Building

Building

The Blomme building is one of the rare still-standing examples of modernist industrial architecture in Brussels.

That the multifaceted but specific activities organised by WIELS can unfold in such a remarkable building make it a unique institution of contemporary art in Europe. Its strategic geographic position also creates a new point of reference and attraction to Brussels, for both local and international audiences. In addition, the project helps foster the economic and cultural revival of the neighbourhood, and of the city of Brussels more generally. In this regard, the historic Wielemans Brewery was refurbished to accommodate a café/restaurant, a bookstore, a cinema, an audiovisual lab and a panoramic rooftop terrace, all of which make WIELS, not only a cultural centre, but also a welcoming space and essential stop on a visit to Brussels.

History of the Wielemans Brewery

Lambert Wielemans married Constance-Ida Ceuppens on 14 November 1838. The couple established the Wielemans-Ceuppens dynasty, which managed the brewery until the 1980s. After taking over a bakery without much success, they started trading cloth. Business went well and the couple wanted to diversy and expand their activities. In 1862, Lambert Wielemans bought a beer business from his brother-in-law. Although at the time they were still not manufacturing their own products, this date nevertheless marks the beginning of the Wielemans' entrance into the world of brewing. 

In 1868, with assistance from her children, Constance-Ida Ceuppens, then widowed for five years, began producing and brewing the family's own beer. For about ten years, the Wielemans leased the Roche-Soyez brewery, located in the centre of Brussels, on rue Terre-Neuve. Business flourished, and the premises rapidly became too cramped.

Setting up in Forest


In 1879, the Wielemans brothers (Édouard, Prosper and André) bought a large, marshy property in the countryside of Forest on which to build their new brewery. It was fitted out with a mash tun, four steam boilers, a meal oven, tuns for boiling and storage, and warehouses. In 1882, a branch line linked the factory to the railroad, making shipping to the provinces easier. The brewery comprised 5,100 square meters of develop land, plus the homes of Edouard and Prosper, both built on the site. On 3 May 1883, Constance-Ida Ceuppens died and the three brothers decided to continue the business and to retain the 'Wielemans-Ceuppens' name in her memory.

Diversification and development


In 1884, the Wielemans brothers visited German and Austrian breweries, and upon their return began producing low-fermentation beers, which they suspected would sell well in Belgium. Thus, their dark beers and lambics were gradually replaced by Pils and Munich-style brews. The quality of their beers was rewarded, in particular by the International Competition in Paris (the diploma won there is still visible on one of the façades of the building), and sales continued to grow. In 1889, the brewery added a new malt house and, in 1893, three double-floor hot air kilns. New offices were also added. For the first time ever in Brussels, elements of the city's collective heritage were recycled in an industrial building: the architect Bordiaux recovered the entrance door, the bronze pediment and the blue stone from the Savings Bank building formerly in the Place de Brouckère; the bank was demolished and replaced by the Hotel Métropole, also a venture of the Wielemans family.

Expansion of the brewery


Early in 1899, Prosper and Édouard Wielemans bought out their brother André’s share of the business. The dawn of the 20th century, as the brewery welcomed a third Wielemans generation, marked the start of an unprecedented period of expansion. To keep up with increased demand, the Wielemans family decided to build a new brewery that would be fitted with all the latest technology; in 1905, this new brewery even had its own power-generating plant. The First World War slowed down expansion considerably. Still, in the early 1920s Wielemans launched two new beers, a Stout and Scotch ale, to re-start brewery production and to compete with the English beers which had invaded the Belgian market.

Modernisation and peak years


In order to respond to growing demand and to adapt production equipment to the latest innovations, the Wielemans family decided in 1930 to invest in a new brew hall. The building designed by Adrien Blomme originally housed eight tuns -- two mash tanks, two lauter tanks, two filtration tanks and two boiling kettles -- making it the largest brewery in Europe! Locals soon started referring to it as the 'Wielemans Tower'. The building went on to serve as a landmark of Brussels' landscape, and its special modernist architecture became an impressive showcase for the business. 

During the 1930s, moreover, the brewery introduced new beers to its offerings, including the Forst, the Extra-Foncée and the Nationale. In 1936, Prosper Wielemans died and his son Léon succeeded him, continuing the expansion of the family business. In 1938, the Wielemans purchased the Marly Crewery in Neder-over-Heembeek and moved all the malting there. In 1940, as a result of World War Two, production slowed down once again. Raw materials were scarce and a decree by the German occupation limited alcohol content to 0.8°. This fluitjesbier (baby-beer) is marketed under the registered trademark 'Wiels'.

The Decline: 1945-1988 


A new generation took over the brewery and tried to re-energize it after WWII by considerably expanding the infrastructure. These efforts notwithstanding, the business stopped flourishing and, in 1978, the Leuven-based Artois Brewery purchased a part of the capital and became the administrator of the Wielemans brewery. The Wielemans Brewery was liquidated in September 1980. Production at the brewery in Forest was scaled down gradually and, on  29 September 1988, the last batch of Wiels was brewed. It was the end of more than 100 years of brewing.

1988-2006


In November 1988, just two months after the Artois Group had sold the equipment to a wholesaler of used brewery plant equipment, two of the eight tuns were dismantled. And two more were destroyed shortly thereafter, in complete disregard for the historical value of the equipment and heritage it represented, and in spite of the outcry by the nonprofit organisation La Fonderie, which works to protect the economic and social history of the Brussels Region. In the wake of those events, the Regional Development Company purchased the four remaining tuns for 2 million Belgian Francs, thus saving a part of Brussels' industrial history from destruction while the facilities awaited a new buyer. The building, which was still the property of Interbrew, was at that same time classified by the Royal Monuments and Landscapes Commission and, i
n April 1989, Artois-Interbrew sold the complex to AMG Development, which proposed to transform the Brew Hall into an industrial technology museum, and to construct on the site a centre for small- and medium-sized businesses, as well as housing, offices and a high-tech centre. 

In September 1989, Michel Villers, who had become 25% owner of the site, managed to convince a Swiss architectural firm to turn the complex into a centre for 'unusual and original businesses'. This new project, consisting of a surface area of 16,500 square meters, provided for a high-end restaurant, offices for businesses in the design and fashion sectors and even luxury lofts.

 Two years later, the fate of the former Wielemans Brewery was still uncertain. On 12 April 1991, Le Soir reported on a new lead: the Pensions Office would be looking to relocate, should it in fact sell the Midi Tower, which it owned. Despite its many defects, the site in Forest was a serious possibility; indeed, a project was even designed by the Metzger-Deleuze architectural firm in which the Blomme building, the former brew hall and the Wielemans offices would be integrated into the new construction. But this project, too, was abandoned. The site continued to deteriorate and acquired the reputation of being an urban blight. 

In 2001, the Brussels Capital Region initiated an expropriation procedure under the auspices of the 1993 ruling regarding material heritage protection The Region thus became the new owner of the Blomme building and of the former brew hall, and it started looking for a new project to rehabilitate the buildings. The Region retained the idea of creating a major centre for contemporary art there, and the restoration and refurbishing work, based on  the plans proposed by the architecture firm Art & Build, started on 24 January 2005. And the contemporary art centre that everyone in Brussels had been awaiting for years opened its doors in May 2007.
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