Faculty of Architecture in Tournai


Tim van de Velde

For this addition to the Catholic University of Louvain, Aires Mateus Architects have designed a faculty building that projects its perimeter respectfully against the junction of the existing site.

Af Elliott Webb

The Faculty of Architecture for the Catholic University of Louvain rests in the center of Tournai, Belgium, on a former industrial island composed of heterogeneous buildings. The site lies within a historical city block that is pluralistic and representative of many periods of architectural language and character. Amongst these are two industrial facilities and a convent that has also been used as a hospital. The new architecture faculty occupies the interior of this block and is positioned to coordinate with and bond the existing structures together, and to define new external spaces on its perimeter.

Besides demolishing some of the existing infrastructures within the confines of the city block, the design by Aires Mateus Architects (AMA) has renovated the existing hospital’s administrative facilities and two existing industrial facilities for classrooms and the library. AMA’s new building carefully aligns and reflects existing datum and formal moves from the character of the block, yet the new purist form presents itself as slotting into the context, seemingly without coming into contact with the adjacent brick buildings.

The new building on the street presents itself cleverly in its context and intent. The main gabled-void entrance punctuates a vista to the perpendicular street that offers a passage (extension of the street), revealing both its connection to the neighborliness facilities and its desire to work with these, but also to create its own character on the street. This entrance is set back from the perimeter of the city block, breaking the monotony of the street wall. This break helps define the intent of the building as something different from that of its surroundings, by providing a gathering space for the public and students directly from the footpath. It also allows the perception of the form to rise above the break it has created, to sit alone without perceptibly touching its surroundings.

Inspired by the characteristics of downtown Tournai, Manuel Aires Mateus explains that the arcades and passages that connect small squares in the downtown have provided influence to the nature of how such an intervention should behave within a city block such as this. The void entrance stands on one leg to open daylight up for ground-floor windows and demonstrates the careful visual connections that have been allowed between the varying buildings. The chamfered cut leads through to a rear courtyard and provides access to two glazed entrances. One entrance leads into the converted brick building, while the other runs into the new addition designed by AMA.

Through AMA’s intervention, all of the buildings have now been connected vertically and horizontally within the block. From the ground-floor entrance, the large double-height corridor connects the auditorium, classrooms, courtyard and administration offices, which are housed in the existing building on the site. This corridor occupies almost the entire footprint of the new insertion by AMA, as it is intended to act as a forum. This forum acts not just as a passage but also as a pause, to provide meeting rooms and fluid, adaptable spaces; this, in turn, binds the other facilities together as a centralized meeting and working space. This forum space for students, as well as the intertwined double-spiral staircase system, helps to define the mode of travel through the building as something different from the existing context. This demonstrates that the building itself functions uniquely as both a connecting node and as a series of spaces of their own foundational merit.

On the first floor, a thin corridor traverses the exterior between the courtyard and the double-height forum space. It connects either end of the block as well as the large studio spaces provided within the floor plate of the older industrial buildings. The second floor connects the studios in the older building via the intertwined staircase, whilst the opposite end of the site hosts another classroom accessible only via a closer stair. These extra spaces within the site allow the external facade of the building to read at a similar height to that of the existing building, whilst the central form is a floor lower, allowing light to infiltrate the ground- and first-floor spaces of the buildings.

The other entrance of the new building expresses a different language and details to that of the setback main entrance. The form is cut at the base as it turns the corner to an external gathering space and a service lane between office spaces and students desks. But the majority of the new form pushes to the existing street wall, where openings and windows sit flush with the wall as architectural silhouettes of the surrounding architecture. The smaller street allows the existing contextual characteristics to also be reflected back onto the windows themselves, providing a richness to the simple off-white form.

The challenge of such a site is ensuring that a single design can communicate effectively on all sides, without obnoxiously ignoring the changing and plural character of the block for the sake of an iconic singularity. Aires Mateus Architects have, through multiple gestures within a continuous form, created an architecture faculty that successfully resolves its unique context — the result lends a new character and varying spaces that allow the faculty and students to thrive in an environment celebrating architectural form, history and study.

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