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Victor Jara Cultural Hall by L'Escaut Architectures, Soignies, Belgium

L’Escaut’s perfoming arts hall erupts from the ground with urban ambitions to become part of the townscape. Photography by Filip Dujardin

In the small Belgian town of Soignies, L’Escaut Architectures has created a new performing arts hall that dramatically erupts from the ground, like a rock emerging from the sea. The analogy is apt as Soignies is, historically, a quarry town, and its distinctive blue limestone is still extracted and hewn in nearby quarries. This forms a dignifying carapace around a chunky-faceted concrete structure.

‘The building is covered with a rough stone crust as evidence of the town’s original bond with its stone’, says project architect Michael Bianchi. The Brussels-based practice, which specialises in working with clients from the performing and fine arts field, won a design competition in 2005 and the building was completed earlier this year.

Soignies is also attached to its folkloric traditions such as an annual carnival and other street festivals, and despite its proximity to Brussels (it lies around 50km south-west of the capital), these periodic fêtes still maintain a strong local flavour. The town’s historic and still enduring culture of colonising the streets informs and underscores the new building.

Going beyond the simple provision of a local centre for music, theatre and arts, the project has clear topographic and urban ambitions to become part of the townscape. This is not the usual hermetic box.

The most obvious manifestation of these aims is the way in which the building relates to its site, forming a new public square. A generous stepped podium addresses the square, creating a space for open-air performances and seating for the audience. ‘It invites appropriation by the public,’ says Bianchi. To encourage this, L’Escaut collaborated with visual artist Domitienne Cuvelier on the square’s landscaping.

The building incorporates an open-air auditorium

The building incorporates an open-air auditorium

The building incorporates an open-air auditorium

Emphasising the notion of the town as a permanent theatre of the everyday, the huge staircase choreographs movement around and through the open space. The building’s cranked geometry, like a squashed piece of origami, is defined by the spaces that surround it and the visual sequences connecting them. The irregular forms pick up on the town’s medieval street pattern and from the top of the podium, you can better apprehend local landmarks, such as the church of St Vincent, one of the earliest examples of Romanesque architecture in Belgium.

A series of light-filled foyer spaces, which glow enticingly at night, are wrapped around the black box at the building’s heart. Capable of holding between 400 and 600 people in telescopic seating, the theatre is extremely flexible, and the stage extends half the length of the auditorium, making it possible to host large-scale dance and theatre performances. In a site tightly surrounded by neighbouring buildings, noise pollution was potentially an issue. Auditorium acoustics were the preserve of French specialists CAPRI, who worked on the refurbishment of the Garnier Opera in Paris.

In effect, the building is a condensed fragment of the urban matrix: a stone-clad container full of streets, squares, stairs, connections, double heights and oblique views. Here, the richness of the architecture lies not so much in treatment of surface, but in the responsive and subtle way that space is manipulated and the connections made with the wider urban realm.

Architect L’Escaut Architectures, Brussels, Belgium
Project team Michael Bianchi, Florence Hoffman
Bureau d’étude Weinand
Structural engineer Weinand
Acoustic consultant Capri
Landscape architects L’Escaut, Bjorn Gielen, Domitienne Cuvelier

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