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Rebuilding the Industrial Space

Factories stand as one of the greatest emblematic representations of industrial spaces. They each contain within them a strong collective memory, of human bodies, of work, and of the sound and heat of the machines. As a gathering point for numerous individuals, a factory is not only a workspace but also the centre of political struggles and workers meetings. Over several decades the factory has become the core of many people’s lives. This is due to its role as the community’s major employer and, therefore, the community’s primary source of income. There is a relational aspect, between the factory and its surroundings; we all react emotionally to the presence created by such a space. Nowadays, in Europe and the US, many factories and other industrial sites are disappearing, due to the economic crisis, or relocation of production to countries with cheaper labour costs1. We can currently find numerous abandoned industrial spaces, which, due to their large size and flexibility, are suitable for exhibiting contemporary art. In recent years, examples of such conversions continue to proliferate. What started out during the 1960s as an action against the system, is now fully accepted by it, and even encouraged. However, to transform an industrial space into an exhibition space brings up numerous ethical and architectural issues.

From the industrial site to the Museum

Since the 1990s, the occupation of vacant industrial sites and the conversion of old industrial areas into cultural centres has become a common strategy for numerous museums and exhibition spaces of contemporary art. We can point to, for instance, the construction of the Tate Modern in London and the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao2. Their foundations have obviously taken into account the global economy, the growth and commercialisation of cultural tourism, and the need for a combination of economic and urban policies.

However, this phenomenon began much earlier, initiated by the alternative artistic movements during the late 1950s and early 1960. It was intended as an anti-establishment action, and as an experiment in exhibiting contemporary art in places not subjected to the control of institutions. The 60’s were characterised by youth protest, and within these activist groups existed many young people who were engaged in the artistic / cultural sphere. These individuals strived for non-conformism with commercial principles. They opposed the imposition of mass media and critiqued consumer society. Their refusal to comply with the status quo combined with their search for greater freedom in both subject and language, created the foundation for the flexibility of the exhibition space.

Decades earlier Marcel Duchamp had already begun to question the hegemony of museum spaces by creating the boîte-en-valise – a “portable museum” which challenged the fixed nature of the exhibition space. The artistic movements of the 1960’s, such as conceptual art, land art, arte povera, or performance art used different media materials, to explore the relationship between the artwork and the observer in their everyday life. Artists from these movements began to exhibit outside of the museums, galleries and institutions traditionally dedicated to art. Instead they went out into public spaces and occupied alternative locations in which they could presented their work (such as the street, storefronts, bus stops, as well as the mass media.) (Moreira 2006). In fact, the artworks produced by artists belonging to these movements intensified the need for expansion of exhibition possibilities, both for its intention as for its dimensions; there is a predominance of site-specific artistic creations, and the occupation of unconventional spaces appears to be the natural solution.

Many artists during the 1960s, occupied warehouses and other buildings; notably in Soho, New York, renovating them into workshops and spaces of artistic confluence and sharing3. In Europe, there were several alternative spaces and artist run galleries. These were located mainly in areas that suffered major topographical changes and a process of industrial relocation. The adaptation of these spaces for cultural purposes was more of a political act than a purely material one.

The average industrial complex possesses the qualities necessary for making a political statement, the container symbolises the freedom that an artist seeks; the hangar is a huge, empty, and flexible space.

What had at first been an act of rebellion against what was considered an obsolete and conservative institution – the museum, was in the late 1970s and 1980s, incorporated by the museum itself. The conversion of industrial buildings into museums and cultural centres first began by the private, and later by the public sector. In the 1960s, the spaces were used as they were found, and any reconstruction process took place informally, however, by the 1970s and 1980s this process of renovation had become institutionalised. As for the 1990s, these processes become even more relevant, as the museums looked for spaces of great importance to the urban fabric of the city – such as the Tate Modern and the Guggenheim, Bilbao.

Inês Moreira identifies three phases in the conversion of industrial spaces: initially, the galleries, and then the centres of art, and finally the museums of contemporary art. With each phase, there is a growing level of programmatic complexity and it is related to the physical size of the spaces (2006). Usually, art centres have more facilities than galleries, including offices, reception, conservation, restoration, archive, collections, technical services, etc. On the other hand, the museums have an even more complex structure, requiring storage rooms and archive, as well as spaces for various services (restaurant, bar, cafeteria, bookstore, shop, etc.).

Richard Williams, on the conversion of industrial buildings into museological spaces, describes the difference between a “historical” approach, which preserves the legacy and memory of a building, and an “anthropological” approach, which places more focus on the actual visitor experience. The author shows the importance of maintaining the essential characteristics of the building so that it can express its past and legacy. The extent of preservation or obliteration of these features will differ from space to space. Taking for example, Tate Liverpool and Tate Modern: the first celebrates its industrial past (although embellishing certain aspects, as there is no reference in any text to the poor working conditions of dockworkers, or to the slavery that is proved to have existed there). As for Tate Modern, it retains the outside of the building, but excluding the Turbine Hall (which impresses the spectator more due to its colossal dimensions, than by any remembrance of its former industrial functions), the rest of the building is a “normal” white cube, and we could not distinguish any trace of the building’s history in the exhibition space.

Williams states:

We can say with certainty that the industrial exhibition space presents at the same time a situation both of remembrance and of forgetfulness.” (2005, 132).

Meaning that there is an apparent preservation of the past and memory. The new building appropriates only some original aspects, typically the outer façade or other architectural elements, and fully transforms others leaving a feeling of “false” reconversion. That said, it would be detrimental to suggest that the spaces should be preserved exactly as they were, transforming them into mausoleums of memory. Naturally, for the installation of a museum space adaptations to the original structure are necessary. However, it seems to have become commonplace and almost “mandatory” for many cities to have in their urban fabric a museum or art center resulting from such conversions. Considering that the original building has to be respected – to build an entirely new museum/gallery is perhaps pushing the definition of a “museum or gallery in an industrial space” too far, since what stands before us is a complete new presence.

As Alfrey and Putnam refer, buildings’ analysis focuses almost exclusively on the exterior architectural features of the structure with little reference to the building’s previous function and no criteria other than purely aesthetic, are used to determine the degree of modification possible for the space in question (2003, 22). 4 Also Michael Stratton adds that much industrial heritage is destroyed, after the architect, surveyor or builder have done their job; annexes demolished, floors and windows replaced and walls plastered – all in the name of preservation (2000, 23).

Inês Moreira speaks of the several atmospheres, composed of multiple layers, which are often present in the construction of space. We find tensions between the aura, technicality and materiality, and these are broader than the appropriation for new uses, since the space resonates with the various layers and dimensions of social, economic and political context (2012, 31). We can also formulate this thought in the metaphor of the palimpsest building (Szylak 2012). A hybrid building, whose development over time brings new additions that do not fully encompass the new unit. By overlapping buildings from different eras, the traces of such a process becomes visible: the mark of the old structure is left on the new. As in the original palimpsest, coming from the history of books, in which parchment was reused and writing layers overlapped; over time, the old layers eventually came to the surface. This caused an unexpected relation between the writings of different chronological timeframes. When considering buildings we can also encounter this palimpsest relation.

We can point out three successful reconversion examples5:

-Darling Foundry (Montreal, Canada) – “Minimal Intervention”.

-Museu da Electricidade, EDP Foundation (Lisbon, Portugal) -“The Hybrid Museum, Industrial Archeology and Contemporary art”.

-ASA Factory (Guimarães, Portugal) – “Building Occupation”.

When curating on former industrial buildings, we deal with presence and absence, material and immaterial traces. These spaces carry with them a load (both material and semiotic), by exhibiting at and in occupying these spaces; we are also working with them. This is the crucial difference in understanding a location’s multiple dimensions when they do not follow the usual white cube model.

Rebuilding the Industrial Space continues with Curating the industrial space in next months issue of Samizdat online.


1 We can take as an example what happened to traditional car industry cities in the USA like Detroit or Flint, with mass unemployment and thousands of people having to leave the city. In addition, the textile industry relocated mostly to Asia, closing down many factories in European regions traditionally related to textile production.
2 Tate Modern was a former power station and Guggenheim Bilbao was constructed on the city’s port area.
3 Like Donald Judd and his loft/studio in 101 Spring Street or Andy Warhol’s well-known “Factory”.
4 The same authors refer to the example of a textile factory on Derbyshire, concerning the surrounding grounds modification. Water gardens were built in these surrounding grounds, using the factory’s water system. Only the basic frame of the building was preserved, and it ended up looking more like a French châteaux than a former textile factory. (2003, 22-23).
5 It will be developed on “Curating the Industrial Space”, on next month’s issue.

Alfrey, Judith, e Tim Putnam. The Industrial Heritage: Managing Resources and Uses. Routledge, 2003.
Buildings and Remnants. Buildings and Remnants. 2012. http://www.buildingsremnants.com/concept- conceit/ 
(access at 09 July 2015). 

Buren, Daniel. The Function of the Studio. October 1971.
Moreira, Inês. “Brown Rooms/Grey Halls: A Curadoria de Espaços pós-industriais.” Em Edifícios e Vestígios, 
por Inês Moreira, 29-41. INCM, 2012.
“http://petitcabanon.org/projects/terminal/terminal-_text/.” petitcabanon.org. 2006. (access at 06 July 2015).
Stratton, Michael. Industrial Buildings: Conservation and Regeneration. Taylor & Francis, 2000.
Szylak, Aneta. “Polifonização do Edifício Palimpséstico.” In Edifícios e Vestígios, Inês Moreira, 43-49. INCM, 2012.
Williams, Richard. “Remembering, Forgetting, and the Industrial Gallery Space.” Em Urban Memory: History and Amnesia 
in the Modern City, Mark Crinson, 121-140. Taylor & Francis, 2005.