Ancienne Belgique wants to turn abandoned American Theatre into cultural hotspot

Summary

The Ancienne Belgique concert hall in Brussels has submitted a business proposal to regional and federal authorities to renovate the American Theatre.

Extensive renovations required before World’s Fair venue can rise again

During the 1958 World’s Fair in Brussels, the biggest overseas stars were booked to play in the state-of-the-art theatre that was part of the American Pavilion. After it was converted into a television studio by the Flemish public broadcaster, the impressive building lost its public function. Now, under the impetus of Brussels’ Ancienne Belgique concert hall, the American Theatre could be restored to its former glory.

Vanuit het Amerikaans Theater, or From the American Theatre: These four words have a prominent place in Flanders’ collective memory. Almost all major television shows broadcast in Flanders between 1960 and 2012 were recorded here. And popular hosts such as Tony Corsari, Jan Theys, Luc Appermont and Bart Peeters always used to refer to the building in which they presented their popular programmes such as 100,000 of Niets, De Wies Andersen Show and De Droomfabriek.

It was here that children’s friends Nonkel Bob and Tante Terry once interviewed this new hip band from the UK, The Rolling Stones, for their teenage show Tienerklanken; the Verreth brothers gave their legendary one and only performance as television hosts in Pak De Poen, de show van 1 miljoen; and controversial selections for the Eurovision Song Contest were made in Canzonissima and Eurosong.

“This is why the theatre still has a wide public appeal in Flanders, but is almost unknown in Brussels and Wallonia,” explains Marc Vrebos, technical director of concert hall Ancienne Belgique (AB), who’s leading a tour through the marvellous building in the shadow of the Atomium.

Since the VRT had to leave the building last year, it has sat empty. But AB wants to turn it into a cultural beacon in one of Brussels’ top tourist areas.

One big red spot

The theatre was designed by the American architect Edward Durell Stone, who in the 1930s, built the Radio City Music Hall and the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Wandering around the abandoned corridors and rooms of the circular American Theatre (one of its nicknames was hula hoop), it’s easy to see its potential. But also crystal clear why the building needs major and expensive renovations.

Informal contacts were always very positive

- Marc Vrebos

“One of the biggest architectural challenges is to make the place sustainable, so the operating costs can come down,” explains Vrebos. “If you took an infrared picture from the sky, you would see one big red spot. The energy and maintenance costs are gigantic, which is why the VRT moved out.”

The AB wants to preserve as heritage the circular structure and the theatre, “but all the other spaces should be reformatted depending on their new purpose. The heating and ventilation infrastructure has to be completely modernised.” As does the roof, the foundation, the electricity , the emergency exits and the basement, which has groundwater problems.                                                 

The estimated costs have not yet been made public. AB are presenting their business plan to the regional and federal authorities to see if the project has any chance of succeeding. “Informal contacts were always very positive,” he says. “Hopefully this is not going to change when our plans become more tangible. We should know more by the end of the year or early 2014.”

In the meantime, there’s an agreement with the city of Brussels that they can use the building for one year (which is likely to be prolonged by another year). In that period, the federal authorities – still the owner of the building after they bought it from the Americans for a symbolic $1 – have agreed to not sell the premises to other parties.

Added value

If the business plan is approved, a decision should be made about who is going to buy the building. “This can be the city but also another federal or regional institution,” Vrebos explains. “If all goes well, a tender procedure follows, and four to five years later we can organise concerts again here.”

“Here” is where we are standing now, in what is left of the multidisciplinary concert hall where Harry Belafonte, Benny Goodman, Count Basie, Duke Ellington and many others performed during Expo 58. But people also saw theatre, ballet and opera, a Leonard Bernstein musical and movie premieres.

The place used to have 1,150 seats but now only 200 remain, enough for a television audience. In the control room, we notice a schedule for De Canvascrack, the summer quiz show on public television, dated 21 September, 2012 – probably when the last recording took place. The television monitors recall a time when flat screens were still a far-off dream.

“At first the intention was to dismantle the building after the World’s Fair,” Vrebos says. “But the authorities decided to rent it to the VRT, which back then was the BRT. The Belgian national broadcaster had just separated into a Flemish and a French-speaking part, and the BRT was desperately seeking recording space after they had left the Flagey building. They needed more production space and fewer seats; now we want to extend the seated area again.”

A feasibility study by the architecture office of Karel Lowette, former president of the AB, showed  the potential to increase the number of seats to 1,200. “This could add value to all Brussels cultural institutes because most of their theatres don’t have that much space.” The AB, for instance, holds only 750 people seated. KVS, the Royal Flemish Theatre, has seating for just 500. Flagey’s Studio 4 seats up to 860, while Kaaitheater around 700. All could benefit from a bigger performance space.

Daydreaming

“The renovation of the American Theatre also fits with the other projects the city of Brussels has in mind for the Heizel area,” says Vrebos, who points out the excellent location of the building – at the end of the A12 motorway and within walking distance of tram stop De Wand. “But one of the biggest advantages is the large inner courtyard. It has a diameter of 50 metres, so it’s perfect for small-scale festivals and business events.”

One of the biggest advantages is the large inner courtyard

- Marc Vrebos

The entire original American Pavilion, including the courtyard, was covered by a 26 metre-high construction in steel, glass and plastic, but this was taken down right after the Expo. In a later phase of the renovation, Vrebos would like to see this courtyard covered again. “The building was made to support such a weight on top of it. I’ve seen that Solvay can build such a structure,” he says, already daydreaming about the future possibilities.

Even back in 1958, this pavilion was all about progress. Witness the original shield that still surrounds a big part of the building. Now it looks retro-futuristic, but back then it was just a way to exhibit how innovative the Americans were. Visitors could see the first computers and robots. The highlight of the pavilion was Circarama, another circular building showcasing the newest 360-degree projection technologies of Walt Disney, on display outside the US for the first time. This building was dismantled after the World’s Fair ended.

A quote from president Franklin D Roosevelt on one of the walls reminds everyone before leaving the hoop what real progress is: “The test of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much, it is whether we provide enough for those who have little.”

Get to know the American Theatre

If the American Theatre culture centre project gets the green light, the Ancienne Belgique will be responsible for the running of the theatre hall and the management of a newly created non-profit group that would also involve Brussels Expo, which encompasses all the attractions at the Heizel site.

“The theatre hall will be multidisciplinary, focusing not only on music but also on theatre and dance. Volta will create a workspace for young artists with the same cross-disciplinary basis,” says the AB’s Marc Vrebos. Moreover, they don’t plan to limit the use of the space to Brussels-based or Flemish groups. “We see this as a Belgian project.”

Vrebos says that the biggest challenge right now “is to translate and sell this multidisciplinary idea about the American Theatre to the general public and the cultural market, and to make it a strong brand.” This weekend Belgian and international bands are playing in the heart of the building, attempting to give history a new future. Vrebos: “It would be such a shame if some estate agent built apartments or offices here.”

On Friday, 20 September, BRNS, MEAN and Le Colisée will be on stage, followed the next day by Wire, Múm, Wolf Eyes and Anna Von Hausswolff. Get tickets through the AB website

www.abconcerts.be