‘utopia’, the library and academy for performing arts, housed within a brand new building designed by KAAN architecten, has opened its doors to the flemish city of aalst, belgium, following an open competition launched in 2015 by the city council. the 8.000 square-meter brick structure incorporates a striking historic building from the second half of the nineteenth century and rejuvenates the urban landscape while elegantly giving expression to the required functionality.

all images © delfino sisto legnani and marco cappelletti

 

 

the so-called ‘pupillenschool’, a former school from 1880, has been embedded into KAAN architecten’s design and is now the cornerstone of the new building. both outside and inside, the historic façades blend perfectly with the generous spaces, while the brickwork dialogues with light gray concrete elements.

 

 

utopia, the city, and its residents are inextricably linked and can gaze at each other through tall and wide openings, carefully sliced out of the brickwork. the entrance to the building is located on an intimate square between the reading café and the auditorium. moving through the wide hall, the open interior landscape of the building unfolds from floor to ceiling, and cantilevered into the space are several thick concrete floors that appear to float. hanging at varying heights, each level features bookshelves and reading tables, while looking into the atrium and towards the brick façade of the pre-existing building. moreover, an 11.50-meter high bookcase stretches towards the ceiling, filled with books donated by aalst residents.

 

 

the concrete structures seem to be supported by books: the bookcases are pushed up against concrete discs which allow the floors to cantilever out without extra support. mimicking the treads, the stairs zig-zag upwards, giving the staircase a sculptural presence at the periphery of the atrium and reading room. the ceilings have been minimalized to the point of being almost undetectable. all the technical systems are concealed behind a stretched metal-colored mesh that softens the strong daylight and creates a pleasant atmosphere during the day.

 

 

apart from the ground floor auditorium, the academy for performing arts is housed on the first two floors, flanking the reading atrium. within the new building, the ballet room, rehearsal studios, and teaching spaces have floor to ceiling windows, providing a view of the city and a glimpse inwards from the city, while giving expression to the façade composition. using the same expressive language, the railings of the former pupillenschool’s windows have been removed and the windowsills of the piano nobile have been significantly lowered.

 

 

acoustics was a fundamental design tool for KAAN architecten: the reading in the library should not be disrupted by music lessons and play’s rehearsals. suspended concrete floors replace the original wooden floors, doors are transformed into sound barriers, and double glazed windows capture each single piano note.

 

much of the building’s exterior consists of new brickwork. to accentuate utopia’s duality, the long flat bricks (50 x 10 x 4 centimeters) have been laid in a horizontal format to complement the vertically-oriented old school façades.

 

 

 

project info:

 

location: utopia 1, aalst (belgium)

architecst: kees kaan, vincent panhuysen, dikkie scipio
project team: bas barendse, tjerk de boer, sebastiaan buitenhuis, sebastian van damme, paolo faleschini, raluca firicel, narine gyulkhasyan, joost harteveld, walter hoogerwerf, martina margini, giuseppe mazzaglia, kevin park, giulia rapizza

client: autonoom gemeentebedrijf stadsontwikkeling aalst (AGSA)

design phase: march 2016 – may 2018
construction phase: august 2016 – may 2018

GFA: 8.309 sqm + 235 sqm (bike parking)

main contractor: groep van roey nv, rijkevorsel (belgium)
advisor construction: util struktuurstudies, schaarbeek (belgium)
advisor technical installations: studiebureau r. boydens nv, brugge sint-michiels (belgium)
water & electrical installations: studiebureau r. boydens nv, brugge sint-michiels (belgium)
fire control: abt, delft (netherlands)
acoustics: tractebel engineering sa, brussels (belgium)
sustainability: studiebureau r. boydens nv, brugge sint-michiels (belgium)

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