Creative cultural venues in Belgium

1) BPS22

The BPS22 museum offers a sneak preview of Charleroi’s ambitious plans for the future. It occupies a massive neoclassical building on a rather desolate square in the upper town. The overbearing School of Labour on the other side has seen better days, but BPS22 has injected creative energy to this area of Charleroi since it opened a few years ago. Located in a building created for the 1911 Charleroi expo, the museum displays Hainaut province’s contemporary art collection in a vast glass-roofed exhibition hall. It also organises provocative and inspiring exhibitions in its stunning industrial spaces.

an exhibition in BPS22

2) Het Predikheren

An ancient 17th-century baroque monastery in Mechelen has been radically transformed into a public library. Left to rot since the 1970s, the building was finally rescued in 2019 by the Rotterdam architect Mechthild Stuhlmacher. She has preserved intriguing traces from the past, including faded wallpaper, ancient wood beams and old gravestones. They recall the building’s history as a monastery, barracks, weapons store and military hospital. The architect went on to reshape the monumental building with polished stone floors, subtle wood fittings and a fabulous children’s library under the roof beams. The result is a warm, complex building where visitors can browse the shelves, drink a coffee and listen to a Sunday concert.

a woman reading to children at Het Predikeren in Mechelen

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3) C-Mine

A huge mine complex on the edge of Genk has been turned into a magnificent centre of contemporary culture. The impressive old mine buildings from 1917 have been preserved, including an engine house full of oily machinery, the lamp room and managers’ building, as well as two skeletal pit heads. The complex now incorporates a cinema, several restaurants, a tourist office and a huge metal maze.

chairs and extraction towers at the C-Mine

Roel Hendrickx

4) Z33

Named after its former address (Zuivelmarkt 33), this exciting contemporary art space exhibits works by international designers and artists in a modernist exhibition hall dating from 1938. Temporary exhibitions make creative use of the building’s vast empty spaces, but art is also displayed in the nearby Begijnhof houses, in the streets of Hasselt and out in the countryside between Hasselt and Genk. A new expansion opened in 2020 in the Begijnhof garden. Designed by Italian architect Francesca Torzo, it is meant to evoke the mood of a mediaeval town with little squares, alleys and a fountain. The building won the Italian Architecture Prize in 2020 and caught the eye of The Guardian architecture critic Rowan Moore, who listed it as one of the five best buildings of 2020

people enjoying an exhibition at Z33 Hasselt

5) Utopia

Aalst’s stunning city library opened in 2018 in an abandoned corner of the old industrial city. The name recalls Aalst printer Dirk Mertens’ role in bringing out the first edition of Thomas More’s Utopia. Designed by Dutch firm KAAN Architecten, the building incorporates three concrete levels that appear to float above the atrium, wood bookshelves that rise through the floors and illuminated images from Mertens’ 1516 edition of Utopia. The complex embraces a former 19th-century military cadet school now occupied by an academy of performing arts, so you might spot a student playing a violin or a dance performance in a rehearsal space. Enclosed by three new urban squares, Aalst’s library has revitalised an entire neighbourhood. You might even call it Utopian.

exterior of Utopia library in Aalst

6) De Grote Post

Ostend’s modernist post office closed down in 1999 and lay empty for many years until the city finally decided to turn it into a cultural centre. The Antwerp architects B-architecten lovingly restored the modernist details such as the post office counters and phone booths, but added some striking new elements. The building now draws audiences with an adventurous programme of theatre, dance, comedy and concerts.

concert hall at de Grote Post

7) Concertgebouw

The Concertgebouw (concert building) in Bruges was built in 2002 by the Ghent architects Paul Robbrecht and Hilde Daem. The striking rust-red concert hall was the first truly innovative building in Bruges since the 15th century. But it came as a brutal shock for many in this old town of Gothic church spires and tiny almshouses. The concert hall still looks out of place, although it has established an inspiring cultural programme.

view from above of the stage at Concertgebouw

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