Before and after: the past lives of Europe’s art spaces

From resurrected churches to roller skating rinks, subterranean reservoirs to thermal power plants, we reflect on the past lives, and reincarnations of Europe’s most extraordinary contemporary art spaces. Explore the untold history of art. 

MAAT Museum

Past life: A thermal power station
Location: Lisbon, Portugal

Historical photograph of the Central Tejo power station, Lisbon. Photography: Kurt Pinto, courtesy of EDP Foundation

On the banks of the River Tagus, Lisbon, there’s a conversation happening between two entirely different buildings. Though a century apart, they do have one thing in common: the Museum of Art, Architecture and Technology. 

Built in 1908, Central Tejo was a thermal power station that supplied the entirety of Lisbon with electric power, operating non-stop between 1909 to 1954. The iron and brick-covered building, typical of late 19th-century ‘electricity factories’, draws on a mix of influences, from Art Nouveau to classicism. In 1990, it opened to the public as the Electricity Museum, offering a journey through the history and evolution of electricity production, technological feats in renewables, and the EDP Foundation art collection, dedicated to contemporary Portuguese artists.

Installation view of ’Rehearsal for a Community’, MAAT – Museum of Art, Architecture and Technology. Photography: Daniel Malhão

Also on the industrial EDP Foundation campus, but at the opposite end of the architectural spectrum, is a building housing the Museum of Art, Architecture and Technology (MAAT). Designed by British architecture studio AL_A (Amanda Levete Architects) and opened to the public in 2016, the low-slung structure, comprising 15,000 three-dimensional tiles, can be walked over, under or through, and reflects the institution’s convergence of contemporary art, architecture and technology. Among those who have exhibited at MAAT are Pedro Reyes, Lawrence Weiner, Grada Kilomba and Tomás Saraceno.

Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art

Past life: A flour mill
Location: Gateshead, UK 

Aerial view of the Joseph Rank Baltic flour mill in Gateshead. Courtesy BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art, Gateshead

On the south bank of the River Tyne in Gateshead sits a former flour mill re-imagined as the UK’s largest contemporary art institution. Completed in 1950, it was built by food giant Rank Hovis to a late-1930s design by architects Gelder and Kitchen. The mill closed in 1981 and lay derelict for over two decades. The idea of Baltic as we know it today was conceived in 1991 when Northern Arts (now Arts Council England North East) announced plans for a ‘major new capital facilities for the Contemporary Visual Arts in Central Tyneside’.

Under the guidance of Baltic’s inaugural director Sune Nordgren, the focus officially shifted from flour to contemporary art. Construction began in 1998 spearheaded by Ellis Williams Architects and comprising six main floors, three mezzanines, and 3000sqm of arts space including studios, a cinema/ lecture space, shop, library, archive and rooftop restaurant. In 1999, there was a pause in construction, during which time the building got its first taste of art. Anish Kapoor was commissioned to create Taratantala, a colossal site-specific artwork, that occupied the vast, void-like space.

Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art opened in 2002. The inaugural exhibition, ‘B.OPEN’, featured work by Chris Burden, Carsten Holler, Julian Opie, Jaume Plensa and Jane & Louise Wilson. Since then, Baltic has launched an artist award, and presented over 226 exhibitions of work by 476 artists of 64 nationalities including Holly Hendry, Judy Chicago, Ryan Gander, Lubaina Himid, Adam Pendleton and Lorna Simpson. 

Anish Kapoor, Taratantala (1999). Photography: John Riddy

Holly Hendry, ’Wrot’, installation view, 18 February – 24 September 2017. Photography: John McKenzie. © 2017 BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art


Past life: A brewery
Location: Brussels, Belgium 

The facade of the Wielemans-Ceuppens brewery in 1930. Photography: Willy Kessels 

In 1862, following attempts at trading in baked goods and cloth, the Belgian Wielemans-Ceuppens dynasty ventured into beer. Following rapid expansion and a quest for innovative techniques, the family invested in a brand new flagship brewing hall, one that would become the largest in Europe and a landmark on the Brussels urban landscape. Designed in 1930 by architect Adrien Blomme and praised as a ‘perfect example of modernism’ the striking building (also known as the Blomme building or the Wielemans tower) still brims with traces of its industrial past.

During 2005-2008 renovations, some of the brewery’s original operational features were restored, such as copper vats and tiling in the brewing hall. In 2007, the building took on new life as a centre for contemporary art. In addition to 19,000 sq ft of exhibition space, the building hosts an auditorium, studio workshops for artists-in-residence, and a café and bookshop in the titanic brewing hall. Among those who have presented work in this laboratory of contemporary art are Wolfgang Tillmans, Yayoi Kusama, Franz Erhard Walther, Mark Leckey, Luc Tuymans and Rita McBride. 

Above: Inside the brewing hall-turned-café of Wiels in 2018. Photography: Alexandra Bertels. Below: Installation view of Franz Erhard Walther’s exhibition at Wiels in 2014. Photography: Sven Laurent

TJ Boulting

Past life: an ironmongery and sanitaryware manufacturer 
Location: Fitzrovia, London

Exterior view of TJ Boulting gallery, which was previously home to furnishing ironmongers TJ Boulting & Sons 

Originally founded in 1808, furnishing ironmongers TJ Boulting & Sons were responsible for the manufacture of range and stoves alongside gas, electrical, sanitary and hot water engineering. Sited on a corner in the heart of Fitzrovia, its Arts and Crafts building is still inscribed with the original Art Nouveau lettering in gold and green mosaic tiles. The company, which moved into the building in 1903, has something of an intriguing claim to fame, said to have fitted the first flushing loo in Windsor Castle, before the more widely known Thomas Crapper made his mark. 

In 2011, inspired by the building’s roots, Gigi Giannuzzi and current director Hannah Watson established TJ Boulting as the new gallery space of publishing house, Trolley which specialises in photography, photojournalism and contemporary art titles. Over the last decade, the gallery has carved a reputation for dynamic shows of emerging and mid-career artists. Previous exhibitions include Dominic Hawgood’s shape-shifting ‘Casting Out The Self v3.1’ and ‘Birth’, curated with Charlotte Jansen. When lockdown restrictions are lifted, TJ Boulting will reopen ‘Enmeshed Worlds’ by HelenA Pritchard, on view from 12-17 April 2021. 

Above: Installation view of Dominic Hawgood ’Casting Out The Self v3’, 2020. Below: Installation view of HelenA Pritchard, ’Enmeshed Worlds’, which will reopen once lockdown restrictions lift on 12 April

La Patinoire Royale – Galerie Valérie Bach

Past life: a roller skating rink 
Location: Brussels, Belgium 

Archival architectural illustration of the facade of the Royal Skating rink in Brussels, dated 1877. From the archives of the Town Planning Department, Municipal Archives of Saint-Gilles

This is a gallery with a big claim and quite a few past lives. Constructed in 1877 as Royal Skating, it became one of the world’s first roller skating rinks, in a time when popularity for the recreational sport was at an all-time high. In 1900, roller skate wheels turned into car wheels as the space transformed into a Bugatti garage, and later a weapons depot during World War Two. Built in an ornate Neoclassical style, the building’s facade is punctuated by distinctive circular and arched windows, flooding the interior space with a sea of natural light. In 2015, gallerist Valérie Bach acquired the space, enlisting John-Paul Hermant architects to transform it into a hub for Belgian and international Modern and contemporary art with a focus on kinetic installations and abstraction. The 3,000 sq m internal space, masterminded by Pierre Yovanovitch, has since hosted striking contemporary art interventions by the likes of Joana Vasconcelos, Carlos Cruz-Diez and Martine Feipel and Jean Bechameil. 

Above: the grand hall of La Patinoire Royale. Photography: Tanguy Aumont, Airstudio for the Patinoire Royale. Below: Exhibition view Martine Feipel & Jean Bechameil ‘A Hundred Hours from Home’. Courtesy of Galerie Valérie Bach

KW Institute for Contemporary Art

Past life: a margarine factory
Location: Berlin, Germany 

Courtyard of Kunst-Werke Berlin, 1991. Photography: Uwe Walter

KW is widely known as a cultivator of radical contemporary art, but one might be less familiar with the unexpected past life of its building. The original Baroque structure was built for residential purposes in 1794 and remains one of the oldest buildings in Berlin’s Auguststraße. Its transverse wing was built in 1877 for industrial use, most recently, as a margarine factory called Berolina Margarinefabrik during the German Democratic Republic era.

In 1991, Klaus Biesenbach, Alexandra Binswanger, Philipp von Doering, Clemens Homburger, and Alfonso Rutigliano saw the potential in this crumbling factory as a platform for provocative avant-garde art. Its global reputation has since been cemented by landmark thematic shows including ‘Berliner Chronik’ (1994); ‘One on One’ (2012/13); ‘Fire and Forget. On Violence (2015)’; and ‘The Making of Husbands: Christina Ramberg in Dialogue’ (2019/2020) and major solo shows by Kader Attia, Ceal Floyer, Carsten Höller, Lynn Hershman Leeson, Petrit Halilaj and Adam Pendleton. To hail the institution’s 30th anniversary this year, KW will host a series of new commissions and exhibitions by the likes of Renée Green and Susan Philipsz. Responding directly to the building’s history, artist Sissel Tolaas will create a limited-edition soap composed of particles collected at KW.

Petrit Halilaj, The places I’m looking for, my dear, are utopian places, they are boring and I don’t know how to make them real; installation view of the 6th Berlin Biennale for Contemporary Art, Berlin 2010; Courtesy the artist; Photography: Uwe Walter

Lynn Hershman Leeson, First Person Plural, the Electronic Diaries of Lynn Hershman, 1984-96 (in four parts); installation view in the exhibition First Person Plural at KW Institute for Contemporary Art, Berlin 2018; Courtesy the artist; Photography: Frank Sperling

Pirelli HangarBicocca

Past life: a locomotive factory
Location: Milan, Italy

Left: The building of Breda Elettromeccanica company’s new shed, 1963-64. Right: inside the shed, taken in the second half of the 60s. Courtesy Fondazione Isec, Archivio storico Breda

When it comes to scale, there’s nowhere quite on par with the sheer enormity of Pirelli HangarBicocca. The site once occupied one of the most burgeoning industrial centres in Milan, spearheaded by engineer Ernesto Breda in 1886. This vast complex of factories, which included tyre manufacturing giant Pirelli, produced railway carriages, electric and steam locomotives and was later adapted to manufacture aeroplanes and projectiles during the First World War effort. One factory was HangarBicocca, a gargantuan 15,000 sq m space comprising three main areas.

In 2004, after a decade of neglect, Pirelli transformed the space into a non-profit art foundation staging major annual solo shows and permanent installations. Many indicators of the building’s industrial past are still intact. The 30-metre-high, 9500 m sq Navate, constructed between 1963 and 1965 still has visible traces of the rails used to test locomotives, and now hosts Anselm Kiefer’s monumental permanent installation The Seven Heavenly Palaces, commissioned for the foundation’s opening. There’s no doubt that a space like this takes a particular blend of courage, ambition and vision to fill. Among those who have surmounted the task to jaw-dropping effect are Philippe Parreno, Ragnar Kjartansson, Kishio Suga, Marina Abramović, Joan Jonas and Cerith Wyn Evans. 

Exterior view of the Pirelli HangarBicocca art foundation today. Courtesy Pirelli HangarBicocca. Photography: Lorenzo Palmeri

Cerith Wyn Evans ’….the Illuminating Gas’, exhibition view at Pirelli HangarBicocca, Milan, 2019. Courtesy of the artist and Pirelli HangarBicocca, Milan. Photography: Agostino Osio


Past life: a subterranean reservoir 
Location: Copenhagen, Denmark

1889 illustration of plans for the Cisternerne underground reservoir in Copenhagen. Image credit: Slots-og Kulturstyrelsen 

If it weren’t for the world-class art installations, the uncanny depths of Copenhagen’s Cisternerne might be akin to a cathedral crypt or The Chamber of Secrets. The ex-subterranean reservoir was built from 1856-1859 to improve the water supply to the Danish capital and became defunct in 1933. It was deserted for decades before starting a unexpected new life in 2001 as The Museum of Modern Glass Art. In 2013, it was acquired by the Frederiksberg Museums and has since played host to ambitious annual art installations with globally-renowned contemporary artists. As exhibition backdrops go, there is nowhere quite like the challenges of the Cisternerne. Among those who have stepped up to the task to dizzying effect are Jeppe Hein, Eva Koch, Ingvar Cronhammar, Superflex, architect Hiroshi Sambuichi and most recently, Tomás Saraceno.

Above, The vacant Cisternerne. Photography: Johan Rosenmunthe. Below, Tomás Saraceno’s installation, Event Horizon at Cisternerne. Photography: Torben Eskerod


Past life: a coal power station 
Location: Luckenwalde, Germany

E-Werk Luckenwalde, c.1920. Courtesy of E-Werk and Paul Damm

The transition from power station to art gallery is a fairly well-trodden path, and though E-Werk may not have the show-stopping scale of Tate Modern or Shanghai’s Power Station of Art, unlike the aforementioned institutions, it still generates power. The building was constructed in 1913 as a coal power plant and shuttered its doors soon after the fall of the Berlin Wall. 30 years later, the space was resurrected by Artist Pablo Wendel and his not-for-profit arts organisation, Performance Electrics, as explored in Wallpaper’s October 2019 issue (W*247). E-Werk offers residential programmes, workshops, studio space for artists, exhibitions, and its own, patented power source: Kunststrom (art electricity) harnessed through wood chip-burning machines still compatible with the building’s pre-existing infrastructure – an electric fusion of art and power.

Above, E-Werk Luckenwalde Turbine Hall, c. 1920. Courtesy of E-Werk and Paul Damm. Below, E-Werk’s Turbine Hall today, which plays host to a roster of performance artists. Photography: Stefan Korte, for the October 2019 issue of Wallpaper*


Past (and present) life: an industrial gravel pit  
Location: Lleida, Spain

The industrial landscape surrounding Planta, an innovative contemporary art project in rural Catalonia. ©Fundació Sorigué, 2020

An industrial complex on the northern edge of rural Catalonia is perhaps the last place one might expect to stumble across an Anselm Kiefer, or a Bill Viola. But coexisting with the daily buzz of lorries and cranes shuttling around mounds of gravel, are spaces dedicated to site-specific contemporary art. Planta is an innovative project on the intersection of art, science, architecture, and enterprise. It’s managed by Fundació Sorigué, the foundation of the Sorigué Business Group, who, aside from a zest for contemporary art, focus on material science research and sourcing sustainable building materials. Sites include an enormous hangar which plays host to Spanish sculptor Juan Muñoz’s Double Bind (previously exhibited in Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall) and an ex-air raid shelter (constructed during the Spanish Civil War) which houses a video installation by Bill Viola. Others who have exhibited in this lunar-like industrial landscape include Tony Cragg, William Kentridge, and a project with Chiharu Shiota is in the pipeline. 


Above, Installation view of Double Bind, by Juan Muñoz at Planta. Below, Inside the Anselm Kiefer Pavilion at Planta. ©Fundació Sorigué, 2020

König Galerie – St. Agnes Church

Past life: a brutalist church 
Location: Berlin, Germany 

Exterior view of König Galerie’s St Agnes Church. Photography: Roman März

König Galerie has a track record for tracking down unusual gallery spaces. Their London space was, after all, an underground car park until 2017. But six years before then, they took on the challenge of turning the heritage-listed St. Agnes – a former Catholic church and built in 1967 by German architect and post-war modernist Werner Düttmann – from dilapidated brute into a striking stage for international contemporary art. Sited in the Kreuzberg area of Berlin, St. Agnes comprises a former chapel and nave which were artfully transformed from church to gallery by architect Arno Brandlhuber. Among those who have taken full advantage of the gallery’s light, lofty and utterly monumental proportions are Claudia Comte, Elmgreen & Dragset, Camille Henrot and Katharina Grosse.


Above, Architectural model of St. Agnes Church by architectural studio Arno Brandlhuber who renovated the space in 2015. Courtesy of König Galerie Berlin and the Brandlhuber+ Team. Below, Installation view of Jose Dávila ’The Moment of Suspension’ in the Nave of St Agnes Church at König Gallery, Berlin. Photography: Roman Maerz


Past life: an alcohol factory
Location: Ribeira Grande, São Miguel, Portugal 

Exterior view of one of Arquipélago’s buildings before renovations 

In 2015, a 122-year old industrial volcanic stone and timber building in the town of Ribeira Grande on the Portuguese island São Miguel Island went from alcohol factory, to ‘culture factory’. The building was reborn as the Arquipélago Centre for Contemporary Arts, an interdisciplinary creative hub, at the hands of Portuguese architects Menos é Mais Arquitectos Associados and João Mendes Ribeiro. Located in the middle of the Atlantic, The Azores are known as a portal between Europe and the Americas. The centre takes its name from the nine islands that form the archipelago, and has a mission to ‘observe, stimulate, disseminate’ through a programme of visual art exhibitions, workshops, performances, concerts and artist residencies. Arquipélago is a harmonious, and forward-looking fusion of geography, eras and creative disciplines.

Top, In 2015, the former alcohol and tobacco factory was transformed in a art and cultural hub by Portuguese architects Menos é Mais Arquitectos Associados and João Mendes Ribeiro. Bottom, Installation view of the 2018 group show, ’Sonic Geometry’, at Arquipélago picturing work by Jonathan Saldanha

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