In the centre of Leuven, Robbrecht en Daem architecten built new offices for the Cera cooperative society, a financial holding with around 500,000 individual members and a strong record in societal sponsorship. The complex for the new head office consists of three buildings that the architects have woven into an ingenious sequence of conference rooms, reception areas and meeting-places. The oldest building is the eighteenth-century Hôtel d’Eynatten, which was the home of the director of the Volksbank van Leuven [People’s Bank of Leuven]. The second is the Joris Helleputte building, named after the engineer-architect who established the bank in 1889. This neo-gothic edifice was designed by his pupil, Joseph Piscador, who placed the counters, the most public area, at its heart. The third building on the site is the former house of the Vlaamse Leergangen, an association founded in 1924 with the aim of assisting the Catholic University of Leuven in establishing Dutch-language lectures. In 2007, the city council put the three premises on the market. By purchasing them all, Cera has brought its main office back to the location of its historic roots: it was out of the Volksbank that Cera evolved.
Robbrecht en Daem have harmonised the various parts of the site through meticulous interventions that involve both new additions and the elimination of certain elements. They balance the historic and contemporary with extreme precision and interweave the colours and materials of the new with those they inherited, but without concealing their own hand. They have retained the majestic historical salons, the vestibule and the carriage entrance of the eighteenth-century hôtel, but open up the back towards the new complex. They also cleverly hitch the Joris Helleputte building onto the ensemble by making it accessible via a stairwell. They confirm the role of the counter area as the centre of the complex for most of Cera’s public activities, such as congresses, exhibitions and other events. This has been given a slatted roof that lets in a soft light and regulates the acoustics, which makes the room into an open forum around which unfolds a meandering route that links together the separate parts of the building. A series of paths that run alongside the three patios, the counter area and the various conference rooms and meeting-places together create a city within a city. These routes also mediate between the differing heights of the buildings on the street side. At the open reception desk, a path runs along the glass façade, thereby drawing the city inside. Its shape is reminiscent of the spiral passage that Robbrecht en Daem designed around the small auditorium at the entrance to the State Archives in Ghent and the circulation routes at the public library in Waregem.
The new building on the site of the former Vlaamse Leergangen emphatically inserts itself into the urban fabric. The French sandstone of the frontage is a contemporary interpretation of the historical context. It is not only the façades that within the historical fabric; the restrained colours and refined details of the interior also refer to the materials of the existing buildings. The choice of openwork walls – a technical feat when one example appears to be suspended above the ground floor like a veil – enables light to be drawn into the building without providing excessively large glazed openings. The interplay of transparency and opaqueness is geared to the way decision-making processes take place at Cera. Only the ground floor is entirely open. During the day, the city is reflected in the building, while in the evening the building subtly illuminates the city.
- Sofie De Caigny
This project is published in Flanders Architectural Review N°14. When Attitudes Take Form