Film star and historian oppose ‘shameful’ plan to turn war memorial into restaurant

Film star and historian oppose ‘shameful’ plan to turn war memorial into restaurant
Memorial ceremony in Cointe, for the 100th anniversary of the First World War, Monday 04 August 2014, Liege. Credit: Belga / Laurie Dieffembacq

Acclaimed Belgian movie star and director Bouli Lanners has joined forces with Bernard Wilkin, one of the country’s leading historians, to campaign against the “shameful” plans to convert a war memorial in Liège into an upscale restaurant and climbing wall.

Known locally as the Basilique de Cointe, the memorial encompasses the art-deco church of Sacré-Coeur et Notre-Dame de Lourdes and a 75-metre tower, inaugurated in 1937 by King Leopold III. Donations from First World War widows and veterans from the allied nations helped pay for the site, which was the centrepiece of centenary commemorations attended by King Philippe, French President François Hollande, and the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge in 2014.

Petitions are circulating against the so-called Basilique Experience project. One of the leading voices against the plan is Lanners, who earlier this month collected three Magritte Awards – Belgium’s version of the Oscars – winning best film and best director for Nobody Has to Know and the best actor accolade for La Nuit du 12, which also earned him a César in France.

Historian Bernard Wilkin and actor Bouli Lanners. Credit: The Brussels Times

In a radio interview, the 57-year-old star, who lives opposite the memorial, described the idea of turning a place of remembrance into a commercial venture as “shameful”. “This is a mistake and a betrayal. We must not sell-off our history. The duty of memory must be respected,” he added.

His words were echoed by Liège-based historian Dr Bernard Wilkin, who joined him during a protest. “The plans which have been unveiled are tasteless and unthinkable. They want to completely hijack the memorial. It’s like turning the Menin Gate at Ypres into a supermarket,” he told The Brussels Times.

“Liège was the first city to resist the invasion on the Western Front in August 1914. It was awarded the Legion d’honneur by the French Republic and and gained international fame during and after the war. It was picked by the Interallied Federation of Veterans as the place to build a unique memorial. This is no place for a fancy restaurant and climbing wall.”

Steve Grant, battlefields tour organiser for the Royal British Legion in Brussels, described the project as “bad news”, urging supporters to back the campaign against the scheme.

Malmedy-based construction business Groupe Gehlen and The Wall - Escalade, together with Créative Architecture in Liège, are behind the Basilique Experience proposal.

Credit: Nenea Hartia / Creative Commons

Groupe Gehlen spokesperson Marie Boutet said the city of Liège had asked the promoters not to give interviews about the subject and referred instead to a press release which states that the choir in the church will be preserved as a non-denominational memorial space, open to all, and that the crypt and sacristy will continue to be used for religious worship.

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“The objective … respects the history of the site and its architectural characteristics,” it concludes.

Dr Wilkin, however, said campaigners are not reassured by the claims. “There is no proper remembrance aspect. This amounts to pretending to keep the memorial. They are sending out a very poor message. Unfortunately, we don’t learn enough about the First World War anymore and that’s why things like this happen.”

How developers envisage the inside of the basilica. Credit: Groupe Gehlen

The public can give their views on the planning application until March 24 by writing to the city of Liège via, using the reference number VOI/24 G. The author is historian for the Brussels branch of the Royal British Legion.

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