new University buildings . Hasselt

noAarchitecten . photos: © Kim Zwarts

After the name of the institution changed to Hasselt University, there was also a desire to acquire a more pronounced physical presence in the city centre. When a Faculty of Law was established, this desire took concrete form. The search for a suitable location led to the former prison. Slight panic ensued. Can a small-scale, open university really move into a building conceived as an instrument of power?

This urban campus consists of three buildings. The former prison is the public focal point, and also takes on the role of urban reception area for lectures and symposia. The Faculty of Law stands on the land behind it and the Rector’s Office is sited next door along the city’s ring-road.
The prison dates from 1859. Although it looks like a star-shaped panopticon, it isn’t. From the monumental central hall you see the end walls of the cells, built back to back with the corridors running along the outside. The hall did not originally contain a central control post, but a pulpit. It was intended that a combination of religion and individual isolation would lead the prisoners to see the error of their ways.
If you look long enough, it is precisely those characteristics that initially arouse aversion that turn out to offer added value. The prison wall forms the strength of the place, being a universally-known landmark in the city and a bearer of much meaning. Leaving the wall as it was generated new connotations. The privilege of spending time inside the wall replaces the image of imprisonment. The presence of so many lateral corridors made it possible to fit two auditoria and a cafeteria into the outdoor areas between the wings. Its labyrinthine nature offered unexpected potential for the creation of a separate world inside the prison wall. The building thus becomes a small town, with several entrances and exits, squares, streets, courtyards and unexpected roof gardens for which the prison wall acts as no more than a parapet.

The faculty building with its classrooms and lecturers’ rooms nestles into a piece of land at the back. Scale is important here, and the upward-sloping fan shape eases the confrontation between the large volume and the terraced houses on the other side of the cycle path. It has become an inviting building with broad, light corridors, open wooden staircases and a surfeit of space where students can spend their time. The red bricks, wooden doors and pivot windows are elements from traditional school buildings. Max Bill points us in the right direction. The building has its own spacious entrance with a distinctive concrete canopy, a stylish bench and a three-branched lamp-post. It has a subterranean passageway to the prison building and it is spatially interwoven with an outdoor auditorium, which makes for an unexpectedly complex and light space.
The third building has a representative role. It is a corner-piece on the city’s ring-road. It is tall and compact. You can drive under it to a new car park beneath the prison. The façade consists of several layers of green glass, with dark green zones created where they overlap. So what we have here is Rector’s Office versus former prison, green versus red, transparent versus closed. Inside, a refined space is created using terrazzo, wood veneer, glass and mirrors. The central stairwell determines the spatial arrangement of each floor and acts like a kaleidoscope.

041 Hasselt University
Restoration and extension of the former prison, plus a new building for a Faculty of Law and the Rector’s Office.
Leen Corthier, Danny Dezutter, An Fonteyne, Greg Geertsen, Sander Laureys, Beatrijs Noppe, Christiaan Oomen, Kim Pecheur, Marijn Proot, Jitse van den Berg, Arnout Van Vaerenbergh, Pieter Verreycken, Peter Verstraete, Philippe Viérin, Tim Wallyn / Structural engineer: studieburo Mouton, Ghent / Services engineer: RCR, Herent / Landscape architect: Jan Minne, Brussels / Acoustics: Daidalos Peutz, Leuven /
Art integration: Philip Van Isacker, Ghent - Benoît van Innis, Brussels
Kim Zwarts

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