Portrait of an absent river

The story of a river that disappeared from the surface of the city to flow only deep underground the collective urban memory, is one the many contradictions that defines Brussels complex layers of identity and charm. The Senne is beyond a river, an idea, a fantasy that keeps inspiring curiosity, nostalgia and fascination.

The river Senne hosted along its banks some of the most distinctive neighborhoods of Brussels, their early working class population, their traditions, their know-how, their identity… In the 19th century the water of the Senne was so foul and turgid that it was vaulted and converted into a sewer, an infrastructural work that drastically replaced big portions of Brussels traditional tissues. Erasing the city’s visual memory provided the platform for a new urban image, rational and monumental.

Beyond the ongoing transformation, infrastructural reconfiguration, forced monumentality and the triumph of the “generic” during the Brusselization, the river beds of the Senne keep on preserving an authentic urban character. Despite its physical disappearance, the virtual presence of this water structure still defines vibrant, diverse and genuine urban spaces. By walking through these streets, is still possible to perceive certain nostalgia of having lost the natural structure that gave form to the territory, giving to Brussels its name (Broek-sel or “home in the marsh”) and early prosperity. On a billboard we used to read “cry me a river” when walking by the Rue de la Senne, before passing by an art residence called ZSenne two hundred meters before stumbling upon the famous Zinneke, the pissing dog … many physical references, many codes, festivals, parades and art pieces are the testimony of an spontaneous collective persistence to remember the origins of Brussels’ geographical, topological and cultural identity.

Nostalgia inspires academics, researchers, filmmakers, artists … and photographers. Recently, the collective exhibition “In search of the Senne” in the Halles de Saint-Géry (on a former island enclosed by two arms of the Senne) marked the closure of two years of visual research carried out by Stadsbiografie, a group of engaged “city biographers” who photographed the river Senne, looking for traces, clues and capturing the essence of its original path. This collective work revealed a new episode of their ongoing effort to construct a biography of Brussels which is, in their own words, “never final, always incomplete, at best entertaining, hopefully sometimes shocking and inspiring”.

The collection “In search of the Senne” carefully portrays “the absence” of the river, by registering instants in the daily routines of the citizens that inhabit the former water landscape, today overtaken by intensively used sidewalks, mobility infrastructures, thematically occupied car surfaces, wasted lands and forgotten waterways. The pictures are still exposing something that is no longer there… suggesting that despite the nostalgic fantasies, the river won’t emerge from the vaults anymore; nevertheless it is still there.

“The Senne, once a link between Brussels and the sea, fueling industry and trade, is now paved over black-water (…) The river as a significant body of water remains anonymous, a myth and its very improbable that it will ever regain any physical presence in the city. Likewise, looking for traces of it is almost impossible. But perhaps this subtle play of the presence and absence is what makes the Senne such a unique urban river after all.” (from “Down the Senne” by Adrian Hill and Laura Vescina, Shht#2 Underground)

(Text: Diego Luna Quintanilla / Sedaile Mejias / photos: stadsbiografie)


Photo gallery


From: In search of the Senne From: In search of the Senne From: In search of the Senne


From: In search of the Senne