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Desingel International Arts Campus by Stéphane Beel Architecten, Antwerp Belgium

The opening in October of the latest phase of Antwerp’s deSingel Arts Campus by Stéphane Beel marks the culmination of a relationship that dates back to 1989. Photography by Paul Raftery

It’s relatively rare for an architect to be involved with a single building - especially a modern one - over a prolonged period of time and Beel aptly describes deSingel as ‘my favourite child’. It began inauspiciously enough with Beel designing a set of doors, but he quickly graduated to more substantial commissions, such as new meeting rooms and classrooms, a remodelled circulation route, a stage extension and general masterplanning. Now, he has realised an entire building that brings new performance and curatorial possibilities to an internationally respected Flemish arts and educational institution.

Beel’s association also consolidates a dialogue across time with deSingel’s original architect, Belgian modernist and city planner Léon Stynen. In 1968 Stynen designed what was then the Royal Conservatoire of Antwerp on a site on the city’s southern periphery. From a low-rise neo-Corbusian structure wrapped around two courtyards, the Conservatoire has evolved, both physically and institutionally, into a more fluid and interactive organism. In the early 1980s, deSingel, a non-profitmaking arts organisation, started to present programmes of theatre, dance, music and exhibition on the site. Such activities came to support and cross fertilise the educational programme of the Conservatoire, a symbiosis that still endures, and the two bodies coexist amicably and profitably in the same set of buildings which have been extended over time, first by Stynen and now by Beel.

Beel’s structure amplifies and adds to the mix with new theatre, exhibition and rehearsal spaces, a restaurant, library and new offices for the Flemish Architecture Institute. And though Beel’s building is an impressive contemporary set piece, it is clearly shaped and informed by his long-standing connection with deSingel. At the heart of the Beel/Stynen duopoly are fundamental modernist ideas about growth and change, of how a building is never a fixed, static proposition but an evolving armature, capable of adapting to a succession of functional, technological and social imperatives.

This theme was expounded in an earlier Beel project for Leuven’s Vender Kelen-Mertens Museum - later rebranded the M Museum (AR January 2010) - in which an accumulation of historic structures from different eras was teased apart and then reset around a new museum building. In doing so, a moribund institution was revitalised, both museologically and architecturally, and was also able to redefine its relationship with the city. DeSingel is a slightly different proposition, occupying a looser and less precariously historic edge-of-town context, yet there are strong similarities in the way a new element locks into an existing matrix with a powerfully re-energising effect.

The new building sits on the south-east corner of the site, straddling a schizophrenic divide between the monastically calm cloisters and landscaped courtyards of Stynen’s original building on one side, and a railway line and six-lane ring road on the other. Beel however, does not regard the proximity of streams of blaring vehicles as a disadvantage, and instead prefers to embrace ‘the dynamism of movement and modernity. Even a motorway can be poetic,’ he says.

And in fact it is from the motorway, rather than the city, that the building’s tripartite composition can be most clearly discerned. The lowest level is a plinth made up of a series of blind boxes containing new performance spaces, foyers and an exhibition gallery, together with offices for the Flemish Architecture Institute. Above this a transparent volume houses a library and restaurant, the latter a seductive glittering vitrine linked directly to the street by a long, umbilical ramp. The topmost part is devoted to studio and rehearsal spaces arranged in a three-storey box hoisted high over the site on tapering, twisted concrete pilotis. Decisively anchoring the corner of the site and duelling with Stynen’s 1980 slab block, the box is described by Beel as a ‘horizontal tower’.

External terraces provide al fresco break-out spaces and awesome Mary Poppins-style views of the city skyline. Container drivers thundering across the Low Countries can now catch furtive glimpses of Antwerp Conservatoire students cavorting in their eyrie-like studios.

To create the necessary column-free space for large rehearsal rooms, the box is contained and supported by a deep, perimeter structure. Some sense of this can be apprehended in the way triangular windows are punched into the external walls, which at first glance might look capriciously random, but the incisions actually follow the lines of the diagonal structural members underneath. The building is clad in thin, horizontal strips of larch, a surprisingly rustic departure for Beel, whose architecture of exquisite abstraction usually favours concrete or stone, but the initial orangey red hue of the larch will eventually weather to a silvery grey, more suited to cool Flemish light and skies. It’s happening already, like the slowly changing skin of an architectural chameleon.
In the same way that the Conservatoire and deSingel play off each other in creative and institutional terms, so Beel and Stynen have cultivated a rapport over time that clearly articulates the history of the site and its architecture. And in adding to the life of the city, it also shows that a dynamic setting for cultural activity can be a changing and evolving sum of parts that goes beyond individual buildings.

Architect Stéphane Beel Architecten, Ghent, Belgium
Structural engineer Ney + Partners
Services engineer Ingenium

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