Building

ARCHITECTURAL AMBITIONS

In 2010, as prelude to the creation of the city’s fine arts centre at the hub of the new Guillemins-Médiacité urban axis, the City of Liège commissioned French architect Rudy Ricciotti and the Liège architecture firm Cabinet p.HD (Paul Hautecler & Pascal Dumont) to undertake the extension and restoration of the former Fine Arts Palace built for the World Fair of 1905.

During the request for proposals, that of the architects (alongside landscapers Rita Occhiuto and JNC International) was selected by the jury thanks to the way it took advantage of the existing building’s construction and spatial qualities, whilst renewing the landscaped link with the Parc de La Boverie. The Palace retains the entirety of its historical edifice, to which is added a large extension containing a new hypostyle room alongside the Derivation canal to the east, measuring 1,200 m², fully glazed and supported round its perimeter by 21 concrete columns, following formal research by the Rudy Ricciotti agency.

The architects strove to recover the original museo-graphical modularity, whilst providing it with the facilities required for its current function, which can be appropriated for any type of curatorial approach. The entire floor of the edifice was sunken to increase the height of the lower level that, next to the auditorium, plays host to the Fine Arts Museum’s exhibitions and which extends outside via a terrace and three ponds that open out onto the bucolic site.

In addition to the work of Sol Lewitt renovated in situ (Wall Drawing, 1985), two Belgian artists took part in the architectural project: Jacques Lizène with Le Jardin dacclimatation (the zoological garden) below the rotunda, a monumental chandelier combining palm, olive and pine trees symbolic of a meeting between Muslim, Jewish and Christian cultures; and Stephan Balleux with a monumental 3 by 4 metre painted diptych in the cafeteria, featuring staircases from luxurious Paris townhouses. These fully integrated works of art can be viewed free of charge.

AN ARTS CENTRE AND MUSEUM

Initially planned to merely host temporary exhibitions, the museo-graphical project developed, for the benefit of visitors, to include the City of Liège’s permanent collections, thus becoming both the Fine Arts Museum and a venue for ambitious temporary exhibitions, combining modern creations and historical collections. The museography, adapted by architect Jean-Marc Huygen, is based on a flexible and mobile picture rail system. An inside street crosses the building from one side to the other, orchestrating the visitors’ strolls through the exhibition in a succession of breakaways to the park and adjoining spaces (ticket office, bookshop, cafeteria, auditorium, learning area and exhibition rooms). The display design for the permanent collections was supervised by the Louvre Museum.

AN OUTSTANDING SITE AND BUILDING

A piece of lasting heritage from the world fair of 1905 (which involved 37 countries and totalled 7 million visitors), in the same way as the urbanisation of almost 70 hectares of land to the south of the historical city centre and the construction of several bridges, the Fine Arts Palace was built at La Boverie, one of the event’s main sites, intended for Chinese and Japanese gardens, ornamental ponds and exotic pavilions located at the tip of the Outremeuse island.

Eclectic in style and influenced by late 18th century French neo-classical architecture and often compared with the Royal Museum of Central Africa in Brussels (designed by the architect Charles Girault, 1905-1908), the Palace can be recognised by its five hemispherical domes with slate roofs and the white Gobertange stone that adorns its main façades, as well as the many sculpted decorative elements (Vanwarenberg).

Built between 1904 and 1905 by the architects managing the World Fair, Jean-Laurent Hasse and Charles Soubre, it opens out onto a vast rectangular space (80 x 40 m) lit by zenithal glass roofs. The adjustable floor-space of 2,500 m² included a large central room, dotted with 28 columns and 12 pillars. The Société des fondations par compression mécanique du sol (a firm specialising in foundations by mechanical compression of the ground) run by engineer François Hennebique was in charge of ensuring the stability of the land infiltrated by the river’s waters. As such, they dug 240 wells of 3.5 m, conferring on the construction an exemplary technical nature in the whole of Europe, which was rewarded by a grand prize on completion of the event.

The Palace hosted the Fine Arts section, which was a purpose it continued to serve after 1905 via exhibitions. In 1951, the Chambers of Engravings set up residence, one year before the inauguration of the Museum of Walloon Art, enhanced in 1979 by the Fine Arts collections. In 1993, following a partial renovation, it became the Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art. Today, La Boverie brings together the remarkable collections of Walloon Art and Fine Arts in a same and single place, in keeping with the initial ambition of its main progenitor, councillor Emile Digneffe, who stated in 1903 that a “new palace in Liège would be a decisive asset to help the city join the circle of national art exhibitions”.

Intended for sport and relaxation after the creation of the Derivation canal in 1853, the Parc de la Boverie retained its purpose as an ornamental garden during the world fair. It was partially reworked in 1905 by landscape specialist Louis Van der Swaelmen and equipped, in 1950, with a rose garden based on French gardens. Bedecked with a variety of sculptures throughout the 20th century, it also welcomed the International Exhibition in 1930, which left as a legacy the water-sports building on the Meuse River (designed by architect Maurice Devignée), before an aviary was built in 1937 (designed by architect Jean Moutschen). In the northern part, the Convention Centre (designed by the architecture firm Groupe L’Equerre) was built in 1958, followed by the Cybernetic Tower of Nicolas Schöffer, which at a height of 52 metres is the biggest designed by the artist in Europe (in 1961). The area became a listed landscape site in 1974.

Thomas Moor,
Historian
Architecture Unit of the Wallonia-Brussels Federation

[Selective bibliography:]

  • Maurizio Cohen, Marchés darchitecture, procédure de sélection Cellule architecture, CIAC, Liège: lart dans le parc, in A+, revue belge darchitecture, No. 229, April-May 2011.
  • Carlo Menon, Le projet du CIAC. Liège/Bandol. Rencontre avec Rudy Ricciotti, in Flux News, Liège.
  • Jean-Marc Zambon, L'exposition universelle de 1905 à Liège: architecture et urbanisme, University of Liège, degree dissertation (unpublished), Liège, 1991-1992.

Sébastien Charlier & Thomas Moor (dir.), Guide d’architecture moderne et contemporaine à Liège (1895-2014), published by the Architecture Unit of the FWB & Mardaga, Brussels, 2014.

 


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