Why does contemporary art seem so at home in disused industrial architecture? Today’s large, conceptual, and site-specific art often pairs remarkably well with the expansive spaces and raw materiality of former industrial sites. Established museums like DIA:Beacon and MASS MoCA have made reusing and adapting industrial heritage sites integral to their brands. Other major institutions are joining this movement. Crystal Bridges, best known for its Moshe Safdie-designed galleries, has recently opened a contemporary satellite called “The Momentary” in Bentonville, Arkansas—located in the 63,000 square foot space formerly occupied by a cheese factory. Besides providing innovative venues for contemporary art, these spaces seem increasingly attractive in the age of COVID-19, when the mandate for social distancing has many museums and galleries thinking about how to protect visitors by providing sufficient space to safely experience art.
From 2018 to 2019, Fresh Art International’s Publications Editor Sarah Rovang traveled around the world as the Society of Architectural Historians’ H. Allen Brooks Travelling Fellow. Her itinerary, which centered on the interpretation and reuse of industrial sites across fourteen countries on five continents, included many sites where artists, curators, and architects have transformed industrial buildings and landscapes into innovative and inspiring spaces for creative practice. Here, Rovang revisits a few highlights from her adventure.
Zeitz Museum of Contemporary African Art (MOCAA), Cape Town, South Africa; designed by Heatherwick Studio
In order to transform this 1920s grain silo on Cape Town’s historic waterfront into a structurally-sound art museum, the architects needed to replace much of the older, heavy concrete with newer, lighter aggregates. Much of the construction process was in fact one of “excavation,” carving out as much as 80% of the original concrete. The heart of the building itself is an area where the architects extracted a cavity in the shape of a corn kernel enlarged to macroscopic scale. The original concrete is distinguished throughout the building by its lighter hue—the contrast between the new insertions and the remaining material is a sort of visual register of the construction process itself. The white cube style galleries that house the majority of the art feel very distinct from the sensual and cathedralesque lobby space shown here.
Moerenuma Park, Sapporo, Japan; designed by Isamu Noguchi
This former brownfield site took in 2.7 million tons of waste before being converted into a park, following the master plan of artist and designer Isamu Noguchi. Still recovering from typhoon damage when I visited in late 2018, parts of the park were closed—but it was still thrilling to climb pyramidal mountains and find shade beneath surreal spheres and floating prisms. I later learned from a 99% Invisible episode that Moerenuma Park represented a lifelong dream for Noguchi, whose negative memories of barren playgrounds in Tokyo inspired him to create this sculptural landscape, where each of the elements can be viewed separately or understood as part of the greater whole.
The Grand Hornu, Mons, Belgium
This remarkable early 19th-century utopian coal-mining community was nearly razed to make a shopping mall parking lot in 1969. In 2012, it was inscribed as a UNESCO site. Today, the site houses a mix of interpretive infrastructure, office space, and several contemporary art venues—including the Musée des Arts Contemporains (MAC’s) and Centre d’Innovation et de Design (CID). The simplified Neoclassical architectural language of the curving “hornu” (central oval-shaped courtyard) feels almost protomodern, and blends remarkably well with the contemporary architectural additions that house MAC’s galleries.
Färgfabriken, Stockholm, Sweden
Artist Theresa Traore Dahlberg’s exhibition In the Wake of Shifts and Memory at Färgfabriken stitched together the cultural contexts of Sweden and Burkina Faso, touching on themes of the artist’s transnational identities and more broadly, the legacies of colonial industry in today’s postcolonial high tech production practices. Färgfabriken was renovated in 2011 by Petra Gipp Arkitektur, who describes the building as an “archive,” encoding layers of time through the building’s various uses over the past century as an ammunition factory, paint factory, and art museum. Traore Dahlberg’s installation darkens the room, closing off those windows and skylights, rendering it an introverted space for personal reflection. The most haptic and architectonic element was a grid of copper circuit-board plates suspended from the ceiling, stitched together with thick cotton string—representing two products that are no longer economically viable to produce in Sweden.
Salt’s Mill, Saltaire, England
Long hours, brutal working conditions, and low wages characterized the early Industrial Revolution in England. By the mid-nineteenth century, labor reformers discovered that a better working environment, and access to better sanitation, education, and recreational amenities meant happier, more productive workers. The town of Saltaire is a key example of philanthropic capitalism. Salt’s Mill, which produced high-quality alpaca-wool textiles, today has been converted into a mixed-use retail, office, and cultural space. On several floors, Salt’s Mill makes maximum use of its high ceilings and ample windows in unique gallery spaces featuring the prints of English artist David Hockney (who was born nearby).
Streets of Valparaiso, Chile
From the late 19th to the early 20th century, Valparaiso was a bustling industrial port town. Constructed on a challenging topography of steep hills, the city’s population found creative ways to make pedestrian navigation easier, including urban funiculars and elevators. After the Panama Canal opened in 1914, Valparaiso lost most of its naval traffic and the city’s economy declined precipitously. Fortunately, many of the early buildings have survived and the city’s core is listed as a UNESCO site. Valparaiso has also become a mecca for street artists from Chile and beyond. Today, Valparaiso’s unique urban environment is one of the best places to see ambitious, politically-engaged street art in the world.
Gasometer, Oberhausen, Germany
A remnant of the Ruhr Valley’s rapid and uncontrolled industrialization, the Gasometer is a 117.5 meter-tall 1920s German coking plant gas tank that has been converted into an art space. The thematic installations hosted there are designed to make maximal use of the massive core space. The show on view when I visited in early 2019, Call of the Mountains, featured two floors of contemporary landscape and mountaineering photography on the two lower floors. The main space of the Gasometer, which possesses a volume of 347,000 cubic meters, featured a light show projected onto a model of the Matterhorn several stories tall, which was suspended upside down from the roof, shimmers in the dark as various projections show the topography and the ascent routes that brave mountain climbers have taken over the years.
Sarah Rovang is the Publications Editor for Fresh Art International. An architectural historian, curator, and writer originally from Albuquerque, New Mexico, she currently lives and works in Santa Fe. Her work examines the intersections of vernacular architecture and industrial modernity.
Related Research Guide: The Art of Capitalism
Related Links: sarahrovang.com, Society of Architectural Historians H. Allen Brooks Travelling Fellowship Blog, @sarahmoderne, Zeitz MOCAA, Moerenuma Park, Grand Hornu, Färgfabriken, Saltaire, Valparaiso (UNESCO), Gasometer, 99% Invisible