Club to Cloud

Independent stage designer and music journalist Axel Simon explores the stage design of Belgian festival Horst, based in industrial site ASIAT-Vilvoorde. In this interview, co-founder Mattias Staelens dives into the architectural DNA of the organisation, and how it faces environmental and aesthetic challenges.

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Author: Axel Simon

Photo Credit: Axel Simon & Adèle Meunier

Hi! Can you introduce yourself and the Horst Festival?

My name is Mattias Staelens. I studied architecture and worked a few years as an architect before working full time for Horst.

I co-founded Horst in 2014 with two people. Now we are four associates and a team of thirteen fixed people. Initially we founded it from this naive urgence and belief to re-invent a festival. It grew a bit and we asked ourselves how we could invite artists and architects to re-invent what a stage is. And how we could reinvent the logistical circles around a festival. Later we included an exhibition and visuals arts part to make it come together with the music program. Then we began step by step to add new goals and ambitions. 

The community part is also very important. Horst is something we build with approximately 500 volunteers. They subscribe to workshops, they work closely with artists, architects and it’s very important to us. Horst today is a mix between music and architecture but has also a co-creation and community aspect we want to explore as much as possible.

Where does the name “Horst” come from?

We started Horst in 2014. Until 2019 it was in an ancient castle site, on a lake, with green surroundings. The castle was named “Castle of Horst”. In 2019 we decided to move location, because it was a bit too small and also a bit too sensitive. Everything we built had to be removed again and the site had to be restored. 

Marinella Senatore’s stage “Bodies in Alliance” – ©Axel Simon

And here, in ASIAT-Vilvoorde, we have this very nice industrial heritage site where everything we built is an additional value to the site. A stage can stay on the site for 2-3 years, plus it can facilitate other activities, for local organizations projects. So, this site is actually more a match with our ambitions about making a festival bigger than a festival, create an interesting special context for other organizations, and be a support for urban development.

This was a vacant site, and we really believed by doing Horst here it can activate this vacant site and give it a boost, and connect a very international program with more local projects.

Will the new location of Horst be part of the city of Vilvoorde’s future development?

The city of Vilvoorde owns the terrain. We are able to do the festival here, but we also have a collaboration with the city to manage and activate the site for 10 years. So it creates a crazy interesting synergy between organizing this very temporary international program and connecting it with the local activation.

Hopefully it can have a positive impact on the development of this site. A good example of this is that beside the stages that we build we are now working on a project to build a bridge over the river next to the cooling towers along the site. We want to make the inaccessible green space beyond the river accessible again. By finding the fundings, and also by collaborating with artists and architects to make a very iconical or artistical bridge. 

We know the ambitions of the city of Vilvoorde, but they are the property owners of the site. They bought it to open up new spaces for social projects. They committed to us in our collaboration that they will never sell it to a residential developer. So in contrast with most temporary projects, where it ends after a few years and a residential developer sells it with the value that has been upgraded, all temporary experiments which happen here have a perspective or can continue in the future. 

Would you say that the history of the location has an impact on Horst and the future development of said location?

Of course. The history is interesting but is not defining to us. We really feel it’s been a military site. It has a very rough and martial architecture. It’s been vacant for over 20 years. So it has been very overgrown by vegetation and now it becomes quite romantic with all the green coming through. I think we would like to keep it as we found it. 

The most important part for us is that it’s a very big area, which has been closed for the city of Vilvoorde for 20 years, and before because it was a military site. So citizens of Vilvoorde have never been able to enter this place before 2019. Only opening it up had an amazing impact. 

What is the constitution process of the stages designs? How are they integrated in this larger urban development project?

The idea of stage design at Horst is that we would like to work it as a continuous research by design. Every year we invite new artists and architects to develop and design stages. But we now get an expertise of what we think is a nice stage and we combine it with the proposal of the artists and the architects. So every year we work from the learning we had from the previous years.

For the ASIAT site, we add to the basic briefing of building a stage for the festival (brief directed to the artists and the architects’ attention) that it has to be a space, or a pavilion, or a stage, that works for all kinds of activities outside of the festival.

For example we host theater, circus, movies, or even private birthday parties, in these pavilions. You build something, you put a lot of money, energy, material in it and it can be flexible. 

How do you build the lineup of stage designers and architects?

I kind of make the program for architecture. Every year we also want to invite a visual artist to create a stage, like Laure Prouvost this year. 

Laure Prouvost’s stage “Hovering Caress Amère” -©Adèle Meunier

We do the other stages with architects. When we select architects, there are a few aspects we find important. We build everything within workshops, so we look for architects who are able to co-create things in a workshop – who are able to build by guiding non professional builders. 

We also look for architects who can give a surprising answer to the question of festival and club cultures. There are a lot of architects working for festivals or club culture design. But for us it’s more interesting to invite also architects who are not comfortable with this scene, because we believe otherwise you will get the answers you already know. For example, we’ve been working with very old architects, who only go to concerts. In that way it gave interesting frictions but also interesting results. Generally in the program we look for diversity. 

Another important thing is the fact that we work with students, young creatives within these architectural workshops. We want to make educational processes, with a value for the students. So we are looking for architects who are popular for young peoples, like this it’s an interesting experience for them as well. 

We did the stage creation workshop this week with Traumnovelle, with young people involved. And at the end of the week one of the students gave its portfolio to the architects. We often see collaborations coming from these workshops. 

How are stages and pavilions made to tackle sustainability goals?

We really believe in these temporary social experiments that you can build something, test it, and rebuild it, and improve it. But to build something for one year, one summer or even one week is very not sustainable anyway. So in 2021 we really pushed our ambitions forward to make architectures in a sustainable way. We came up with two new ways of creating pavilions.

One is the Leopold Banchini pavilion, we actually built it without buying any new material, but with all existing resources we had from a pavilion which was built a year before from Fala Atelier. We dismantled it and told the 2022 architects they had to make a new design out of all the extracted elements from this pavilion. It’s interesting because it’s a totally different design, but you recognize some kinds of shapes or forms or materials. For the architects it was also a challenging project. 

The other project we came up with to do it in a more sustainable way was the greenhouse built by Rotor from Brussels. We asked them that we needed a big roof, for a dancefloor and performances, but we wanted to find an existing roof structure and to reinterpret it. They came up with this greenhouse structure they found in France. We adjusted it to the space where it was built on the ASIAT site, and put a new roof on top of it. For us it was the start of a multiple year design. We keep the basic structure, but we invite every year new artists or architects to make an intervention under the structure. 

Rotor + Salottobuono’s stage “ROTUNDA” – © Adèle Meunier

This year it’s Salottobuono. We asked them for a new design for the landscape of the floor. They constructed a totally new space, visually but also how it works. They produced a circle floor plan instead of the two directions floor we had last year. So it’s a totally new experience.

Would you say that the way pavilions and stages are designed and used to activate urban development could be a model for other festivals?

I think two aspects we work with could be very interesting to incorporate in other festivals. 

One is the re-use of building materials. It can be wood, it can be fabric, it can be lights, it can be anything and it’s nice that somehow we could make this international storage and temporary construction building materials. What we did in a small scale with the Fala Atelier pavilion turning it into the Leopold Banchini pavilion could be something made at a bigger scale. And we have this collaboration with Amp in Amsterdam with whom we’ll try to do that next year. 

The other thing is when you build something, the longer it stays in use, the more sustainable it gets. So if you can keep it in place, and if you can make it functional for other events or activities or whatever public space, I think it’s also an ambition you should fight for as an event.

Do you think some pavilions can also be good models to activate other territories? Such as the greenhouse stage in rural areas for example.

Yes, of course. It reminds me a bit of the Waking Life Festival. It’s a Belgian organization who made a festival in Portugal in a very rural environment. They built facilities which were kept in place after the festival. They also involved a lot of local actors.  

Rotor + Salottobuono’s stage “ROTUNDA” – ©Axel Simon

The Horst hosts a lot of club culture-linked projects. Would you say Horst is a kind of club?

For me, personally, a club is a space you can get lost in without feeling anxious, in a way. Like a playground for adults. A place you have to discover. A place full of surprises. And it has to have a special lineup, a special journey, with lights and scenography. To me, the clubs that are only black boxes with a booth are not clubs because there is nothing to discover.

If you talk about the link between festivals and club cultures, it’s interesting because I think it’s very difficult. At the Horst we’re trying to work on it. Also because we have a lot of indoor spaces and sometimes it feels like a club, sometimes it feels like a festival. For us club culture is about communities, experiments, safe spaces, narratives, and other aspects you rarely find in festivals. In Horst we try to include this as much as possible. I would say Horst is an interesting mix between a festival and club culture.

Would you say that the experiments Horst made as a festival could also apply to clubs environments?

Yes, at 100%! Every year we design 5-6 stages, with a unique design. It’s always a bound relation between a dancefloor, a DJ, lights, an atmosphere, to look at people or to be seen, and everything which is also important in a club. 

In a way we design and reinvent 5-6 nightclubs every year within the festival. By doing this for a few years we also have the ambition to crystallize all our experiences by designing a nightclub that would be in use in another time than Horst festival. The idea is to use one of the warehouses and do a 2 months period of club nights in October and November.

Do you have ideas of how you would like to create this permanent night club?

We’re working on it these days. The basic idea is that we would make it a bit broader than just arts and architecture. And we’re gathering a group of interesting people to join the conversation about what this nightclub can be and how it can be an interesting space for nightlife culture. It involves architects, scenographers, visual artists, DJs, performers, food providers, safe space specialists. 

Traumnovelle & Sébastien Lacomblez’ stage “Troppo Fiso!” – © Adèle Meunier

How do you think architecture and stage design experiments made at Horst can push and support more inclusive and safe spaces in festivals and clubs?

I think it’s difficult because it’s all in small details. There is not one thing you can do that makes you able to say “now this space is safe”, or inclusive. 

But within the space I think we can do many things. The atmosphere, the darkness, the fact that sometimes you can be seen, sometimes you can be invisible in a club is important. The fact that you can be in a crowded space or in a quiet space as well. Last year, I started to realize we became quite inclusive and safe as a festival and we started thinking how this happened and we believe it’s made of all small details. A diverse lineup also helps.

We work with Ecology of Care this year. They work with the confort space during nightlife in club culture and it’s very challenging to do it for a festival of 10 000 people rather than for a club of 500 people. We’re developing and experimenting this way of co-oping with them.

A lot of club cultures are represented at Horst, with some codes for each of them. How do you make them cohabitate and resonate with the spatial aesthetics of Horst?

I think we take into account that on a stage which is darker, such as the one of Laure Prouvost’s, the music is also darker and harder. And on a stage which is more sunny and happy, such as Marinella Senatore’s, with all the bright lights at night, music is more melodic. 

Marinella Senatore’s stage “Bodies in Alliance” – ©Adèle Meunier

I think everything works and the stage design is not really connected with the music. Sometimes we try to incorporate the DJ in the process of stage design. But it’s not really about the type of music, more between the DJ and the dancefloor. 

We did it a few times. It’s not so easy but it gave us a few interesting results. Like I said before we work with old established architects only listening to classical music, and we put them together with an electronic music’s DJ. And today they are still friends, still talk about details and experiment things.

Regarding the broadness and the diversity in the program, it’s a bit of a search for us or an experiment. Wanting to have a credible program which is maybe niche and very aligned. But we also like to make it spontaneous. There is this conversation in the team about inviting Vengaboys

This year is the first year you do an ambient stage. What kind of energy do you think it’s gonna bring to the festival?

Horst has a lot of energy and all our scenes are very dancefloor oriented. But we have a very critical audience as well and are very engaged in music. We just feel there is a lot of interest in non-dance music. We also call it a listening space instead of a dancefloor. So it’s an experiment, let’s see how it works. 

But I think it can be something that can grow. Besides the energy of the dancefloor I think it’s important to also have a stage for that kind of music, which is not the deeper listening space. And I think it’s important to have more quiet spaces and it should not be outside on a bench, it can also be in an indoor space where you can add an experience or a program.

How do you see the future of Horst ?

It’s not our goal to become bigger and bigger and bigger. But we would like to deepen the project. I think the scale we have today can grow a bit more to make it financially safe or more comfortable. We would like to invest more in the community aspect, and very much about co-creation. We would like to go more in the local part, or whatever stays after the festival. 

©Axel Simon

This year for the first time, we would like to make a program all year round. So not only for the festival, but the festival in spring, then the exhibition in summer, and then two months of club nights in winter. If we can make it successful already like that it would be perfect. And if we can do it not the biggest but the most innovative project, it would be more than enough for us.

It’s very good to see that a lot of young people, in the team, as interns, freelancers, volunteers or as part of the audience of the festival, are very engaged. It’s a very horizontal and extensive team behind Horst. Not everything is maybe so professional or been done correctly from the beginning, but at the end the energy that comes from this group of young peoples is amazing to see. It’s important and a very meaningful experience to them. 

This is the future!

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About the author

French independent stage designer based in Paris, Axel Simon worked on a club projet at Bureau Betak. He writes for the webzine Listen Up, and previously worked for whypeopledance and United We Stream Asia.

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