What happens when architecture upholds the inherent nature of a context? When the fear of remaining stagnant doesn’t inhibit one to draw from existing stories? Or when instead of reinventing, we choose continuity and permanence? Speaking of timelessness, especially how new constructions could communicate the spirit of a place without diluting its character, we chanced upon a cultural project that propped up in 2019 in the historic city of Hasselt in Belgium. A finalist for the EU Mies Award 2022, the European Union Prize for Contemporary Architecture, the project is the Z33 House for Contemporary Art, Design and Architecture, conceived by Italian architect Francesca Torzo.
Speaking of its context from where all stories emerge, the complex is located in Hasselt Beguinage – a medieval commune originally inhabited by a group of unmarried, religious women (called Beguines). Having survived social strife, wars, and revolutions, these women made their own homes and lived an independent life. In days of prime, the commune was much like a quaint little city within a city, populated by rows of gabled brick homes with gated gardens and cobblestone streets. Hesselt Beguinage thrived in the 12th century, but the The proliferation of beguines dwindled years later, leading to their stark disappearance. While the women were gone, the architectural vestiges of the beguinage were left very much intact.
For Francesca Torzo, founder of Genoa-based Francesca Torzo Architetto, the context of the Z33 house resembled an island in the urban issue. The starting point of her design, much like every other project that comes out of her multi-disciplinary studio, was observing the cultural structure of the place and finding cues to locate a certain permanency that could speak with both its past and the future. Explaining her impression of the context, she says in the project video, “The characteristic of Hasselt is to be medieval. This sequence of passages like you have secret walks through the city, from courtyard to a passage to another courtyard and a garden, and then a building. It’s like the beguinage is like a miniature, a distilled perfume of other parts of the city.”
Torzo intervened in the enclosed nature of the development and the permanency of its border by settling on the continuity that percolates through its folds. She created a complex made of two buildings: the existing 1958 museum Vleugel’58, and its extension. As per her studio, the former is “a classical infrastructure of room with fine proportions and a certain degree of anonymity”, and the latter is “an ensemble of simple rooms” whose “complexity of spatial pattern echoes the multiplicity of experiences of a city, with gradients between public and private.”
The façade is the most delicate aspect of the architecture, connecting it to the idea of a house oriented towards the street. “Alike the other buildings surrounding the garden, the extension building disposes a long and almost blind brick wall towards the street, echoing Roman opus reticolatum,” says the design team. “The façade,” the studio continues, “is bound to the brick architecture of the context: a continuous traditional solid masonry with variations in colour and size of both bricks and joints. It is an innovative construction of a double solid wall: an interior warm structure coupled with an exterior cold structure.” While the street exterior facing is kept introverted, the façade facing the garden features scores of windows in a constant dialogue with the outside world.
When it comes to the interiors, the existing museum wields the form of an ideal ‘white cube’. The extension building features alternating rooms and gardens “offering a plurality of views and parcours similar to what happens in a city”. Creating a seamless transition between rooms, as per the design team, the slender section of the thresholds between spaces do not reveal the real thickness of the walls, so that the rooms belong to one another.
The material palette for the project which employed local masons constitutes of lime, clay and concrete. The extension building is built primarily of concrete and its features include a jointless load-bearing masonry façade, one cast in situ lacunar ceiling (beams section between 4- 15 cm, height 160 cm), and a cast in situ diamond ceiling.
Enclosing a cluster of exposed and intimate spaces that sit within an incongruous but continuous system of brick buildings, the design aims to reiterate the inherent nature of the context, which is to be a place of rest.