A Journey Through Brussels's Alternative Nightlife Scene

Brussels’s Catclub hosts unforgettable parties in abandoned buildings
Brussels’s Catclub hosts unforgettable parties in abandoned buildings | © Lara Gasparotto / Courtesy of Catclub
Gareth Clark

As gentrification continues to move in on Brussels’s underground music scene, locals are getting creative with their party planning. Catclub is an integral part of Brussels’s alternative dance scene, and has hosted parties above art galleries, in an old postal depot and in an abandoned supermarket. Culture Trip speaks to its founder, Jane Haesen, to learn more about transforming derelict buildings into nightlife hotspots.

Brussels’s Catclub takes abandoned buildings in the capital and turns them into venues for unforgettable parties. It’s just one of a number of alternative nights out that are taking place in unusual corners of the city.

“Clubbing culture is mainstream now. Everyone does it. Before, it was more secret – not everyone knew where the parties were,” reminisces Haesen.

As a veteran of Brussels’s secret club scene, Haesen has always known where to find a party. Since 2002, she has been the brains behind Catclub, an itinerant club night that, like any stray worth its whiskers, has found its way into the city’s most unique, often derelict locations.

By occupying buildings marked for demolition or redevelopment, she has put on nights in abandoned supermarkets, postal depots and even a 19th-century bank vault, and in doing so has left an indelible mark on Brussels’s nightlife.

House for all

In many ways, Catclub has been prescient. Gentrification has seen most alternative venues kicked out of the city centre in recent years. Some have disappeared altogether, and others, such as iconic music and arts venue Recyclart and Laeken’s punk club Magasin 4, have found new, short-term locations.

Temporary is the new permanent, it seems. But it’s also led to a lot of creative solutions, such as Deep in House’s C12, which colonised the Horta Gallery under Central Station in 2018, turning it into a club and exhibition space as it awaits renovation. Haesen, it appears, was ahead of the curve.

Catclub was forged in rebellion, as a response to photo-fit clubs and Brussels’s techno-heavy scene. Haesen, who then worked in fashion and DJed on the side, wanted an LGBTQ-friendly night that reflected her circle’s passion for the Chicago house scene.

Volta is one of Belgium’s best music venues

“When you go to a club, it’s the same every time, only the DJ changes. I want to create something different every time, something with soul,” she says.

Back then, Brussels’s secret party scene looked very different. Laws were lax and townhouse squats were rife. “They’d build a bar in a front room and guests would put their name in a book, so it was classed as a private party and the police couldn’t shut it down,” Haesen recalls.

Catclub’s ambitions were always grander. In the earliest days, she took over African bars in Matonge and transformed rooms above galleries, at times squeezing 600 people onto a sweltering dance floor next door to a police station in Molenbeek.

But with unique venues hard to find, she started working with local building promoters instead. “They’d buy abandoned buildings to develop, but while they applied for permits to tear them down, these places would just sit empty.”

Build it and they will come

It’s an elegant solution. But turning a shell of a building into somewhere that may be used only two or three times is as much an act of masochism as it is a labour of love – especially in Brussels.

“You need the right insurance, permission, police approval – I send the plans to the firemen myself. Each of the city’s 19 communes has its own law; some don’t even have an event department, and there’s no one to do it for you, so I taught myself.”

Financially it’s a gamble, too. Some venues take just a week to turn around; other renovations drag on interminably. One abandoned supermarket cost around €60,000 (£50,500) to transform and took three months of solid work.

“I want to create something different every time, something with soul,” says Haesen

“The toilets are the worst part,” Haesen sighs. “When a building is left empty, the piping gets blocked. There’s shit in the bowl and no water. You have to mix it by hand and try to flush, but the pipes are all dry.”

The results are worth it, though. The supermarket had a tiled floor that Jane turned into a roller disco rink for one night. For another project, an old postal depot in Canal Wharf, the building itself became the canvas.

“They’d ripped out all the machinery and left the piping exposed. I put all the lights in big tubes filled with air, so the whole ceiling was lit up, to accentuate the industrial look. All the electrics and the pipes looked incredible.”

After 17 years of battling local bureaucracy and crumbling buildings, some people would call it a day. As we part, I ask Haesen if she’s ever tempted to stop.

“No. It’s getting harder, but I still like discovering new venues. It’s very creative. It needs a lot of know-how to get all the permits, but when the party’s there and 2,500 people show up, it’s worth it. And I don’t need to stay until the end any more.”

Alternative nights out in Brussels

1. Catclub

Nightclub, Cocktails

© Lara Gasparotto / Courtesy of Catclub

Since 2002, Jane Haesen (aka DJ Lady Jane) has created LGBTQ-friendly club nights in some of the most unusual buildings in the city. From roller rinks in abandoned supermarkets to parties in an old Citroën garage, each is different and unique. The only common thread running through them is the music: pure unadulterated house. Six editions are held each year, with locations and dates published online. Visit Catclub or Catclub Facebook for details of upcoming events.

2. C12

Nightclub, Belgian

The Horta Gallery, between the Central Station and the Place de l’Àgora, is due to be renovated to include an interactive museum. But since 2018 party collective Deep in House has colonised the underground space below the station (designed by Art Nouveau icon Victor Horta). Exhibitions, art installations and club nights dominate an alternative schedule decorated with visiting techno and house DJs. Visit C12 for details of upcoming club nights.

3. Play Label Rooftop

Bar, Belgian, Pub Grub

Fake grass and deckchairs? Check. Pitchers of Pimms? Check. Views over surviving sections of the old City Walls soundtracked by electro? Check. Summer brings the familiar sight of the Play Label collective’s rooftop party on top of Crosly Bowling. It’s one of few such evenings in the downtown area, with a talented array of resident DJs lighting up the nights from May to September (when the weather allows). Visit Play Label Records for details of upcoming nights.

4. Technoon

Nightclub, Belgian

Studio CityGate is the cultural centre of an area that doesn’t even exist yet. The site around this former pharmaceutical factory is due to be turned into a residential zone; in the meantime, an occupation project has been commissioned to house artists’ studios, a skatepark and arts venues. One of the more unusual regulars is Technoon, which lost its regular spot at The Lodge and now hosts a Sunday afternoon-to-evening techno party (1pm to 10pm). Visit Technoon for details of upcoming events.

5. Recyclart

Nightclub, Belgian

Until 2018, uber-hip arts centre Recyclart resided in a grungy old train station in the Marolles, hosting experimental art and live music and DJs; then, fire safety concerns forced it out. It now has a new home in an old printworks in Molenbeek – at least for the next few years. And while it might have lost some of its grungy edge, it still boasts an eclectic agenda that runs the gamut from jazz to electro. Visit Recyclart for details of upcoming events.

Culture Trip Summer Sale

Save up to $1,395 on our unique small-group trips! Limited spots.

Edit article