Adieu Passage 44: about the heyday and decline of a gallery

Passage 44 on the Kruidtuinlaan will soon be converted into a new Brussels university campus of KU Leuven. Today the gallery is little more than a sinister entrance to a parking garage, but it was once a lively place where big names like Simone de Beauvoir and Tom Waits made their appearance.

Passage 44 was built in the late 1960s, as part of the large Pacheco building that was to become the new headquarters of Gemeentekrediet (later Dexia Bank, now Belfius). The building was erected on a site where there used to be a crossing between the Kruidtuinlaan and the higher Pachecolaan. Because the City of Brussels thought that this connection should be preserved, the architects drew a gallery under the courtyard of the complex that connected Kruidtuinlaan 44 with Pachecolaan 44. Hence the name Passage 44 – also in Dutch, because ‘Doorgang’ 44 didn’t sound very well. .

At the time, the Municipal Credit was headed by Marcel Van Audenhove, an art lover who wanted to pursue a genuine cultural policy, partly because of the bank’s prestige. “He therefore felt that the new passage through which the staff entered the bank tower should have a cultural image,” says Jean-Pierre Smyers, who worked for the bank for many years as a culture attaché. “In this way, in addition to cafes and shops, a state-of-the-art auditorium and an exhibition space were also created in the gallery.”

The auditorium, immediately left as you enter the passage, quickly became a hotspot of cultural and social life. For example, the very first Belgian Women’s Day took place on 11 November 1972. The feminist writers Simone de Beauvoir and Germaine Greer were special guests, the interest was massive.

The cultural program of Auditorium 44 was varied: stage performances, slide evenings by Exploration du Monde and shows by Annie Cordy were organised. The Dutch comedian Wim Sonneveld gave his last public performance there in 1974 and Toots Thielemans celebrated his seventieth birthday in the presence of the American producer Quincy Jones, who was reportedly accompanied by his wife, the stunning actress Nastassja Kinski.
Many film festivals took place there and the BIFF, the International Festival of Fantastic Films, also had its place there for almost a quarter of a century. In 1984, director David Cronenberg came by to make his film videodrome to propose.

Exquisite Pubs

Jari Demeulemeester also organized many concerts there, first with the Beursschouwburg and later with the Ancienne Belgique. “Most memorable was the Tom Waits concert in 1977, but folk band The Chieftains and jazz pianist Dave Brubeck also performed there,” he says.

For Demeulemeester, the auditorium was a ‘perfect’ room. “About a thousand seats, good acoustics and comfortable.” The stage wasn’t that big, he says. “When the groups got bigger later on, they didn’t fit in anymore.”

Demeulemeester has other fond memories of Passage 44. “There were nice restaurants and two exquisite English pubs, one of which was in a train carriage. Very cozy places.” Nor will he soon forget the 1974 press conference of the Mallemunt summer festival. “Gemeentekrediet had made its most beautiful room available and served an excellent lunch afterwards. “I had never eaten so much and so much.”

© Saskia Vanderstichele

† Pierre Waldeyer, the last Mohican of Passage 44: “Only a few people passed here on their way to the parking garage.”

That beautiful room was the exhibition space or art gallery of the Gemeentekrediet, which was located next to the auditorium. The bank, which collected art itself, organized one exhibition after another, sometimes art exhibitions on Toulouse-Lautrec, Belgian Expressionism or Fauvism, sometimes more historical exhibitions on themes such as tea, the train or the Brussels fin de siecle. Exhibitions that lured many people to the passage.

On the other side of the gallery, cinema Twins opened in 1971, two rooms that mainly showed art films – A Clockwork Orange was played almost permanently. Later, after the cinema was taken over by the Leuven Rastelli family, they were renamed Studio 1 and 2.

At the very back, there was the Médiathèque, the media center of the French Community where music and film lovers could indulge themselves. Many Flemings from Brussels and the Rand were also welcome there. After all, the media library had an exceptionally large collection of LPs, CDs and DVDs, the largest in Brussels, it is said.

The heyday of Passage 44 was the 1970s and 1980s and part of the 1990s. Back then it was a lively and crowded place. That did not last, however, especially as the bank gradually became less oriented towards the gallery. “The attention started to wane after Marcel Van Audenhove, the great driving force, left in 1979,” says Jean-Pierre Smyers. “After that, the management believed less and less in cultural activities and patronage.”

1807 passage 44 1

© Saskia Vanderstichele

When Jean-Grégoire Muller joined the media library in 1998, the gallery’s brilliance had already faded. “The bank hardly organized exhibitions anymore, the cinema had been closed for a long time and the top concerts in the auditorium had been replaced by company seminars and conferences.” Commercially, the gallery also deteriorated. “There was no real commercial atmosphere. Shops closed and one of the cafes also closed its doors. Studio Francine, the store in photo and audiovisual material, still held its own. Many of our customers went there to buy blank CDs or DVDs so they could copy our music and movies.”

In 2013, the media library moved away from the gallery, towards Koningsstraat. The moving notice is still hanging on the empty display case. “We had to leave,” says Muller, who ran the Médiathèque at the time. “Until then, we always had the space available to us free of charge. It was patronage. But at a certain point, the bank no longer wanted to extend that agreement.”

The departure of the media library was really the beginning of the end for Passage 44.

After the modernization

Around that time, the stay of stronghold Studio Francine in the gallery also came to an end. “We’ve been there since the 1980s,” says Jorge Da Silva, who worked for Francine for years as a salesperson before taking over in 2007. “In the beginning there was a wide variety of shops: a newsagent, a candy store, a travel agency, the clothing store Matinique.”

Just before the turn of the century, Dexia, as the bank was then called, decided to renovate and rejuvenate the gallery. What had been a rather gloomy corridor then became a fashionable color gallery, but for the shopkeepers the entire remodel was catastrophic, says Da Silva. “Some stores left just before the works, others had to move, customers stayed away and only slowly returned after the renovation. We were left just about alone, along with the Press Shop and restaurant Le Saint-Louis at the entrance.”

A few years later, the bank, now Belfius, no longer wanted to renew the lease. Studio Francine moved to an old Gendarmerie building nearby, on the Kruidtuinlaan. “I was glad I wasn’t in the gallery anymore, no more cat came.”

The fact that Belfius let the tenants of the passage leave was due to the fact that the bank was thinking about a new destination for the entire Pacheco complex. In the years after the financial crisis, Belfius struggled with an overcapacity of office space and also had to cut costs. In 2014-2015, all bank staff were transferred to the Rogiertoren.

After that, the Pacheco Tower with its twelve floors stood empty for a while, until the bank was able to rent out the building to the Buildings Agency, which housed the entire Immigration Department in 2018.

The new user immediately closed the staff entrance in the gallery. That was a big blow for Pierre Waldeyer, who had managed to secure a lease with Belfius in 2017 and opened a tavern-cum-copy center on the site of Studio Francine. “I had counted on the fact that after the departure of the bank staff, two thousand people would again work in the tower. That happened, but they didn’t come in through the gallery anymore,” he says from his doorway.
Waldeyer still managed to build up a limited clientele, especially officials from the Financietoren, but as a result of corona they also failed. “Only a few people pass here on their way to the parking garage.” He has therefore stopped the catering section and is only open for copies for a few hours. In any case, it will soon be over for the Copy-Chope. In December, Waldeyer was informed that a student campus will be built in Passage 44.

1807 Passage 44 Sketch

© a2o-wit

† Passage 44 will become a learning street, connecting the two parts of the student campus (in yellow).

Passage 44 becomes Campus 44

KU Leuven was struggling with a lack of space in Brussels and therefore bought the nineteenth-century Meyboom building in Zandstraat a few years ago. Because the demolition and renovation plans met with a lot of protest, the university had to abandon this project.

Banking and insurance group Belfius came up with a solution. The group is taking over the Meyboom building, while the university is allowed to create a student campus in the plinth of the Pacheco building, the bank’s former headquarters.

The Pacheco Tower itself, which has been home to the Immigration Department since 2018, will not be affected and the car park will also be preserved. KU Leuven is only renovating the parts to the left and right of the tower, as well as Passage 44, the underground gallery that connects both blocks.

The architects of a2o-WIT designed a campus of more than 20,000 square meters. Their design has just received a favorable opinion from the consultation committee of Brussels-City. “The famous auditorium of Passage 44 is being completely renovated, there will be studios,” says architect Wouter Sorgeloos. “The gallery itself will receive more light and will function as a learning street, with classrooms and smaller auditoriums.”

Students will be able to reach the other side of the campus via the learning street or the magnificent courtyard garden designed by René Pechère. There, the building that now houses the vaccination center will be stripped and thoroughly converted into a learning centre, auditorium and library. On top of that, four new floors will be built with offices and student accommodation.

Passage 44, which is currently closed at the end, will once again serve as a connection between the Botanical Garden and the Pachecolaan. It just won’t be a public passage anymore.