A favourite book of mine is Industria: Industrial Architecture in Belgium from 1986. It’s mainly a book of superb documentary photographs by Christine Bastin and Jacques Evrard that prioritise the need to record with absolute clarity over personal expression - somewhere between Bernd and Hilla Becher and Walker Evans. There are pit-heads, pumping stations, forges, boat-lifts, paper mills, sugar refineries, tanneries, maltings, kilns and blast furnaces – almost all out of use and unrestored. Prominent among them were photos of a vast complex of canal and rail served bonded warehouse (Entrepôt Royal) and storage facilities in Brussels known as Tour et Taxis (being the Gallicised form of Thurn und Taxis, a German dynasty of entrepreneurs that played a leading role in establishing European postal services) and built mainly between 1903 and 1906. After being finally abandoned in 1987 it presented a serious challenge to conservationists and it was more than a decade before work began to restore and convert the main building for a new use.
The main building, designed by architect, E Van Humbeek, was constructed with a concrete structure on the Hennebiq system to provide 100 storage chambers over four levels with a single rail track to move goods in and out. In its enormous scale it was a perfect expression of Belgian economic power (Belgium was Europe’s fifth largest economy in 1900) and ambition and externally the warehouse was finished to a very high standard and clad in fine brick-work. We must imagine wave after wave of colonial plunder arriving by rail or canal on which excise duty would be levied prior to onward shipment. Additional building were constructed on the site and included a customs office (Hôtel des Douanes) and other substantial warehouses (Halles aux Poissons et Huiles and la Gare Maritime). By 1922 when the entire complex was finally completed there was a power station (Centrale Électrique), an exotic copper domed water tower (Château d’Eau) and a railway station for the exclusive use of employees (la Gare de Service – la Chapelle). At its peak almost 3,000 workers were employed on the site.
The refurbished Entrepôt Royal opened in 2007 and houses fashion and media businesses on the upper levels (to which there is no public access) and celebrity-chef restaurants and bars on the ground floor. There is exhibition and conference space on the lower ground floor. It all looked rather forlorn and relatively deserted on my recent visit – a small number of suits attempting to stride around purposefully and a handful of latte drinkers staring at their iPads. There are probably busier times than a damp Wednesday morning but despite the splendour of the restoration work, a wonderful glazed roof and an invigorating sense of scale, it all seemed lacking in dynamism. If this is, as stated, the vanguard of regeneration then much work needs to be done. The rest of the site still awaits its fate – the master-plan provides for waterfront residential and retail developments on a large scale and a public park but at present it is still possible to wander around and view the other buildings and structures. The station is a semi-ruin after a fire in 1998 but the Gare Maritime is an enormous structure with great potential and does see occasional use for major performances and exhibition. The water tower and power station are buildings of distinction, eclectically styled and finished in Flemish brick and blue Belgian limestone. The regeneration project may turn out to be a future triumph but at present there is a vaguely depressing provisional air about the place that gives little cause for optimism.