In late 20th century urban Europe a great many symbolic landmarks of industrial, merchant and military activity were abandoned and fell into disuse, their memory suspended.
‘Wastelands, eyesores, silent spaces’ : the terminology of absence designated the brutal passage from one period to another that disfigured entire areas and made many of their inhabitants jobless... but also opened unforeseen perspectives. Some of these deserted places were re-occupied, and little by little began a new life. The issues at stake concerning their protection linked up to those of a generation of artists and cultural workers intent on influencing the society and times they live in.
Freed of their specific use or content, these ‘available’ architectures were able to adapt to the most unlikely projects, and welcomed change. Open-ended in their posture and with no predetermined role, they offered the freedom so vital to contemporary artistic creation and research, favoured encounters between associations, and paved the way toward new experiences. The articulation of varied, modular volumes enabled easy transformation to cater to a wide range of activities and to different publics. ‘People came in easily’.
The spaces themselves invited fabrication, experimentation, conviviality, invention, and the blending of people, art forms and cultures. Many things came together there to stimulate situations and contexts, upsetting the old rules imposed by the architectural structure of conventional cultural venues, which tend to encourage passive or consumerist relationships to creation.
At a time when the role of art in our society is being radically called into question, these places charged with the history and movement of the real world have emerged as favoured territories where links with contemporary reality can be re-forged.
Sheds, warehouses, barracks, buildings initially designed for industrial production or commerce are being put to new uses today. By encouraging new modes of exchange and confrontation among artists and the public, and by introducing alternative means of thought and action, these places respond to needs and desires to which ordinary cultural institutions are ill adapted. They are the ideal venues for emerging forms of sociability, whose patterns and modes of expression – by definition - cannot be fixed. In a word, these places are in phase with new stances that differ widely from traditional relationships to art.
Culture and creation are not considered as mere accumulations of objects or one-off events : they are (once again) driving forces working to change social relationships in society. Re-use and re-occupation, by transforming meanings and situations - the abandoned becomes desirable, the ill-adapted suitable, the old and worn new and full of promise - symbolizes re-construction at its best. These new cultural venues upgrade the urban environment of entire neighbourhoods. They encourage people to get involved in civic initiatives and to get together to back common causes, they provide emotional and intellectual outlets in creation, and in doing so they help people to form a better relationship with their environment and their lives.
Generated by the alternative life styles of the late 60s, the phenomenon of occupying and transforming abandoned sites remained relatively marginal until the 80s, but it has burgeoned in Europe and all over the world since the mid- 90s.
By opening a Europe-wide vista on questions that are usually confined to the local, regional or national context, we are able to envisage a range of possibilities and to compare experiences that are radically different. It is in this same spirit that the pioneers of many of these new cultural centres grouped in an informal network, which became known as Trans Europe Halles in 1983. Links on the European level were useful in that they helped to identify the initial meaning of each approach and its mode of evolution in the contemporary world. They have also contributed to the emergence of new skills and have reinforced methods of training people in new forms of creation.
The accumulated experience of the TEH network stimulates a spirit of openness and co-operation among its members, and encourages sharing with other partners. People involved in similar projects benefit from informal help to accompany the various stages of their development.
This book takes the opportunity to tell the stories of some of these centres, to describe their specific ideas and modes of functioning, and to present the vision of the initiators who undertook to rehabilitate these ‘cathedrals of industry, commerce or army life’ for the benefit of new democratic imagination.
Spaces for resistance and socio-artistic production, for dialogue and affirmation, stages opening onto the city and the world. Living places, impertinent and at times chaotic, in ‘stable unbalance’, houses for ‘lost causes’, without borders. Spaces that evolve and can be recycled, where people have fun and think, create and diffuse, experiment and learn solidarity. The many dimensions of these places - from the physical use of their architectures to the intellectual variety of projects - and their spirit of independence with regard to the market and politics, have brought into being a new generation of cultural venues.
translation : Leon Sagaru