Hasselt University – Faculty of Law: NoA Architecten

Any understanding of the past is determined by the manner in which the information about the pervious age is interpreted. All histories are partial; all contain an act of translation or decoding. It is impossible for the historian to provide anything other than their own opinion; that is, to narrate their own interpretation of the events. When a building is reused, an element of narrative uncertainty or mnemonic ambiguity is always introduced. The story of the building is always open to interpretation and the designer can exploit that uncertainty.

When NoA Architecten were approached to convert the former prison in Hasselt into the new home for the University’s Faculty of Law, the sense of irony was lost upon them. They relished the ambiguity that this created, and immediately referenced W.G. Sebald. He had explored the notion that a building or place contains the quality of being open to more than one interpretation; that appearances can and do lie, deceive, and distort. The academic Mark Richard McCulloh discusses this: “Sebald weaves the fabric of his narrative out of intertwining digressions on the present and the past, out of the strange threads of perception, memory, and dream, and, finally, out of the experiences of travel in a here and now that is alternatively mundane, lyrical, and uncanny.”

The buildings, which were organised into the traditional prison panoptican, were built in 1855 on the recommendation of the then inspector general of prisons, Edouard Ducpetiaux. A hundred prisoners could be accommodated in back-to-back cells. These were spread out in four wings around a central octagonal base, which housed the observation post. The occupants had no idea whether or not they were being observed, and it was impossible for them to experience or even understand the complete building. It closed in 2005. The labyrinthine nature of the organisation of the buildings ensured that the prison itself had the quality of existing very much as a separate world behind the great containing wall, as an independent city within the actual city of Hasselt.

The solid brick prison wall, which was part of the collective memory of the city, was a symbol of exclusion. The architects were aware of this strange connection that this barrier had with the local consciousness, and felt that it was important to reverse this meaning and create a new connection with the city, to construct something welcoming out of that which was once impenetrable, to ensure that visitors instead of feeling intimidated, felt privileged.

The form of the original building dictated the organisation of the new elements; it informed the position of the large spaces and the smaller ones. The existing composition was uncompromisingly precise and the architects were able to use this structure as a guide to the placement of the new elements of the faculty of law. The building became a small, bright and open town, with several entrances and exits, squares, streets, courtyards and an unexpected roof garden for which the prison wall acts as no more than a parapet. The individual cells were preserved as study rooms. Particular marks decorate the walls, these are the ghosts of the lines that counted out the almost innumerable days and thus preserve the memory of the former function. Glass rather than solid doors were installed in these intimate spaces. The interstitial spaces, the gaps between the rooms and the walls, the places where surreptitious activity may or may not have once taken place have been preserved. These intermediate spaces are for conversation, for collaboration and for romantic collusion. By utilising the form and structure of the existing structures, a radical transformation of the buildings has been completed without losing the memory of the previous use, but also without invoking the true ghastliness of the experience.

Extract taken from forthcoming ReReadings Volume 2

Time and Context

Symposium hosted by Continuity in Architecture

Tuesday March 8th at 2pm in the Benzie Lecture Theatre,                   Manchester School of Architecture

Jerwood

All histories are important and all narratives are viable and relevant; the basis of historical existence is no longer seen as a sequence of Kings and Queens, Battles, Discoveries and Political Events. History can be regarded as a discourse; it contains facts, interpretations, bias, and empathy, and all history is positional; it is dependent upon the position of the narrator of that history. Historical analysis is an act of translation; the historian (whether architectural, cultural, scientific, feminist, activist, or any other of a myriad of other focuses) will not be able to view the material through any other lens than that of their own culture. Thus any history contains many different readings and interpretations.

Time and Context : A Continuity In Architecture Symposium

This symposium seeks to discuss the importance of context in relation to architecture and time.

The Symposium will be hosted by:

David Connor was one of the most expressive of the post-modern interior designers in 1980’s London. He revolutionised design with a small collection of domestic and retail projects. These remodelling projects were as anarchic as the clients that they were designed for and included the Seditionaries shop for the ultimate punk couple, Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McLaren, and an apartment for the pop punk, Adam Ant. The liberation of money meant that interior design was at the time on the cusp of changing from a very proper pursuit for classically trained designers into something considerably more fashionable, provocative and at times outrageous. Connor’s enormous and expressive freehand drawings for these interiors epitomise this approach. Thirty-five years later he has completed, with Kate Darby, a much more serious, but no less eccentric project: an ecologically sound architects studio.

The speakers are:

Fred Scott was previously a visiting professor of Interior Architecture at Rhode Island School of Design and course leader for Interior Design at Kingston University. He is the author of On Altering Architecture, and he will discuss suggested practices based on the interrogation of the context, the everyday in flux, and the ideal in an attempt to identify a theory of intervention.

Hana Loftus is one of the founders of HAT Projects, a studio which has a specific focus on public and civic projects. She is an expert in public participation in urban development, and will examine two projects; the RIBA award winning Jerwood Gallery on Hasting’s seafront, and the $20,000 house in Alabama, a prototype for families living in poverty.

Hugh Strange runs an award winning London based architecture practice. He has a keen interest in precise contextual responses to sensitive urban and rural sites. He will talk about two projects: his personal residence Strange House and Studio, a low budget yet generous house squashed into an old pub yard, and Architecture Archive, a new timber structure which snuggles within the walls an existing barn.

Gianni Botsford, founded Gianni Botsford Architects in 1996. He will discuss two projects: the RIBA award winning Light House, a new-build large family house on a brown-land site in Notting Hill, London, and the Casa Kiké located in Costa Rico, a RIBA international award-winning double pavilion.

Piers Taylor (The House that £100k Built, BBC2) will discuss the work of his practice Invisible Studio, which aims to be a different type of organisation from a conventional practice. It operates through collaboration, experimentation, research and education. They are interested in going about the process of architecture in a different way – a way where clients, users, collaborators and makers are all part of the process of design.