Atelier Kempe Thill transformed and extended a 1950s nursing school into the Sint-Lucas School of Arts Antwerp. The school provides space for 600 students and staff for three master’s degrees in visual arts as well as a professional bachelor’s degree in photography.
During the 19th century in the Netherlands, art schools were built as important public institutions that took the form of classical palaces celebrating the public character of the arts. Cities were proud of their newly founded art academies and celebrated the future artists within monumental architecture. Since the 20th century, this situation has undergone a lot of changes. Schools have become far less elitist, and therefore the need for representation became less important. Budgets have been cut and this stimulated the production of more utilitarian buildings. In the case of the St. Lucas School of Arts in Antwerp, Atelier Kempe Thill was confronted with a very low building budget as a starting point. In addition, the client asked for a complex space program that had to be partly integrated into an existing building. The optimization of various levels and general minimalism were the major design concepts.
Ph. Ulrich Schwarz | www.architektur-fotografie.net
The new school has been developed in collaboration with the various users of the institute to create contemporary conditions for education in arts. The aim was to use the new building as a means to re-organize the education process as well as the institute itself, to prepare it for the challenges of the 21st century. Subsequently, the following two questions had a central influence on the design: How can design stimulate interdisciplinary work and inspire the creation of art? How can design strengthen the public character of the institute and open the school towards the city?
Nursing School Transformation
The starting point of the design was the transformation of an existing nursing school from the late 1950s. The building was still in good shape after almost sixty years of use but offered only small and inflexible classrooms which are inadequate conditions for contemporary art education and art production. As the budget did not allow for complete demolition of the existing building, Atelier Kempe Thill decided to go for a combined strategy of part re-use, part transformation, and part demolition to make space for a substantial new extension of the institute. The main building along the street and the side-wing were maintained while the two smaller auditoria on the garden side were demolished.
The transformation focused mainly on the ground floor level of the existing nursing school. In order to give the school a more public character, nearly all non-loadbearing and partially load-bearing walls have been removed to realize more prominent and flexible spaces. The façade towards the street has been opened up by the introduction of new large windows to create a strong visual interaction between the street and the school.
Functions like the public art library and an exhibition hall have been placed along the street façade to maximize interaction with the public and the city. A student restaurant, serving as a community hub, has been built in the central side wing, creating a visual connection with the green courtyard and the entrance hall. Additionally, a significant photo studio was placed on the roof of the existing school. To create the studio, the existing roof had to be partly removed to ensure higher and more flexible spaces, and a new secondary construction had to be added.
New Atelier Extension
On the garden side of the existing school, a substantial new extension in the form of an atelier building helped offer the institute more flexible and inspiring studio spaces. The new, relatively big, volume had to be implemented sensitively into the existing urban fabric of the early 20th-century building block. Consequently, the building volume is partly sunken into the ground to avoid it becoming too high and the last floor of the new volume has a substantial set-back to reduce the visual impact of the new building.
The atelier with its open glass façades looks, with its brass-anodized metal façade, for a dialogue with the monumental Sint Laurentius church and other brick buildings near-by. The compact volume of approximately 34 meters by 34 meters consists of four floors of 3.75 meters free height. The basement with its excellent daylight conditions, houses workshops, printing rooms, and spaces for jewelry production. The ground floor and the first floor are used as studio spaces for artists and are connected by a 12-meter-high void of approximately 8 meters by 13 meters that is lit by a big, central skylight. On the second floor, there are spaces for the drawing education program offered by the institute.
Optimal conditions for Art Education
The project sought to optimize conditions for art education and reflect those in the development of the atelier house. Atelier Kempe Thill convinced users to rethink the given space program, which resulted in a fundamental change in the education concept and the design brief. Instead of the initially requested separated rooms, the atelier house is now offering open, wall-less plateaus of up to 930 square-meters that allow for flexibility and simultaneously welcome unexpected uses. In order to realize flexible zoning of space, movable separation walls were designed to allow the creation of various spatial configurations. The separation walls are transportable from floor to floor using a lift.
The façade design resulted in a project-specific solution. It offers a maximum of closed walls, providing an ideal solution for the production and the display of artworks. The closed walls are 2,2m high and enclose the big spaces, ensuring a highly concentrated atmosphere inside the building. On top of the wall, large horizontal windows are placed that bring in a maximum amount of daylight and fill the deep volume with natural light. The windows, that offer pleasant views towards the sky and the treetops, avoid an otherwise too hermetic character of the space. Only at the ground floor level, one can find one 14-meter-wide floor-to-ceiling window that provides panoramic views towards the green park-like courtyard.
Like a Parking Garage
In an effort to stay within the budget, Atelier Kempe Thill tried to find a relatively economical system for the construction. The starting point was the concept of building the house like a parking garage. All the floors are made of massive polished concrete to keep the building rough and to provide it with a lot of resistance. Acoustic ceilings were avoided wherever possible. Walls and columns are designed in in-situ concrete with a lot attention to the quality of the formwork.
In consultation with the engineers of BAS Leuven, a structural system was developed with minimum columns, loadbearing façades, and cantilevering walls in the corners to avoid the need for corner columns. The top roof was executed as a hanging roof with restressed roof beams to avoid further column use. The ventilation system of the building was based on the new BaOpt principle. By doing so horizontal air ducts were avoided resulting in a visually nearly installation-free building. The raw character of the building was underlined by the painted steel balustrades around the central atrium as well as some painted wooden interior elements, resulting in a tranquil, concrete-dominated interior.
The inner logic of the building is directly transmitted onto the outside façade. Up to 5.3 meters long and up to 2.3 meters high, fixed glass windows form continuous horizontal glass bands that dominate the exterior. The building has a glass plinth, and its pair of roof edges are also made out of glass, giving the building a very particular and transparent character Between the horizontal glass bands, corrugated aluminum plates with vertical channels are placed. Similar to the window frames, they are anodized in a brass tone that matches the surrounding brick buildings. The perforation of the aluminum plates with a pattern of circular holes adds additional lightness to the façade.
A New Type for the Future of Art?
The resulting project can be seen as a contribution to the discussion about the future of art schools. With its open plateaus, the school supports more collaborative working methods on various levels, offering enormous flexibility and stimulating unexpected expressions of art. The public character of the building is supported by the open library and the permanent exhibition space, which interact directly with the public space. Semi-annually the school organizes large exhibitions of student works, and the building suddenly functions as a big exhibition hall. The atelier, with its big void and daylight conditions, has the appearance of a contemporary art museum during these shows, attracting thousands of visitors, and turning the school into a truly public building in the city of Antwerp.
Ph. Ulrich Schwarz | www.architektur-fotografie.net
DATE: 2016 (competition), 2016-2017 (design), 2017-2019 (execution) / LOCATION: Van Schoonbekestraat 143, Antwerp, Belgium / AREA: 0,49 ha. (Site area), 9.240 m2 (gross floor area) / PROGRAM: Transformation + extension school of arts / STATUS: built / DESIGN: Atelier Kempe Thill architects and planners / SUPPORTING ARCHITECT: Das Bauer Kabinett / DESIGN TEAM PROJECT (ATELIER KEMPE THILL): André Kempe, Oliver Thill, Marc van Bemmel with: Martins Duselis, Phillip Haak, Rick Hospes, Teun van der Meulen, Laura Paschke, Kento Tanabe, Jan-Gerrit Wessels / DESIGN TEAM COMPETITION: André Kempe, Oliver Thill, Marc van Bemmel, Rick Hospes, Kento Tanabe / CLIENT: Karel de Grote Hogeschool Antwerpen / CONSTRUCTION: Willemen Construct NV (general contractor), CNT Europe (concrete structure), Sanitechniek (techn. install (hvac+san), C&M (techn. install – elec), Staalbeton (staalconstructies), Groven+ (glass façade), MSB (aluminium façade), KMW (steel inside glass elements), Inside Projects (wooden inside door elements), Zolderse Dakwerken (roof), Meuwes Laswerken (steel balustrades), Acosorb (acoustic ceiling), JMS wegenbouw (surrounding) / CONSULTANTS: BAS bvba (structural engineer), Studie10 (building services engineer) / PHOTOS: Ulrich Schwarz / www.architektur-fotografie.net