, they've exploited the melodrama of the topography by stringing a cable car along it, leading from the Meuse to the suburbs via an 19th century Fort. It's all rather stunning.
There's no view of a pretty low countries town that can't be improved by three massive cooling towers belching smoke in the background.
The Fort itself was never used militarily, instead circumvented - but it was used as a prison by the Third Reich when they occupied the area. What Wodehouse was doing here is another matter.
The Fort contains a series of exhibits, which range from kitsch to disturbing to, as you go deeper into its vaults and tunnels, horrifying.
in another, this -
The comedy waxwork Nazis precede one final vault filled with images and information on the Holocaust, often handwritten rather than typed. It's an approach that might seem cheap and clumsy, but at least it isn't interactive.
Vive La Banlieue Belgique
As with a previous post on Brussels, this is a paean to the suburban architecture of interwar Belgium, an astounding and overlooked cul-de-sac in architectural history, where art nouveau and what would later be christened art deco squeezed itself into tiny plots in terraces, creating thousands of entirely individual and entirely generic houses, creating one of the most incredible townscapes available anywhere, but generally ignored because of its breaking of rules both high modernist and traditionalist.
Here, the industrial nature of the city imposes its own deformations, with cobbled streets of disparate deco houses terminating in gigantic double-bridges.
I'm not one for the joys of 'accidental' urbanism and the virtues of non-plan, and it's an error to see all this as pure wilfulness. What makes this proliferation of individuality fascinating rather than just hideous is the complex interaction of bylaws, local eccentricity, architectural self-advertisment, strict functional limitation, and brutally scything infrastructure. The stylistic perversity is universal - it can be found in grandiose townhouses and in mean, tiny terraces.
Aside from the street in the photos above - quite the finest and weirdest in the city, leading all the way down to the rather less interesting centre, including all manner of rum fast food emporia and thrilling junk shops on its way - there's absolutely loads of this stuff. And in the manner of the earlier post, what follows is some archi-porn, exhibiting these buildings' pointless but cherishable proliferation of detail, typography and seemingly endless variations on a theme. There's a couple of other photos thrown in for those who object to such wanton display.
It all stops eventually, and you get things like this, one of the finest architectural jokes I've seen, an art nouveau villa squeezed into an even more skinny and effeminate form by its two burly neighbours:
There's little outbreaks of Brutalism in amongst it, in its own way as perverse as its deco precedents:
Belgium was the only European country to build a proper, unambiguous skyscraper in the interwar years, and there's a definite miniature Manhattanism to Liège, the sense of tiny plots and rampant speculation leading to a skyline of competing towers. You can always see how shallow the cladding is, but it is often very dashing nonetheless, for its unabashed urbanity if nothing else.
This sort of thing - drawing on Mendelsohn and Miami, modernism of the luxury sort - coexists with a more normal series of straightforward rectilinear towers, sprouting out from their plots with little concern for what else might be in the vicinity:
To some this might be merely messy, ugly, obnoxious - and in all cases, it's something you'd never be able to get through planning, even in somewhere as subservient to developers as the UK; but here it gives the city a melodramatic intensity that height limits and homogeneity could never hope to achieve. It is odd, however, for somewhere so sprawling - the conurbation essentially stretches from Huy to Maastricht - to become so dense in the centre. This must, once, have been an utterly teeming place. It's not now - or not quite, it's unassumingly multiracial and it's bustling when far enough from the highways, but it's also undeniably poor, hence the Bilaboery. There is of course a reason for this.
What with the massive and productive steelworks along the Meuse, it makes no sense to talk about de-industrialisation; downsizing, maybe.
To find a hint of the surrounding industry, you turn past the second petit-Koekelberg, this one a little less maniacal...
...and underneath one of the sources of the city's horrendous traffic...
...and you get to some of the remnants. This, what looks like an Amsterdam School factory, turns out to have been a research institute for the University, now abandoned. So not entirely a post-industrial matter, then...
through the gates and the barbed wire, you can see the curved glass and intricate brickwork rotting away, and the shaft of a Giles Gilbert Scott-like tower. Were it not ringed by dual carriageways, this would surely be the museum-builder's first choice.
Now however it's a particularly pretty modernist ruin, to the point where it almost seems contrived, with vegetation taking over but largely sparing the Mendelsohnian steamboat window.
One identifiable factory produces 'Wust', hence the appalling pun.
...round the back of it is this stunning little concrete structure, doing I know not what.
Further along the Meuse, past some proletarian suburbs that are the source of some of the archiporn details above, you find strange things - alleyways giving way to the river, watertowers surrounded by undergrowth but with workers in high-vis jackets clearly up to something outside them.
A substation along the railway has its windows smashed in, revealing a perfect and seemingly untouched '50s moderne interior...
The Station de Pompage, at least, is in fair condition.
This is all just a prelude to the real action, the Blast Furnaces on the opposite bank of the Meuse, the most gobsmacking thing of the many gobsmacking things on the Liège-Huy train, a skyline of concrete assemblages to overexcite any composer of 1920s manifestos. Here I had to stop, before someone asked what the hell I was doing.
The Signature Shopping Mall
As well as the Calatravan fancy infrastructure component - the part we don't get in the UK - Liège has got the part we do get. Shopping, in the form of a large new Mall, largely courtesy of the mighty Chapman Taylor. They build hundreds of these things, but nobody has ever worked out how to make their service areas look decent.
But as you can see by this contrast between wibble and blankness, this Mall is no ordinary Mall. It has had its roof designed by Ron Arad. Justin McGuirk describes the chairmaker's buildings as 'heinous', and while I wouldn't go that far, there's a definite bathos about the place, aside from the Benjaminian Passagen pathos noted by Murphy.
Why this is OK, and not, say, the roofitecture of Stansted, which I know my Glaswegian comrade abhors, is a mystery. Or at least it is until you see the more dramatic bits of roof.
Oh, the contrast...
The clear inspiration is art nouveau, with its tendrils whipping around the structure, and though as with Calatrava we have here the shipping in of very famous men with no connection to the city to !!!***REVITALISE***!!! it, the purported inspiration is not so odd in a city which has more art nouveau buildings than most. But its combination with a generic mall is not kind to it - the comparison that comes to mind, in terms of its attempt to combine the apparently mundane and proley world of the mall with the high-art tourism of Bilbaoness, is Westfield.
That said, it's enjoyable in its riotously kitsch way, and I merrily chomp away at Chicken Nuggets while boggling at the roof. Like the Calatrava station, I suspect history will be indulgent to its fripperies, at least for having the virtue of thoroughness, but it will be far less sympathetic to its function.
But for now, all we have is a big mall full of boring shops, with pretensions to High Design. This can be seen in the use of Arad furniture everywhere, and a shop sans customers selling Belgian design objects. All Malls do branding, but here the brand is as much Ron Arad as Mediacité Liège. This extends even to the toilet doors - no suspiciously bulky and proletarian Isotypes, but a mere squiggle of a man.