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DRDH wins €70m Ghent opera restoration

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DRDH has won an international competition for a major restoration and transformation of the Opera Ghent in Belgium

The London practice was selected ahead of fellow UK firm Bennetts Associates and Rotterdam-based studios OMA, Kempe Thill and Happel Cornelisse Verhoeven to win the prestigious commission.

The €70 million project – planned to complete in 2026 – will restore the 1840 Louis Roelandt-designed performance venue and expand the complex to include a neighbouring former post office.

The appointment comes two years after DRDH won a competition to regenerate Ghent’s historic Bijloke Concert Hall, which is based inside a 13th-century former abbey hospital. In nearby Antwerp, the practice is also working on competition-winning plans for a new 24-storey tower and a theatre revamp.

The five finalists each received €65,000 to participate in the competition which was organised by the Vlaams Bouwmeester state architect. DRDH will receive a €100,000 contract to masterplan the site, plus additional fees.

Architect’s view

Built in 1840, this remarkable Neoclassical building is one of the two theatrical homes of the Opera Ballet Vlaanderen, the Flemish state opera and ballet company, alongside the Antwerp Opera. Through an expansion of the current site to include a neighbouring monumental building, originally the city’s post office, the project reconceives the existing L-shaped opera house as the core of a music and performing arts centre, set within a unified urban block.

DRDH's competition-winning proposal for a major restoration and transformation of the Opera Gent in Belgium

DRDH’s competition-winning proposal for a major restoration and transformation of the Opera Gent in Belgium

Within the proposal, the original form of the Opera is clarified and its three ballrooms are to be restored to their former glory. The old post office building will be repurposed to house back of house functions, while the current, inadequate backstage facilities will be demolished and rebuilt as tower of large stacked rooms, housing a new public space, a second performance venue, a dance rehearsal space and well-serviced side-stage facilities.

Taken together with technical improvements to the 970-seat main hall and its stage house, these new facilities create a modern, well-functioning environment for contemporary opera at international level; consolidating the transformed building’s role at the heart of Flemish culture and giving it a new public face, which will reveal its inner life.

DRDH's competition-winning proposal for a major restoration and transformation of the Opera Gent in Belgium

DRDH’s competition-winning proposal for a major restoration and transformation of the Opera Gent in Belgium

This ensemble of new and existing buildings are arranged around a new courtyard. The focus of an activated ground floor, this forms the centerpiece of a sequence of exterior spaces that together allow the public to pass through what is currently a closed and introverted urban block, opening it up as part of the everyday life of the city and attract and engaging more diverse audiences.

The first of these external spaces is the existing covered space of the peristylium. This elliptical space, formerly a carriage drop-off, is reconceived as a fourth, urban ballroom, connected to the street, which becomes the new principal entrance for the centre. It connects through to the courtyard and opens into a glazed atrium, where a theatrical climbing stair draws new and existing functions into a coherent dialogue.

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