Urban cliff as missing link
a2o-architecten + Studio Paola Viganó
Fond photo interior image by Kristof Vrancken / Z33 House for Contemporary Art.
The Bonnefant site is located in the exciting transition zone between the commercial centre and the cultural centre of the city of Hasselt. At one end, it gives out onto the shops in the Demerstraat, at the other end onto the museum district, comprising arts centre Z33, the jenever museum, the fashion museum, the beguinage and by extension, the creative business zone Quartier Canal.
The existing buildings at the Bonnefantenstraat, however, render this physical transition impossible. These consist of the former RTT buildings, currently Proximus: closed, inwardly oriented industrial buildings that give little back to the city and fail to respond to the ambitions of the museum square for the extension of Z33. The existing wing at the Paardsdemerstraat, dating from the 1950s, however, tells a different story, with its elegant staircases, refined detailing, extremely solid construction and rational building and facade structure.
Beyond the reflex of recuperating the existing building at the Paardsdemerstraat and the ensuing sustainable attitude, the generous dimensions provide a permit for a different way of living and working. The large openings in the facade create a favourable structure for the realisation of both inner and outer spaces and give the facade more depth and liveliness in the street. The high stories - almost 4 metres - provide space for student rooms with mezzanines, extra high loft apartments and studios. The roof plate of the existing building is lowered and thus offers space for duplex sky houses. Throughout the project, this search for programmatic links is continued. The functional mix of accommodation for students, families, senior citizens, et cetera, reflects the complexity of the city and stimulates interwoven living. Students who provide community services, for example, get discounts on their rents. A hybrid project with an explicit social dimension.
In addition to the preservation of the building at the Bonnefantenstraat, the closed block at the Paardsdemerstraat is replaced by the introduction of a physical link between the Demerstraat and the museum square. More than an urban development gesture, it provides the occasion for the creation of an ‘urban cliff’, a green connection that manifests itself both at ground level and on the new facades. The new building translates this ambition architecturally into courtyard gardens and plant-covered concrete canopies, which turn in-built balconies into full-blown green spaces. This green facade consists of a concept of types of grass and shrubs, which alternatingly and in groups follow and emphasise the shape of the building over great lengths. Floor-to-ceiling windows in wooden facades make the external spaces an integral part of the house.
The carefully bent building masses follow the course of the arched-over Demer river and create a continuously accessible urban fabric. A ‘green carpet’ with various configurations of plants and mineral cobblestone surfaces runs through the communal spaces. At ground level, this flowing space is linked to the public and more accessible functions, such as catering, communal spaces of houses and entrance halls. These functions will be implemented as transparently as possible, allowing the visually interesting courtyard gardens to also be visible from the public area. The courtyard garden is here the ‘domestic space’, the communal garden that is reduced to the scale of the inhabitants by landforms and small (fruit and other) trees, as a reference to the enclosed gardens of the monastery that once stood on this site.
Whereas the cliff at the Demerstraat starts at the scale of an alleyway, it subsequently opens up to embrace the museum square. Here, the architecture interacts with the design for the extension of Z33, and responds to Francesca Torzo's modest brick architecture with natural dynamism. The public space extends between these opposites. The building presents itself as the scenery within which the public space is stretched out. The external design deliberately does not restrict itself to the courtyard gardens, but presents itself as a ‘wider garden’ that makes a clear statement about the adjacent streets and squares of the project.
As a double-faced head, the project is anchored in two city districts, on the one hand the Demerstraat, the Molenpoort and Kanaalkom; on the other hand Z33 and the beguinage's courtyard garden. In doing so, it expresses the urban ambition to create an interesting circular routing through the city, in addition to its dominant North-South axis. This secondary routing not only connects public squares and spaces, but also looks for existing and future green spaces in the city. It detects and works on missing links.