Belgian architects and scenographers l’Escaut have completed a new wing for the Museum of Photography in Charleroi, Belgium.
In an email received this morning, l’Escaut describes the project as being “situated at the intersection of architecture, landscape, city planning, photography and fine arts.”
This wide-ranging program, they go on to point out, “matches the interdisciplinarity of l’Escaut both in its daily life (l’Escaut is situated in a building shared with theatre actors and artists) as in its architecture practice (anthropology, landscaping, city planning, communication intervene in the projects).”
They are not really architects, in other words; they practice something more like landscape anthropology.
L’Escaut’s new wing is a surprising addition to the existing structure.
Partly raised on stilts, partly cantilevered, and almost entirely defined by a very clean-lined modern geometry, the added galleries nonetheless include a brief glimpse of botanical free-will: a “winter garden” that “shelters fragrant plants inside the museum.” Photosynthesis meets photography.
The galleries themselves, we’re told, are part of an overall “spatial scenography” of the site. Everything here is about views, counter-views, cross-views, and panoramas. Everything helps to frame everything else.
The architecture itself is photographic, you could say: the rooms flow into each other through a succession of bare white walls and exposed concrete, as if the space has been edited.
This raises the question, though, of the point at which space, actively experienced, becomes cinematic.
Are buildings ever truly photographic, or are they more like short films?
In any case, the story behind the original building itself is fascinating: it turns out that the Museum of Photography is a former Carmelite convent. The grounds include what used to be the nuns’ orchard.
This entails all sorts of interesting theological problems, as we’ll see.
Religious prohibitions against “graven images” become abstractly involved in the planning process:
The transformation of the convent into a museum of photography was a reverse process of existing logics in the building. A place where looking at the world was forbidden because of religious reasons became a place of revelation of the image for societal reasons. Its extension defies conventional museum logics by multiplying the relationships to photography, its history and its many facets of representation.
In other words, is a museum of photography – a temple of the graven image – a site for the “revelation of the image,” as the architects write – an inherent violation of Christian doctrine?
Is it de facto heresy to celebrate photography in a site formerly dedicated to the worship of god?
These unresolved tensions help to animate the interlinked spaces of the museum itself.