Art Museum to Serve as Dynamic Gateway for Belgian Town

In November 2007, the Université Catholique de Louvain, in Belgium, launched a design competition for a new museum to replace the current, cramped home of its Renaissance paintings, contemporary art, and African sculpture. The winner was announced this past June: Chicago-based Perkins+Will, Brussels architect Emile Verhaegen, and sustainability consultant MATRIciel. The team beat out Charles Vandenhove, Massimiliano Fuksas, and the British firm Tectonics.

Images courtesy Perkins+Will
A new art museum for Louvain-la-Neuve, in Belgium, is being designed by Perkins+Will, architect Emile Verhaegen, and sustainability consultant MATRIciel.

The future venue, which consists of two buildings on 1.2 acres overlooking a 17-acre lake, will sit aside one of the main roads leading into the town of Louvain-la-Neuve, located 16 miles southeast of Brussels. The museum site is “a critical intersection of the main town square, a large theater complex, and the lake,” says Ralph Johnson, a design principal at Perkins+Will.

In Louvain-la-Neuve, the entire city center sits atop a giant plinth, with roadways and parking areas placed below. In keeping with this tradition—and in order to maintain unobstructed views between the city center and the lake—the design team opted to burrow one of the museum’s two buildings below ground. A lobby, temporary gallery space, 150-seat auditorium, café, and administrative areas will be situated in this architectural mole.

Its counterpart is a twisted and folded tower that measures 115 feet in height and straddles the town’s east-west artery. “We wanted it to look like the earth was in section,” says Johnson says of the cliff-like glass exterior, on which a sedum-planted roof appears to float. Inside the tower, a four-story atrium is capped by a louvered 25-degree roof for an equally sculptural look. Running between the tower and the underground part of the museum is a pedestrian walkway that connects the museum site to the town.

Louvain-la-Neuve has a somewhat unusual history. It was established as a second home of the Catholic University of Leuven, or Louvain, in 1968, when the 583-year-old school split into Dutch- and French-speaking parts. (The Dutch half, Katholieke Universiteit Leuven, stayed in Leuven, on the original campus.) Construction of the Louvain-la-Neuve campus began soon after the division, and within 10 years, the university opened its art museum inside its humanities building, which is where it has remained over the decades. The school cites limited presence as well as insufficient space for temporary exhibits as the reason for the new museum.

Plans and budget are still being revised, but school brass have committed to green technologies: Photovoltaic cells fixed to the atrium’s louvers will power lighting, and a heat pump system linked to the lake by underground ducts will heat the exhibition rooms. The start of construction for the museum is pencilled in for next fall, with the opening scheduled for 2011.