|Project Name||Utopia||Posted in||Cultural||Location||
|Architecture Practice||KAAN Architecten||Area (sqm)||8309 + 235 (bike parking)||Completed||May 2018|
“Utopia”, the new Library and Academy for Performing Arts in Aalst, Belgium, by Dutch practice KAAN Architecten, takes its name from Thomas More’s eponymous book, first printed in 1516 by prominent Aalst citizen Dirk Martens, often considered the first printer in Flanders. But beyond a literary reference commemorating the printing legacy of this small Flemish town and the transformative role of books, Utopia's name is also meant to convey the venue’s aspirational role as a place of cultural and communal exultation.
Although modernist in sensibility, the venue has been masterfully integrated into the town’s historic centre by incorporating an existing heritage building into the design and taking advantage of the area’s irregular streets in order to create three new public squares. Built in the 1880s as a school for the children of soldiers, the existing red-brick structure has been thoroughly renovated and forms the backbone of the development as well as the basis for the new facades.
The new brickwork adhere to the town’s predominant colour, a dark red hue called “Red Aalst”, but differ in shape, espousing a horizontal format in juxtaposition of to the vertically-oriented façades of the former school. Coupled with the large rectangular windows, which unlike their 19th century counterparts are not uniformly aligned, the distinction between old and new is both pronounced and harmonious.
The large areas of glazing puncturing the new building and the enlarged widows of the heritage facades not only allow daylight to illuminate the Academy’s classrooms and studios, but also allow the public to catch glimpses of activities therein. Interestingly, this is also the case inside, where the back of the renovated school looks out onto a large central atrium that accommodates the library.
At the centre of the building, a three-storey atrium has been designed as a sculptural composition of floating stairs and cantilevered floors, morphed ouy of concrete, which appear to be magically supported by the wooden bookcases piercing through them. It is a truly magnificent space of contemplation and reflection. This overwhelming sensation is amplified by an eleven metre high bookcase that stretches all the way to the roof, filled with books donated by each Aalst resident. Softly illuminated by the daylight filtering through the metal-coloured mesh that covers the entire ceiling, which handily also conceals all the air ducts and cables trays, the atrium and the adjoining reading areas are an oasis of tranquillity.
The auditorium and the café-restaurant on the ground floor brandish the building’s public character, whereas most of the Academy’s spaces are housed on either side of the atrium on the first and second floors. Having the library’s reading rooms in close proximity to the dance studios and rehearsal rooms may seem a problematic configuration but the architects have taken great care to ensure their cohabitation is harmonious by perfecting the art of soundproofing. Creaky wooden floors replaced by suspended concrete floors, doors transformed into sound barriers, and double glazed windows ensure that whichever the musical instrument the students are practicing with, no note can be heard in the library areas.
Of course, there could not be a utopia without a sustainable habitat and indeed, the new building has been designed to be as environmentally friendly as possible. Materials and labour were locally sourced, low-energy machines were used for construction, and rainwater is recuperated and buffered, while solar panels, geothermal heat and LED lighting ensure that the building’s energy use is both minimal and sustainably generated. Then again, we did not expect anything less from such a utopian building that has already been so warmly embraced by the community.