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David Kohn wins Belgian architecture faculty contest

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David Kohn Architects (DKA) has won an international contest to create an £8 million new home for the University of Hasselt’s architecture faculty in Belgium

The London practice – working with local firm Bovenbouw Architectuur – defeated an undisclosed shortlist of international teams to win the prestigious city centre commission.

The project will transform a former béguinage – a Flemish building type similar to a convent or almshouse – into a landmark new 6,800m² public space and home for the university’s architecture faculty.

The high-profile appointment comes just two months after DKA won an invited contest for an iconic new 6,720m² residential complex south of the Tiergarten park in Berlin.

DKA’s winning scheme will deliver a mix of cultural and educational uses for the University of Hasselt, including multi-functional spaces, studios, teaching spaces, an auditorium and associated ancillary rooms.

The redevelopment follows the creation of an enlarged headquarters for Hasselt’s art and architecture centre, Z33, which formerly occupied the 18th century béguinage.

DKA director David Kohn, director at David Kohn Architects, said: ‘The project in Hasselt has provided us with an opportunity to further develop our approach to integrating contemporary programmes within historic sites, now internationally.

David Kohn Architects and Bovenbouw Architectuur's competition-winning new home for the University of Hasselt’s architecture faculty in Belgium

David Kohn Architects and Bovenbouw Architectuur’s competition-winning new home for the University of Hasselt’s architecture faculty in Belgium

David Kohn Architects and Bovenbouw Architectuur’s competition-winning new home for the University of Hasselt’s architecture faculty in Belgium

‘A thorough investigation of university, city and region’s brief alongside the béguinage type led us to an ambitious architectural response that is nonetheless grounded in an understanding of the context. We are delighted to be working with Dirk Somers and Bovenbouw, architects we have long admired and hoped to collaborate with.’

Bovenbouw director Dirk Somers said: ‘Bovenbouw and David Kohn Architects share a strong desire to embrace the richness of a historic context and turn it into a contemporary, surprising experience.

‘Historic situations provide us with opportunities to reinvent ourselves: stepping beyond the mainstream design strategy of simply contrasting old and new and instead exploring the exotic opportunities of a rich context. In Hasselt we’re creating something entirely different, where new uses and users will nevertheless create strong echoes of the béguinage’s past.’

Igor Philtjens, deputy of the Province of Limburg responsible for tourism, culture and heritage said: ‘The restoration will increase the accessibility of the béguinage and make the site more accessible. The béguinage will be re-marked as an important place in the city, which invites exploration where tranquillity, creativity and experience can meet.’

Following the competition win, DKA is recruiting a Dutch-speaking architect with experience of delivering projects in Belgium and The Netherlands to lead the London-based design team for this scheme. The deadline for applications is 16 September. 

Architect’s view

David Kohn Architects and Bovenbouw Architectuur's competition-winning new home for the University of Hasselt’s architecture faculty in Belgium

David Kohn Architects and Bovenbouw Architectuur’s competition-winning new home for the University of Hasselt’s architecture faculty in Belgium

David Kohn Architects and Bovenbouw Architectuur’s competition-winning new home for the University of Hasselt’s architecture faculty in Belgium

Located in Hasselt’s city centre, the béguinage surrounds a church that was once the tallest structure in the city. Having being bombed in the Second World War, the church now lies as a ruin and the surrounding gardens have become leftover spaces, resulting in the overall complex being a shadow of its former self. Seeking to recover the historic balance of the site, DKA and Bovenbouw’s proposal reorganises the gardens to create a series of new outdoor spaces, the largest of which is a generous circular lawn. Combined with the sensitive refurbishment of the béguinage, the strategy seeks to reposition the complex as a destination for a broad range of users from students to local residents to regional tourists.

Surrounded by a continuous wall with few openings, the enclosed nature of the site reflects its original function to exclude the city. DKA and Bovenbouw seek to increase the permeability of the site whilst retaining this strong sense of an inside and outside. A large circular opening in the wall creates a new street entrance while recent insensitive openings in the boundary are replaced with small circular perforations. A cobbled route through the site connects the old and new entrances while connecting each of the new garden spaces.

With focus placed on restoring and refurbishing the existing buildings, the only built addition to the site is a panoramic belvedere in the southern corner, a bold intervention that rises above the beguinage wall. At 26m and taller than the original church, it is a confident statement of the relationship between the past and present, reinstating the centrality of the béguinage and acting as a wayfinder for visitors to the city.

With the refurbishment of the historic buildings, the design team’s proposal seeks to recover the original domestic character of the terraced houses which have previously been unsympathetically knocked through.

Each house accommodates five individual rooms and a common area, organised using the historic privacy gradient – communal courtyard, shared garden, shared kitchen, private bedrooms and bathrooms. Where original staircases have been removed for example, large pieces of timber furniture will be inserted and offer users a multitude of different uses. A nod to the way furniture was traditionally used to define spaces, these multifunctional pieces and smaller interventions seek to provide compact spatial solutions and will allow the architecture school to organise itself around the memory of a béguinage.

Within the public garden, the footprint of the church becomes a reflecting pool offering a place of contemplation that ensures the continued role of the ruin in the life of the complex. Alongside the dramatic increase in green space, the introduction of water improves the site’s ecological value, helping to create a sustainable legacy for the city. The pool can be drained when needed, to provide a stage for the architecture school and public events.

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