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

Adaptable Modernism



It is very sad to see that the demolition of the Sports Centre in Grange-over-Sands is about to begin. The building is/was one of a number of sports facilities that Hodder Associates created, all of which expressed a connection with context, combined with an empathy with the needs of the user. The Sports Centre and the Swimming Pool are linked but separate volumes, which rise up the hill, to exploit the light, the view over Morcambe Bay and the advantages digging the double height spaces into the hillside. The Swimming Pool at Grange has/had a modest elegance, cool calm spatial arrangement and a deep connection to its site. Within this project the reoccurring themes of Hodder’s work can be seen: that is the contrast between the lightweight or transparent elements, against the planar solid parts.

The Swimming Pool and Sports Centre was constructed in 1998, and in his introduction to the Hodder monograph, Hugh Pearman described how towards the end of the Twentieth Century a style of architecture emerged that could be described as adaptable modernism, and Steve Hodder whose practice at the time was still in its infancy, was one of the “serious young architects making their way through the stern economic climate of the 1990’s, who realised that modernism needed to be cleansed, and would be better for it”.


Scottish Ballet Headquarters


Recently CiA were honoured to receive a guided tour the Scottish Ballet Head Quarters in Glasgow, by the project architect, Clive Albert of Malcolm Fraser Architects. The building shares an entrance with the Tramway Gallery, and we although we had been warned about the inauspicious entrance, as we approached the building from Pollokshields station, the building did indeed look almost derelict. The SBHQ is actually entered from a staircase within the lobby of the Gallery, which deliberately encourages interaction between the different types of artist endeavour. The building itself is regarded as a place of work, rather that a place for performance, almost akin to an office and so it has a sense of serine calm and privacy rather than the dramatic flamboyance of a theatre. The dancers and all of the support staff turn up for workin the morning, just as the rest of us do.

The exterior of the building is tough, robust and somewhat uncompromising, however the interior is intricate and fastidious accomplishment. The sheer scale of the dance studios dictates the plan, but even so, these huge orthogonal spaces are skilfully arranged around a top-lit communal area. It is from here that the intricate three-dimensional relationships that have been created within the building are visible.


The timber-clad interior exudes the kind of warmth that the dancers need to keep their muscles supple. The studios themselves are uncluttered and clean. The space is graduated, so that the busy-ness of the ceiling space seems to recede into the greyness, leaving the pure white walls of the lower area to define the studio itself.


It is the fastidious attention to detail that ultimately defines this building. From the vertical timber batons on the interior walls to the deliberate inconsistency of the colour of the exterior cladding, it is clear that the architects have carefully considered the manner in which the building is used, the effect of weathering, and the experience of occupying it.

The Coalhouse, Kishorn


Buildings Outlast Civilisations. Throughout history buildings have been reused and adapted, they survive as culture and civilizations change. The already built provides a direct link with the past; it is a connection with the very building bricks of our society. The existing tells the tale or story of how a particular culture evolved. A simple building may depict a certain moment in time; it may relate the particular sensibility of specific era. A more complex collection of structures may have a much more elaborate story to tell. Jorge Silvetti describes this direct link with the past as part of our “fundamental urban condition”. He links the physical survival of particular elements of any built environment with the spiritual survival of our civilisation, and it is this visibility and durability of the physical man-made environment that are testimonies to the societies that produced them. “At the risk of sounding too partisan and biased, I would say that even in historic times documents were not always available, and buildings (monuments, vernacular constructions, and public works) are themselves important texts, often providing the first and most lasting impression of a culture.”*

 This little building stands as testament to an earlier period; it was previously the storage and distribution point for the village fuel. Achintraid, which is a small village on the edge of Loch Kishorn, on the North-West coast of Scotland, was once difficult to access by road, and as was the norm for these remote shore-side settlements, most of the important provisions arrived by boat. The coal was delivered to this little building, which is situated in a sheltered but accessible point on the bay, and was then distributed to the occupants of the small village. Nowadays, oil is generally used, it arrives by lorry and the coalhouse is no longer needed. More than a decade ago the little shed was converted into a home. The adaptation is very sympathetic, the materials are local, the walls feel as if part of the rocks and the roof is as grey as the winter loch. The internal organisation also reflects the extreme context; the main living rooms are situated on the upper floor, thus taking advantage of the incredible views across Loch Kishorn to the mountains of Skye. Long horizontal windows at first floor reinforce the orthogonal quality of the building while the small windows at ground level reflect the need for protection against the weather. The house does appear to be a product of its particular situation, but does not resort to pastiche, it is appropriate to its time. I have no idea who designed the conversion.

 Kenneth Frampton, talks about the need for architecture and design to have the…“capacity to condense the artistic potential of the region while reinterpreting cultural influences coming from the outside”. This building does indeed show a great understanding of both place and tectonics, and…”evokes the oneiric essence of the site, together with the inescapable materiality of building”.**

Interactive Realms’ by Jorge Silvetti

** Prospects for a Critical Regionalism by Kenneth Frampton

Església de la Colònia Güell

p1040995.JPG                                                                                                                       p1040972.JPG                                                                                                                                                              To the east of Barcelona lies the small town of Colònia Güell. This compact settlement was constructed to house the workers and the factories upon which Eusebi Guell’s fortune was based. On the outskirts lies the local church, or rather the crypt of the unfinished church. This is an expressive and atmospheric structure designed by Antoni Gaudí. Of course Güell and Gaudí had a long and fruitful relationship, with the construction of a number of much more well known buildings. This structure nestles into the rock of the hillside and is obviously intended to appear as if it is part of the landscape. The building is random yet exact. The stone is irregular at the building’s corners with what looks like a volcanic infill.  The columns rise at acute angles from the earth and almost become flying buttresses as they struggle to hold the crypt itself in place. The interior is equally mysterious, the large open space is calm and organic, the unfinished quality adds to the drama. The only slight anomaly is the recent pavings, which is set in a regular manner around the building and becomes a podium upon which the building sits, thus breaking the illusion of the building growing from the landscape. The crypt is certainly big enough to hold the congregation, so perhaps that is why the ambitious building was never completed, but then again Gaudí and Güell have a reputation for taking their time.

SANAA: Serpentine Pavilion





It is hard to put in words the effect of this extraordinary intervention by Kazuyo Sejima and Ryue Nishizawa at The Serpentine Gallery in London (until 18 October). A sinuous silhouette characterises the slender reflective roof suspended on tentative mirrored columns above a simple screeded floor. Those are the bare facts.

But the impact of these simple gestures are magical. The rhyming of columns and trees is a commonplace of organic design but is here given literal depth with the doubling of the column height through reflection. The depth of the visual field collapses through the folding in on themselves of covered and uncovered spaces. The implicit gravity of light from the sky is brought into doubt, as it is revealed to be a reflection from the ground. And just momentarily one experiences a figure ground reversal, when a solid leaden summer sky contrasts with the light and space seen on highly polished surface.


For a different view of another work by SANAA, their NewMuseum of Contemporary Art in New York see this film by recent MSA graduates.

Not Brutal but Savage

The Barn, Exmouth

The Barn, Exmouth by Edward Schroder Prior, 1896. Photoset taken this week.

In The Nature of Gothic John Ruskin proposed a list of the characteristics of Gothic architecture. This was an attempt to describe architecture as a living process rooted in building. In the sphere of the builder the characteristics of Gothic were: Savageness or Rudeness, Love of Change, Love of Nature, Disturbed Imagination, Obstinacy, Generosity.

E.S. Prior’s buildings embodied Savageness in an architecture that tried to link the discipline to the process of building rather than the professionalism of the Victorian era. His buildings are traditional and experimental employing novel plans and uses of material and allowing the process of building in a specific environment to decisively affect the character of the building.

The Barn, Exmouth

The butterfly plan of The Barn creates a sun-trap between its arms and exploits wide views of the sea (the English Channel). It has a linear arts & crafts plan broken to shorten circulation and respond to entrance and view. The house was built out of local stone – ashlar mixed with pebbles and boulders – and originally thatched (the house burned in 1905 and the roof was re-covered in slate).


Before the fire, from The English House by Hermann Muthesius

Five Hundred Years of Andrea Palladio

Andrea di Pietro della Gondola, born 30 November 1508.


The Basilica Palladiana in Vicenza. The red plan is Palladio’s design as depicted in his Quattro Libri. The black plan is the structure as built, incorporating elements of the previous buildings on the site.

Graphic by Denis of CiA BArch Studio, Manchester School of Architecture.

Our other Palladio posts.