Art Factories – Creative Urban Renewal in Europe

A field guide to avant-garde cultural enclaves and artistic landmarks throughout Europe - some edgy, others extravagant, but all awash in attitude. Amsterdam, Lodz, Antwerp, Prague and Berlin - those cities offer a unique experience of their art and urban culture.

Once, factories and industrial construction complexes where the focal point of urban landscape, as European cities grew around industrial businesses. But as the giant generator of economic wealth started to loose stream, buildings and large-scale production facilities where abandoned and left to rust. Then, slowly, artists and forward-thinking entrepreneurs started combining cultural preservation with urban renewal and artistic flair and as a result, a number of abandoned industrial sites have been given a new lease of life as cultural centres and mixed-use artistic venues. Rocking to the rhythm of creative reuse and high-speed development, examples of large-scale urban revival can be seen across Europe.

Alternative Amsterdam
The Dutch are masters of reclaiming and repurposing land, so it’s no surprise to learn that what was once an abandoned gasworks and docklands has become Amsterdam’s most recent cultural attraction. The poster child of creative renewal is Westergasfabriek, a 14-hectare art and culture park that was converted from a derelict 19th-century gasworks site on the city's western fringe. Its renovated brick-and-metal structures now house canal-side restaurants, offbeat art galleries, a food-design studio and the art-house cinema Ketelhuis. On the north side of the campus, the massive cylindrical Gashouder (Gasholder) building plays hosts to a variety of large-scale exhibitions and festivals and the lake in the centre of the complex can be drained in order to create more room for special performances and then filled again afterwards.

Another industrial wasteland treated to a cultural makeover is the NDSM shipyard on the northern banks of the IJ-Canal, a ten-minute ferry ride from the back of the central train station. Exterior-wise, the premises remains largely unaltered, expect for bold swaths of graffiti and a few life-sized Easter Island statues, but free-spirited artistic expression has exploded within the ironclad warehouses. A collaborative breeding ground for emerging talent, the shabby-chic halls are settled by over 250 independent artists, designers, architecture firms and theatre groups, many crafting projects on-site. Besides these small clusters of Bohemian activity, several concerts, performances and festivals are held on the grounds, including the whimsical Storytelling Festival from 16-18 October (website).

Manufaktura in Lodz
Poland's largest and a most impressive urban revitalisation project is the mammoth Manufaktura culture-entertainment-trade centre in Lodz. Situated on Ogrodowa Street, the heart of the city’s historic industrial-residential area, the sprawling complex started life as a textile factory and housing estate in 1852, built on the ambitious plans of Jewish merchant Izrael Poznański. At its peak, Poznański’s palace and factory district functioned as a city within a city, integrating the spinning mill with small living quarters that provided accommodation for over 4000 factory workers alongside a church, hospital, school, sporting club, fire department and an assortment of stores.

At the cusp of the new millennium, French developer Apsys took on the task of reinventing the jumble of dilapidated bricks as a historically-sensitive new economic hub. The restoration plans concocted by French architect Jean-Marc Pivot incorporated elements of the original Gothic, Rundbogenstil and Art Nouveau style buildings with streamlined designs and state-of-the-art structural concepts, which were completed in 2006. The Manufaktura complex now boasts an oversized market square with a 300-meter-long fountain, a science museum, modern art centre, skating park, nightclub, conference centre and a   retail centre encompassing over two hundred shops and boutiques. Once section of the former five-floor cotton mill has been converted into a Andel’s Hotel, which will rounded off the reconstruction venture in 2010. 

Antwerp's Port Of Culture
As a major port city with numerous maritime buildings and industrial sites along the river Scheldt, Antwerp has benefited from a number of urban renewal projects over the last decade. Extra City, the new centre for contemporary art based in an impressive former industrial space in Antwerp North since 2006, is one example where industrial renewal is made to adjust itself to today's demands, without erasing a unique history.

This sprawling complex was created to be a dynamic platform for artistic collaboration, with 1100 square metre exhibition space and several flexible facilities for artistic activities, such as workshops, debates, screenings and festivals. Offering a qualitative and challenging programme of events and exhibitions, Extra City is the first location in the Flanders with a strong international profile connecting Antwerp with large art centres in London (Tate Modern) and Paris (Centre Pompidou).

Prague's Art Warehouse
Art-led urban regeneration was also in action at MeetFactory, International Centre for Contemporary Art in Prague. Set up in the forlorn warehouse of the Czech Railways in the industrial district of Smichov in Prague, this 5000 square metre multi-funtional facility was the brainchild of local sculptor David Cerny. Based on his ambitious plans, MeetFactory has a recording and broadcasting studio, music club, publishing house, cafe, a 150-seater theatre, art gallery and an event hall holding up to 600 people. In addition, there's over a dozen studios for local and foreign visual artists to live and work in as part of the factory's Artist in Residence program. To find the place, look out for the two red cars seemingly dripping from massive nail hangers on the facade of the warehouse.

United Art Stays in Berlin
Change and urban redesign is constantly visible in Berlin, where groups of avant-garde artists have filled scores of empty industrial buildings and tumbledown Cold War relics with avant-garde galleries and underground art spaces. One of the largest underground art centres is Kunsthaus Tacheles, a six-storey former department store on Oranienburger Strasse that was squatted by international artists immediately after the fall of the Berlin Wall. As an iconic symbol of the city's rebellious, post-reunificaiton counter-culture for the past two decades, the graffiti-strewn building is the base of a bustling artist collective complete with a galleries, screening rooms, installation spaces, workshops, cafes and bars.

A short stroll from the Warschauer Strasse metro station is another underground art hub, the Raw Temple situated within a former train department. Growing out of its rust-filled roots, this four-building complex brings together theatre, music, drinking and politics. Berlin's newest space for edgy, modern art is Radialsystem V ( named after the turn of the century pumping station for the Berlin Water Service which it occupies in the urban centre of the city, between Mitte, Kreuzberg and Friedrichshain. New ideas and artistic flair radiate out of all directions from this elegant four-storey riverside structure housing two ample performance spaces, rehearsal rooms, plus a restaurant and a bar. The work-in-progress spirit of new inhabited ruins throughout Berlin have become an integral part of the city's identity. Raw, historic and creative - in other words, Berlin at it's best.