The doomed Belgian community awaiting demolition after decades under threat
PUBLISHED: 11:07 09 November 2017 | UPDATED: 11:16 12 June 2018
The Belgian town of Doel should have been wiped off the map more than a decade ago. The threat of destruction still hangs over it, but for now street art is sustaining it. Photographer Bradley Wood went along to capture the town before it vanishes for good
I first heard about the town of Doel five years ago and wanted to visit from that moment.
It lies on the River Scheldt, just downstream of the city of Antwerp and the immense, sprawling docks of Europe’s second-busiest port.
The 700-year-old settlement of Doel was, until the 18th century, an island encircled by deliberately flooded land. Some aspects of this bucolic existence remain, including the first stone-mill in Belgium and a listed early 17th-century house that belonged to Peter Paul Rubens’ family.
But after the engineers got to work, the surrounding area was reclaimed and the town grew, as, just to the south, did Antwerp and its port. Eventually, a nuclear power plant was opened immediately north of Doel, leaving the town sandwiched, on the banks of the Scheldt, between the heavily-industrialised demands of power and trade. It turned out to be a precarious position. When the land-hungry port wanted to expand, it found Doel in its way, and thus began a long political battle for survival which has been going on for decades.
By the 1970s, it was already a target for demolition by the government. For years, the small town battled against the threat of destruction, overturning several scheduled demolitions with popular protest and successful challenges. Locals argued the expansion was unnecessary since the existing facilities do not operate at capacity, though their figures are contested, and that Doel’s undoubted charms deserved protection.
Despite all the fighting talk, though, for many it was time to get out of Dodge. Or, rather, Doel. With the uncertainty hanging over the town, its population fell from around 1,300 in the early ’70s, to double figures – now just 19. Most went just before 2000, when they were offered cash premiums to sell up voluntarily.
For the die-hards, something was needed to give the town a purpose, a future. In 2007, a campaigning group, Doel 2020, was set up. One of the ways it planned to ensure the town’s long-term survival was for it to become a haven for artists, specifically street artists – an open air museum for graffiti, with the abandoned homes and civic structure providing the canvas.
And so it remains, as the stand-off continues.
For anyone with an interest in urban decay or abandoned places, then, this is a must-visit. And I am certainly in that category. I have photographed many empty and derelict buildings such as New Scotland Yard, in Victoria, London, and the Kodak plant, in Harrow, as well as crown court rooms, hospitals and the remnants of the industrial sprawl surrounding Sheffield.
So when planning a trip to Belgium this year to investigate and document its industrial landscape, Doel was top of my list. I planned to visit on a Sunday without factoring in that transport on such a day to would be sparse to none; in light of this realisation I decided to hire a bike from the centre of Antwerp and turn this hurdle into a cross country scenic adventure and opportunity.
Three hours in, having taken several wrong turns, the scenery seemed repetitive, fatigue was setting in and I was no nearer my destination. The terrain displayed an endless stream of groaning, smoking industrial plants as far as the eye could see.
The road signs to Doel were misleading; pointing in the wrong direction. It is rumoured that this is a deliberate act of misdirection, to deter visitors. Although its urban decay is, paradoxically, helping to keep the town going, it seems some among its remaining inhabitants are a little fed up with the attention it receives.
In truth, although the noble idea of reinventing the town as an art gallery has had some negative consequences for those residents left. While it initially attracted world-renowned names like Luc Tuymans and Michelangelo Pistoletto, and also drawn in many, less well-known, but still incredibly talented artists, the town has inevitably lured some less desirable elements.
Like any art gallery without a curator, there is going to be an element of chaos as well as freedom, with reports of vandalism, looting and street racing. I was uncertain exactly what I would find. My more immediate problem was actually finding it.
The 30km trip from Zakstraat in Antwerp to Doel consisted of four hours of frantic pedalling. Even if there weren’t many hills, it was an arduous journey.
When I finally arrived in the town it was not quite what I had expected. I had been anticipating an apocalyptic, windswept abandoned zone blown apart by the encroaching demand for space by industry.
The reality was a bustling lively town, filled with tourists, coaches parked on the side of the road, photographers, people filming and families having picnics.
The land which surrounded the town was split. On one side nuclear cooling towers loomed, bellowing steam void of natural life, while on the other was an expanse of rural natural beauty, with the chirping of birds and rusty leaves falling from mature oaks. By making the town a public art space, a quite unique location has been created.
Like other places I am drawn to photograph, its days are numbered. It sits on death row.
However, unlike those other places and buildings, this town has fought back. It remains standing, full of life.
Once that fight finally does end, and much of the area again returns to water, these photographs will be all that remains of it.
- Bradley Wood is an artist originally from Sheffield. A former welder now based in London. He is a regular contributor to The Move Magazine. His most recent work is a short film called ‘Industrial Shift’ which is currently being screened around Europe. For more, visit the_deadstock_dr