Previous stateBesides being the largest car-free urban area in Belgium, the historic centre of the city of Ghent is outstanding for its profusion of exceptionally well-conserved examples of medieval architecture. Standing out among them, three high gothic bell towers testify to Ghent’s fourteenth-century splendour when it was one of Europe’s biggest cities and, indeed, second only to Paris. In a straight line and barely two hundred metres apart, the three bell towers top Saint Nicholas Church in the west, the Town Hall in the middle, and the Saint Bavo Cathedral in the east.
When the 1913 World’s Fair was held in Ghent, the City Council wanted to draw attention to the monumental presence of the three spires and undertook a drastic project of opening up new views by demolishing their surrounding buildings. The church, the Town Hall and cathedral ended up free-standing but the characteristic density of the medieval setting had disappeared. This dilution of the space was aggravated in the 1960s when a block of houses between the cathedral and the Town Hall was demolished. The three small squares that surrounded it were fused into a single overly homogenous and excessively large esplanade, much of which was used as an open-air car park at the entrance of the old city. Nevertheless, the names of the three original squares were conserved so that Emile Braun square remained in the south as a garden zone, with the Poeljemarkt (Market square) and the Goudenleeuwplein (Golden Lion square) to the east and west respectively.
Aim of the interventionIn 1996, the municipal authorities made a call for projects in a competition with a view to reforming the esplanade and constructing an underground car park. Convinced that more facilities for private vehicles was the last thing the old centre of Ghent needed, one of the teams went against the competition requirements and suggested an alternative project, the “Stadshal”, a large public porch which would restore volume to the block where the houses had been demolished, and the lost dimensions of the three squares. The project was disqualified but, a year later, the original plan of building an underground car park was rejected by the citizens in a referendum. The esplanade remained intact for another ten years after which the City Council once again called for projects in another competition with the aim of reforming it. This time, the “Stadshal”, now updated and complemented with a proposal for improving public transport around the space, was the winner.
DescriptionThe “Stadshal” is an open porch which protects pedestrians from rain and sun. Highly representative in its architecture, it is also used as a shelter for concerts, gatherings and weekly markets. The ground beneath the cover of the porch is at the same level as the Poeljemarkt and the Goudenleeuwplein and is paved with the same cobblestones. The southern side, however, is closed off with railings and overlooks the gardens in Emile Braun square, which is slightly lower. This change of level lets daylight into the semi-basement, which houses public facilities, a bicycle parking station and a cafeteria.
The porch is forty metres long and its height is halfway between that of the Town Hall and of the nearby constructions. It has two parallel very steeply sloping pitched roofs resembling those of the surrounding gothic buildings. These are made of wooden panels covered with glass shingles and they are pierced with one thousand six hundred skylights to let in the daylight while, at night, they function as a large lantern sending light outwards. The two roofs rest on four solid piers set at the corners of the building. Two of these contain fireplaces in which big fires can be lit at ground level. The other two contain lifts and steps going down to the semi-basement.
AssessmentThe sixteen years that went by after the original proposal for the porch was disqualified until it was opened to the public were not exempt of controversy between political authorities, citizens, architects and the media. It was not easy for everyone to accept the appearance of an architectural form expressed in such vehemently modern language in a zone that was so laden with historical meaning. Furthermore, the decision to remove cars from the esplanade without offering alternative parking space was not to everyone’s liking.
In any case, the value of the “Stadshal” is much more evident in the street than on paper. Without falling into the traps of imitation or submission, the contemporary nature of the building’s form sets up a respectful yet suggestive dialogue with the historical setting. Indeed, its steep pitched roofs fit in with the neighbouring ones without attempting to be indistinguishable from them. The presence of the “Stadshal” also contributes towards filling in the excessive porosity of the old centre of Ghent. Its volume gives density to a layout where empty spaces had always been intense because there were scarce. Apart from the forms themselves, the intensity of street life is also reinforced by giving priority to the bicycle and public transport as much more appropriate transport systems for a historic city centre. In brief, the intervention understands public space as something more than a zone of transit or a mere car park and invites people to linger and feel at home by offering elements that are compatible with the refuge of domestic space, for example fireplaces and a roof over their heads.
David Bravo │ Translation by Julie Wark
[Last update: 18/06/2018]