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library and academy for performing arts Aalst Belgium


A BRILLIANT CULTURAL CENTRE BY KAAN ARCHITECTEN

In the Flemish city of Aalst, with 85,000 citizens, the Municipal Library and the Academy for Performing Arts have started a Utopia in a brand new building, which incorporates a striking historic building from the second half of the 19th century. KAAN Architecten has given a voice of volume to the dreams of the town council and of both these institutions, in a radical – and in equal measure – subtle way. The inspired architectural form that has given expression to the required functionality, has also rejuvenated the urban landscape. A beaming building enriches the city and streets and the spaces around it glow. The love locals feel for their city converges here at this location, says the city council.

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Built on this site is a shining structure with 8309 square metres of gross floor area. Deeply layered in many respects, its name already signals the first layer of significance: Utopia, the title of the brilliantly acclaimed book by Thomas More (1478-1535). The first 1516 edition was printed by Humanist Dirk Martens (ca. 14461534), a prominent citizen of Aalst who now stands in cast bronze on the Grote Markt. Martens was the first to print with individual letters. A replica of the wooden printing press Martens used for this is housed in the library of Aalst, the Library of Utopia.


How the new building is situated in the urban plan tells us something about another layer. The insertion into the city centre reflects the typology of Aalst’s historic heart, where many small streets do not intersect logically, creating a plethora of incidental squares and intimate spaces. They are everywhere in Aalst. By placing a considered rectangular volume on one side, KAAN added three such characteristic squares in a single sweep: at Esplanadestraat, Graanmarkt and Peperstraat, which is now part of the urban fabric again.

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The location of the new Utopia itself has many layers of history. The most recent structure to be built there was a closed building block for the Judicial Police, which has now been opened up. Only a few concrete drinking troughs for the horses remain as remnants of the past. The demolition of the gym with its decorative wrought iron columns in the façade was painful, but the final result is like a healing balsam.


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demolition of existing buildings

demolition of existing buildings

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new compact unity

new compact unity

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Siteplan m

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no site-ďŹ lling building

new compact unity


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The site is generally more known for the pupils that lived here: children of soldiers were educated at a school on this site until the age of 16 when they could register for a regiment. The front of this distinct edifice from 1880 is now one of the ‘cornerstones’ of Utopia; the back with its characteristic façade features has been ‘inverted’ to face the inside.

P UP ILLEN SIT E

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There is also a rich archaeological history here, with a variety of inhabitants occupying this location over the centuries. The Romans were not the only occupants, to say the least. Before the military children, there were the Black Sisters, some of whose graves were found. When the sisters were displaced during the Napoleonic occupation, it became a military prison. Later on came French gendarmes and Dutch military police. After the pupils school, firemen and then German and British soldiers occupied the building.


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Inside Utopia, the interior displays some illustrative ‘bands’: timelines over ten metres long in flat glass cases on a long wall, designed by Studio 100. These tell the history of the site through text and images. The final image is of an impressive hole, in preparation for the new building works. Of course the histories of Louis Paul Boon (1912-1979), Pieter Daens (1842-1918) and the workers’ struggle in this industrial town are also on display. The past is recounted, here, on a site full of history and where one dreams of the future. In many ways, the building communicates that Utopia, Aalst and its residents are inextricably linked. Behind an exceedingly tall window in one of the new façades, an 11½-metre bookcase stretches towards the ceiling and will be filled with books from local residents. Everyone in Aalst has been asked to donate a book. A mobile scissor lift makes access to the higher shelves possible.

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South elevation


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The entrance to Utopia can be found on an intimate square with tree, benches and the reading café terrace. Through the tall and wide glazed entryway, seemingly sliced out of the brickwork by a knife, the ground floor and two more floors – through a glazed installation – come into view. The proximity of the upper floors to the entrance and the big vertical window just beyond, give the space a display case quality. Big neon letters spell out UTOPIA in the glass encased entrance area. The display in the window consists of an artwork by Neon-Elite, a company based in western Flanders. Two glassblowers worked for weeks to mould the 180-metre strip of neon glass into a map of Thomas More’s utopian island.


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S UR PRI SING LY OPE N

Once inside, the inviting reading cafe is immediately to your left. To the right is a theatre/auditorium. Moving straight ahead through the wide hall, the inside of the building unfolds: it is surprisingly open, from floor to skylights floating in concrete ceilings, and from left to right and front to back. In this atrium the reading tables are in strict alignment. And: it is a reading room with a lamp for every library user. At the far end of the big space stands the remaining rear facade of the old military school, like a theatre piece, complete with eaves, cornice and rain pipes. The windows have been opened up to floor level, which opens the view towards the audio-visual rooms. The largest DVD and CD collections in Flanders are housed here.

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On a diagonal to the right in a part of the atrium and cantilevered into the space are various thick concrete floors that seem to float. They are each of different dimensions, projecting into or pulling away from the space and hanging at varying heights, and together they form a picture as serene and airy as a billow of clouds. Upon closer inspection the concrete structures seem to be supported by books, or rather bookcases. This play on space and weight is a tremendously clever construction. The bookcases are pushed up against concrete discs that are like mushroom columns that allow the floors to cantilever out without extra support.

1 auditorium 2 restaurant 3 information desk 4 main reading hall 5 children reading theatre 6 children reading area 7 music & video collection 8 art literature collection

9 music classroom 10 theatre classroom 11 youth atelier 12 theory classroom 13 ballet room 14 offices 15 computer area 16 meeting room


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In consideration of the fixed budget, KAAN decided to employ visible concrete – beautiful, smooth concrete in a light grey. Given its visibility, the material was put to use in an expressive manner. Mimicking the treads, the underside of the stairs also zigzag upwards. The banisters are transparent, giving the staircase a sculptural presence at the periphery of the magnificent atrium/ reading room. The ceilings on the other hand, have been minimalized to the point of being almost absent. Certainly they house an awful lot of technical necessities. In Utopia the temperature should always be ideal: keeping readers alert and dancers, musicians, singers and performers from overheating. This is achieved by 35 kilometres of ventilation ducts kept out of view. All the channels, pipes, ventilators and light armatures are hung up high in black caverns, made practically invisible by stretched metal-coloured mesh that doesn’t disrupt the functioning of the ventilators and lights. The daylight from the skylights is so strong that clear lines of light can be seen in the ceiling, but the light is softened by the gauze of mesh, making for a pleasant atmosphere during the day.

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Cross section

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balustrade stained oak handrail Ø 50mm, powdercoated steel fence bars Ø 20mm, welded to powdercoated steel plate 20x5mm, bars chemically glued to concrete, steel rings covering the joint

concrete polished surface

void edge structural in-situ concrete beam

Stair railing with void edge

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floor concrete 100mm, polished floor heating 20mm aerated concrete 30mm structural concrete metal mesh ceiling


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The serene ambiance, the reading tables in orderly fashion, the high ceilings, the daylight flooding in from above, the walls of books, the elegant furnishings… Instinctively, the mother of all libraries comes to mind: the 19th-century Bibliothèque Nationale Richelieu-Louvois by Henry Labrouste (1801-1875), built 1862-1875 and recently restored to its full glory. The characteristic, finely articulated domes, slender cast iron columns and the spatial expanse make the two libraries incompatible, but the atmosphere in Utopia’s reading atrium is no less elegant than that of Labrouste’s library.

LA BRO UST E

The windows of the old school cannot be as wide as the rooms behind them, since this would obviously ruin the original character. Yet here, too, interaction between building and city has been realized. The railings of the windows have been removed. The window sills of the piano nobile have been cut out and significantly lowered. Walking on Esplanadestraat affords a good view inside. And looking out to the street is possible as well now, to watch the local and regional buses on their way to the station. You can see them, but not hear them, even when standing close to the window. These were essential acoustic requirements for the library and academy.

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Apart from the theatre on the ground floor, the rooms and teaching spaces of the Academy for Performing Arts are on the first two floors, flanking the reading atrium. The part of the building facing Graanmarkt is intended for offices and personnel. In the Academy’s spaces, wood materials set the tone. In the new section nearly all the rooms have windows as tall and wide as the rooms themselves, providing a view onto the city and a glimpse in from the city. In the evenings the rooms are beaming with light. To the right of the entrance, on the first floor, is the ballet room, in constant use for training. The arrangement of space, light and movement is expressed compositionally in the façade through the diversity of window dimensions and positions. This window play exemplifies how intertwined Utopia and Aalst are, and reiterates the extent to which Utopia will be a meeting point for people from all walks of life.


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Together the library and academy may form Utopia, but reading is not to be disrupted by violin lessons, rehearsals, piano accompaniments to the ballet classes or impassioned acting. The wooden attic floors of the old military school have been replaced by suspended concrete that resists sound transmission. All of the academy’s spaces have heavy and expensive studio doors as sound barriers. As inviting as the visual communication is, with views in, out and through, any dialogue of sounds between the two worlds is cut off. Anyone walking past Utopia will never hear a single note of piano. The acoustically treated windows with double glazing ensure that.

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A majority of the building’s exterior consists of new brickwork. The predominant colours of Aalst were studied and so for this building the architects chose a somewhat dark brick called ‘Red Aalst’. In order to accentuate the duality inherent in the building, they chose a long flat brick, 50 x 10 x 4 centimetres, laid in horizontal format to complement the vertically-oriented old school façade. The headers placed at the corners, repeatedly but randomly, alternate with L-shaped bricks: about 1 every 4. Even with these minimal interjections, this is a pricey detail. By inserting a thick 18-millimetre layer of mortar, they were able to save on the number of bricks needed and even reinforce the strong horizontal effect. Calculations and creativity can work together brilliantly.

1 auditorium 2 restaurant 3 information desk 4 main reading hall 5 children reading theatre 6 children reading area 7 music & video collection 8 art literature collection

9 music classroom 10 theatre classroom 11 youth atelier 12 theory classroom 13 ballet room 14 offices 15 computer area 16 meeting room


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1 auditorium 2 restaurant 3 information desk 4 main reading hall 5 children reading theatre 6 children reading area 7 music & video collection 8 art literature collection

9 music classroom 10 theatre classroom 11 youth atelier 12 theory classroom 13 ballet room 14 offices 15 computer area 16 meeting room


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West elevation


Utopia may be a very specific cultural centre, it is also a very typical A KAAN building. It manages to merge with its local environment. The surroundings of the city were taken into account in all respects. TYPThe edifice supports and interacts with the urban fabric. The Supreme Court in The Hague by KAAN, while being different in a IC A L formal sense, shares that language of identification with the city. All KA A N their buildings, completed or under construction, bear witness to architectural philosophy. The spatiality, the way in which the B UI LD- this light and air flow through the buildings, and the multi-directional openness, all are characteristic of their oeuvre. The Amsterdam ING Courthouse is likely going to be the best example of this.

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Too much openness in a building puts pressure on its sustainability. In the case of Utopia, there is also the issue of incorporating an old building within a new one, which makes it even more difficult to be an energy neutral building. And yet, the architects, engineers and builders have just achieved an ‘Excellent’ BREEAM rating for this project. The Building Research Establishment Environmental Assessment Method has nine sustainability categories that assess the environmental impact and user impact of the building. Much of the material and labour for Utopia were sourced locally, low energy machines were used, solar panels, geothermal heat and LED lighting support the running of the building, and rainwater is recuperated and buffered. From the demolished buildings, 230,000 bricks were chipped away and reused. Instead of a carpark, a building across the street was turned into a grand bicycle garage: Utopia.


RICAL BUILDING

ceiling (box in box) acoustic insulation, min.wool 80mm plasterboard 2x12.5mm acoustically disconnected

suspended ceiling acoustic absorbent ceiling concealed suspension panels 600x600mm

window Schuco AWS 75 powder coated aluminium

wall metal stud, acoustically disconnected mineral wool 80mm plasterboard 2x12.5mm stucco/paint

Facade of the historical building

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ground sill natural stone


North elevation

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UTOPIA library and academy for performing arts

Location Utopia 1, Aalst, Belgium Architect KAAN Architecten (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 Ground floor area (GFA) 8309 sqm + 235 sqm (bike parking)

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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


COLOPHON Text Ruud Brouwers Translation Words on the run (Dianna Beaufort) Photography Dominique Panhuysen: 6-9; Delfino Sisto Legnani e Marco Cappelletti: 10-49 Graphic design KAAN Architecten (Alice Colombo) Printing Aeroprint, Ouderkerk aan de Amstel, Netherlands Paper Gmund Bier Ale 250 grs, Lakepaper Blocker 80grs ISBN 978-90-824843-6-6 This work is subject to copyright. All rights are reserved. No parts of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means. For any kind of use, a prior permission of the publisher and copyright owner must be obtained.

Š2018 KAAN Architecten


Profile for KAAN ARCHITECTEN

UTOPIA, library and academy for performing arts Aalst Belgium  

UTOPIA, library and academy for performing arts Aalst Belgium  

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