The Boch factory was established in 1841 by Jean-François Boch, one of the principal shareholders of Villeroy and Boch, a company that came about from joining forces with the Villeroy family in 1836. The faience factory in La Louvière joined others in Audun-le-Tiche, Mettlach, Vaudrevange, Eich, Echternach and Septfontaines. The company in La Louvière was already part of what would go on to be one of the world’s major industrial groups producing faience.
There were many reasons for locating the factory in La Louvière. At the time, the site was well served by the transport infrastructure. A branch canal providing access to the Charleroi canal (now Boulevard des Droits de l’Homme) had just been dug, while roads and a railway line improved the accessibility of what had previously been a remote location.
A town soon sprang up around the faience workshops, with housing for workers, Le Casino for festivities, a château surrounded by extensive parkland for the company’s owner (La Closière), and grand houses for its engineers. These continue to make their mark on La Louvière’s heritage.
The name Keramis would appear to date from this time (hence the name of the Keramis Factory). It pays homage to Athenian potters and is without doubt a response to Etruria, the name given by Josiah Wedgwood to the site of his famous factory near Stoke-On-Trent in England.
The Boch factory, along with the iron and steel company Boël (now Duferco La Louvière), lay the city’s foundations. The site’s prominent position in the city testifies to the intensity of the industrial development of a completely rural area in the first few decades of the 19th century. La Louvière, originally a hamlet in the commune of Saint-Vaast, was a very interesting mushroom town that had everything companies like this needed. In its day, Boch was at the forefront of industrial progress: the first gas-fired continuous tunnel kiln in Europe was inaugurated here in 1904, relegating the coal-fired kilns of the time to historical monuments. The company’s history was influenced by the fascinating race to mechanise production. As evidence of its prosperity, the company’s success meant it could have production units dedicated to artistic creation. Over time, these individual workshops were given the names “Painters’ Room”, “Art Workshops” and “Art Studio – La Louve”.
Vue de la faïencerie Boch Frères depuis la gare, Belgique industrielle : vue des établissements industriels de la Belgique : 2e série, 1850-55
After a century and a half of prosperity, the company was hit by the economic decline in Wallonia’s industrial areas. In the 1960s, production had risen to 9,000 tonnes a year (4,000 tonnes of crockery and 5,000 tonnes of sanitaryware), in every respect making Boch the largest industrial ceramics business in Belgium.
In 1985 the company went bankrupt rather spectacularly. Struggling to keep afloat, the factory had changed direction several times. The old offices were sold and demolished, with absolutely no regard given to their heritage value.
IN EARLY 1990...
A group of enthusiasts led by Baudhuin Pringier (a former councillor who had served on the private staff of Minister Wathelet) came up with the idea of a museum on the Boch site and set up the “Boch Keramis Foundation for the study of ceramics in Wallonia and Brussels”. They published a magazine, organised modest exhibitions, lectures and meetings with collectors, and created a small museum space on the site. Optimistically, they immediately announced an architecture competition to “produce the best solutions for integrating this kind of ecomuseum into La Louvière”. The association’s life was brief, but in 1994 the firm took over and recruited an historian with the mission of enhancing the prestige of its rich past. The last three bottle kilns on the site were opened to the public for the first time during the Heritage Days and welcomed more than two thousand visitors. In 1999, Emmanuelle Béart and Charles Berling filmed “Sentimental Destinies” directed by Olivier Assayas on this authentic site of old kilns.
Vue aérienne de la faïencerie, 1936
In 1998, after the sale of land owned by Royal Boch, the city of La Louvière was keen to avoid an eyesore in the heart of the city. As part of the company’s restructuring, the factory’s prestigious administrative building was sold and demolished to make way for a new cinema, the Pescatore project, which was subsequently abandoned. This was nothing other than heresy in terms of heritage since it contained polychrome faience murals by Raymond-Henri Chevallier. Following that, a communal development plan was developed to completely restore the 16-hectare industrial site and incorporate it in the new urban fabric. It was envisaged that the company would occupy more suitable premises with support from Objective 1 and that a museum would be created around the bottle kilns.
In 2000, Frédéric de Mévius and Diane Hennebert laid the foundations for the new iteration of the Boch Keramis Foundation, with the mission of collecting and studying traces of the past, holding exhibitions, publishing studies and reproducing old pieces using the expertise the company still had. As well as activities to collect items and documents, the Boch Keramis Foundation also campaigned for the disused building containing the three bottle kilns to be listed since these are unique examples of the technology used to fire ceramic products (faience and stoneware) in the 19th century.
A ministerial decree of 25 August 2003 ordered the listing of parts of the factory, the three bottle kilns and the building housing them, and the workshop south of the bottle kilns. Invited to join the science committee of the Boch Keramis Foundation in 2003, the Royal Museum of Mariemont suggested a partnership with the foundation to develop a more ambitious centre that would go on to become the Ceramics Centre of the French Community. The project received the immediate support of Fadila Laanan, the Minister of Culture and Audiovisual Affairs of the French Community.
On 17 November 2008, with the company badly hit by the general decline in consumption and falling sales, the company was unable to pay its suppliers and was put in a pre-bankruptcy scheme for six months.
The company was declared bankrupt on 26 February. The workers occupied the factory, a move that was captured by the photographer Véronique Vercheval who went on to publish a collection of portraits of the last workers. In June, the factory was taken over by the Brussels-based businessman Patrick De Mayer and most of the workers kept their jobs.
Keramis – the Ceramics Centre of the French Community was founded at a general meeting on 19 March 2009.
On 3 April 2010, a jury selected five architectural firms (Holoffe & Vermeersch Architecture, Coton De Visscher-Lelion-Nottebaert-Vincentelli, Atelier d’Architecture Georges Eric Lantair, C-NrGy and L’Escaut-Bauwers) to submit designs for the project. On 29 September, they selected Coton De Visscher-Lelion-Nottebaert-Vincentelli.
Despite the many promises made, the new owner did not re-hire the staff and the infrastructure was dismantled without any new investment. Bankruptcy was declared on 7 April 2011, all industrial activities stopped for good and all the workers lost their jobs. The former employees reunited at the Compagnie Maritime theatre and staged a play that premiered at Le Palace in La Louvière in March 2012.
Keramis – the Ceramics Centre of the Wallonia-Brussels Federation opened its doors on 8 May 2015.
The Belgian architect and painter Jean Glibert created the painted decoration on the building’s external envelope in a motif that echoes the cracks on the surface of faience objects.
Supported by Mons 2015, the Belgian ceramicist Emile Desmedt produced a monumental kiln sculpture in the grounds of Keramis. Fired on site in an “internal fire”, the work has the shape of a germinating seed. The sculpture has become a firm fixture on La Louvière’s landscape.