In 2007 Robbrecht en Daem architecten, in a team including Barbara Van der Wee architects, won an Open Call from the Flemish Government Architect to restore De Boekentoren University Library and transform it into a research and heritage library fit for the twenty-first century. The designers were confronted with the challenges posed by modern heritage, the high climate standards required for the conservation of the cultural heritage collection, and the needs of today’s library users. They found answers to these challenges in the existing building.
De Boekentoren, Henry van de Velde’s magnum opus, was designed in 1933–35 and built between 1936 and 1945. In the volume effect, restrained ornamentation, proportions and compositions, Van de Velde sought an appropriate monumentality for the programme. He strived for a ‘logical beauty’ in which efficiency and aesthetics reinforced each other. By the time it was listed as a monument in 1992, the building had lost much of its original strength, having already started to decay during the Second World War. The post-war period reads like a saga of ad hoc interventions that included patching up the façades, replacing the joinery and adapting the interiors. The ambition to restore the tower’s artistic integrity was only revived through the unexpected interaction between an enthusiastic head librarian and a private investor who had acquired the archival plans for De Boekentoren.
During the restoration campaign, the tower’s skin was scraped off and the building was clad in a new layer of concrete. The external transformation is so imperceptible as to only be noticeable to specialists. This subtlety continues in the renewal of the interior. The architects found so many starting points in Van de Velde’s building for creating new architecture – and for updating the existing building to meet the needs of contemporary library users – that old and new are almost indistinguishable. Robbrecht en Daem’s design, like Van de Velde’s own, is the result of a rigorous quest for pure and abstract linear ornaments, a balanced colour scheme, and a generous spatiality in which light plays the leading role. Robbrecht en Daem make Van de Velde’s design their own, as it were, by getting under the skin of the master in order to complete the original building. In places, this occurs aesthetically, as in the case of the proportions of the columns in the belvedere, which they enhanced by removing the cross-beams. Elsewhere the improvement is spatial, for example by combining two smaller rooms into one large volume, so that the Special Collections reading room is more in balance with the generous proportions of its previous space, the latter having been renamed ‘Study Landscape’. A new underground depot provides much-needed additional space for the collection and creates new connections to the existing cellars, which hugely increases their potential for use.
This approach can only succeed from embedded knowledge of the original design, which goes far beyond a purely scientific approach to architectural and building history. Robbrecht en Daem’s interventions bear witness to a deep understanding of the expressiveness, materiality, tactility, composition and spatial experience of the library, so that these aspects also become guiding principles in the contemporary transformation of the building. The new is so deeply grounded in the old that exciting transgressions occur between restoration and design. The original is more itself than it ever was.
- Sofie De Caigny
This project is published in Flanders Architectural Review N°15. Alliances with the Real
Public building, educational