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Esch2022 Capital of Culture: Luxembourg’s former industrial region celebrates year in spotlight

14:30 31/05/2022

A European success story, the culture of capital scheme promotes the diverse cultural life of cities undergoing regeneration, while boosting their tourism and economy.

Luxembourg’s second city Esch-sur-Alzatte shares the limelight this year with Kaunas (Lithuania) and Novi Sad (Serbia).

With a rich programme of events, the city is a perfect destination for a daytrip or a weekend escapade. It offers a surprising mix of industrial heritage, contemporary arts and plenty of off-beat activities with a popular appeal.

Die Hochofenterrasse in Belval Crédits © Le Fonds Belval-small

Esch2022 focuses on extending celebrations to neighbouring municipalities as well as eight across the border in France. Together they are testimony to a story of immigration, melting-pot cultures and post-industrial reflection on creating an inclusive society for the future.

It may now be one of the richest nations in the world, but tiny land-locked Luxembourg was for centuries a poor farming country. The discovery of iron ore in its south in the mid-19th century, transformed the Grand Duchy into an industrial powerhouse, paving the way for a 100-year period of prosperity.

Luxembourgers call this the red rock region, or De Minett, a name that persists today in honour of the ferrous ore that dominated the landscape. Another legacy is a multicultural population following waves of immigrations, principally from Italy and Portugal.

It’s this diversity that’s at the centre of Esch2022’s slogan Remix Culture with four focus areas: Europe, Art, Nature, Yourself. The programme aims to question our identity in the digital age, spotlight sustainable development and offer new perspectives of the European vision.

While Luxembourg’s wealth now depends on its international finance sector, the country still relies on attracting an international population. In the rebirth of its southern region, the culture capital plays a key role; adding a new lustre now that the glint of the steel industry has long faded.

Belval Sarah Crew

Belval and its blast furnaces

The shining symbol of Esch2022 is Belval, the former steel plant on the outskirts of Esch that has metamorphosised into one of the best examples of new towns in Europe. Its overhaul followed an international architectural competition to redesign the decommissioned site.

Preserving its heritage has been key to the project. Soaring above the urban development are two landmark blast furnaces, one refurbished and open to visitors, the other a skeleton. A towering red-brick brick chimney and numerous industrial relics pay tribute to the hard graft of steel production that finally met its demise in the 1990s.

Overseen by Fonds Belval, the site has undergone massive investment to create a modern community, encompassing a university and research campus, commercial centre and residential area. Concert venue Rockhal attracts music fans beyond Luxembourg’s borders and a new railway station connects the town to Esch and France. 

There’s a homogenous style to the development, building blocks in black, grey and red that echo the colours that once dominated the working site. The shells of its old buildings were retained, their original identity reflected and reinterpreted in their new design.

Belval library

One outstanding example is the university library (pictured), once a massive stock house for the coke and other materials that fed the constantly-burning furnaces. Original elements of the storehouse were fully integrated into the contemporary design, creating an unusual tension to its contemporary interior. The prism-shaped outer surface of the building is dappled to mirror the grime that forever dusted the site.

Adjoining the library is the Möllerei, an exhibition space for digital arts carved out of the working facility that mixed the charge for the furnaces. Again, the priority has been to respect and conserve the existing building. This extends to the cool grey slabs of its interior being engrained with dirt accumulated over decades, exuding an unmistakeable earthty odour.

Socle C Belval Sarah Crew

Another clever reappropriation is the ruined remains of a third blast furnace, Socle C (pictured), as an evocative performance space. While the furnace was dismantled and shipped to China, where it remains in operation, the site – resembling a bomb crater – has been converted into a unique and immersive outdoor venue, thanks to Esch2022 investment.

A contrasting design element that defines the Belval district is the extensive water features surrounding new buildings and public spaces. They serve a double purpose of deterring potential graffiti daubers while injecting an Asian-style touch that reinforces the minimalist ethos reigning over the site.

Belval Esch2022

Another key feature is the lighting, with German industrial designer Ingo Maurer, known as ‘the poet of light’, attributed the task of illuminating the blast furnaces at night.

As light fades, these silent witnesses to the past continue to light up the skyline: beacons for a new future and a new identity for Belval.

Upcoming programme highlights

With hundreds of events staged over the year, it’s best to follow the cultural agenda for updated information. They include exhibitions, concerts, performances, street theatre, visual arts, literature and heritage. Many are free and involve international artists as well as the participation of local communities.

Open Circle CAL

An exceptional show that displays works by a young generation of artists alongside art by renowned artists of varied age and origin. Martine Pinnel, Floriane Soltysiak and Alain Welter each chose an artist from the Cercle Artistique de Luxembourg (CAL) to collaborate on a creative project (Sandra Lieners, Tom Flick and Jean-Marie Biwer). An additional programme integrates meetings with artists, guided tours, a conference and a concert.
Until 25 June, Galerie Schlassgoart, Boulevard Grande-Duchesse Charlotte, Esch-sur-Alzette

Earthbound. In dialogue with nature

Earthbound exhibition

As extreme weather wreaks havoc on the globe and war is waged on plastic waste, some 19 artworks by internationally-renowned artists provoke reflection on global warming and environmental themes. They hone in on the complex relationship between humans and ecosystems, exploring possible digital solutions for a more sustainable cohabitation. The use of media and new technologies - including AI and VR – is one common thread for these installations. The exhibition’s setting in the Mollerei, a building imbued with industry, renders the dialogue even more pertinent. It’s a collaboration with HEK (House of Electronic Arts) and curated by Sabine Himmelsbach and Boris Magrini, with the support of Yulia Fisch.
4 June-14 August, Möllerei/ Esch Belval

Breathing, for a climatic design  

Breathing exhibition

Staged in the Massenoire, Belval’s raw industrial building that once produced a sealing tar for the furnaces, this exhibition explores the very natural act of breathing, highlighting human dependence on the environment and the need to preserve clean air as a resource. A number of public events surround the exhibition, including cross-border masterclasses exploring climatic design, the need for a healthy relationship between all living beings and the natural world. 4 June-25 September, Massenoire/Esch Belval

Spotlight on Dudelange

Each month, Esch2022 showcases a different municipality in its region. Dudelange has a reputation for culture, creativity and conviviality as well as cross-border festivals. Upcoming Usina22 is a collaboration with the culture capital organisation; a two-day outdoor festival on the Neischmelz site. Although visual arts and dance feature, the music programme is the big draw with local and emerging international artists and festival headliner, American rock band Kings of Leon. 11 & 12 June

Blast furnace festival

Belval Cité des Sciences & hauts fourneaux

Belval is filled with fire dancers, musicians and other performer in this popular annual celebration of the architectural and industrial icon. Organised by the Fonds Belval, it offers thrill seekers an opportunity to ride a giant 60m-high zip line between the top of the two blast furnaces (from 14 years of age). Another attraction as night falls is a mesmerising firedance show set against the backdrop of the industrial cathedral. A focus on public art projects around the theme of ‘BeHave’ sees performances, sculpture, installations and films reflect the site’s transformation into a new urban quarter. There’s concerts by the Marly Marques Quintet and the Providers group, a show for youngsters, science and music workshops and a dancing brunch. It promises to be an energetic and energising weekend. 2 & 3 July, Esch-Belval

Photos: Die Hochofenterrasse in Belval © Le Fonds Belval; Earthbound exhibtion, Beyond Human Perceptions, multimedia installation by María Castellanos & Alberto Valverde; Breathing exhibition Vannerie studio © Shore; Blast furnace festival - Belval Cité des Sciences & hauts fourneaux

Written by Sarah Crew