Stéphane Beel’s architectural style is simple, paired down and yet always intriguing and visually appealing. Join me in discovering some of his most interesting buildings over the years.
Stéphane Beel is a Flemish contemporary architect and founder of the firm Stéphane Beel Architects. Graduating from his architecture studies in Ghent in 1980, Beel and his namesake firm went on to design and complete a number of stunning projects in Belgium. These include the FNG Group Headquarters office building; the UZ Gasthuisberg psychiatry building; Kanaal, a mixed use building in a former industrial site; etc.
“After school, I didn’t want to go to a big studio, I wanted to learn for myself. It was a bit stupid also because of course you have to learn from someone. But I did learn from the books and so on, and I had to earn money so I got a commission for a small house. I asked my clients, “Can I build this house, also, by myself?” They said okay. I’m not a mason so I don’t put bricks one on top of another, I worked on this house and I could do it myself as a non-specific constructor with materials that are used in building. So at that moment, I was working on architecture with my hands. It was really architecture with a big ‘a’ for me. I was working in my working clothes, pouring water to make concrete. At the end, when it was finished, we got an important prize for it so it was the beginning of my career. I felt I had to be very exact and that I had to do it myself so I never trusted anyone else to do it. And that’s why I did it and also because of the earnings. I just thought I’d do it on my own and then commissions came.” Stéphane Beel
1. ‘Kanaal’ in Wijnegem
A valuable, 19th-century industrial site along the Albert Canal near Antwerp (BE) is transformed into a contemporary site for mixed use. Besides workshops, museum space, offices and underground parking, the majority of the site are converted into housing units. Stéphane Beel Architects is responsible for the transformation of the silos of the old malt house, a part of the overall development project.
The upgrading of the grey silos is a delicate assignment. The design in question allows the existing buildings to live on/function and makes a new function possible without endangering the character of the silo complex. A strategic intervention makes it possible to create homes and guarantees the liveability of the available view and natural light. In the case of two grey silos, 31 and 28 metres of their height, respectively, are removed and replaced by a new, slender and transparent silo volume. The six remaining silos are retained and are perforated by small openings. This intervention creates several housing units. Either three closed spaces with circular floor plans (the existing silos) and an open space with a square plan (the new silo) or six closed spaces with circular floor plans (the existing silos) and two open spaces with square floor plans (the new silo). The openness of the square space – which contains the living room – makes it possible to retain the closed, solid concrete silos. The openings in the existing silos keep to a structural logic and outline specific distant views.
By placing new, transparent silos at opposite sides and in the middle of the existing silos, the outlines and solidity of the silo complex are retained. The bottom sections of all the existing silos are kept all the way around, and on a raised platform also provide a museum space and entry to the housing units. The grey silos are separate from each other and where necessary are linked by glazed bridges. The two new silos adhere to the same logic. The vertical circulation is combined with the circulation of the adjacent white silos and is linked with the same type of bridge.
The existing white silos are removed for technical reasons of stability and are replaced by a new housing volume on top of the existing ‘karnak’ space. The new volume is clad entirely in white or bare wood and is in clear contrast to the existing grey silos. The glazing is in silver/white reflective glass and the wood is in the same colour. The new housing function enables the silo complex to remain in existence. In their turn, the interventions and conversions ensure the implementation of contemporary requirements in terms of comfort and safety, improve the admission of natural light into the complex and form a positive contrast to the existing construction. The appeal and appearance of the silos are thereby retained.
2. FNG Group Headquarters
FNG is a fast-growing fashion company that requested a building that could grow with the company. An envelope that radiates the company values where relationships can be built between the various branches. It turned into an interesting quest involving intensive cooperation between FNG and Stéphane Beel Architects with the goal of achieving a completed whole including the landscape design and furniture.
The basic form consists of a parking plinth with terrace and two volumes whose mutual link is confirmed by a physical connection, a distinct green walkway. The façade is a wooden skin that runs around the entire outline of the building. The inner facades facing each other are white-painted wooden planks. A different nuance is created to distinguish the two buildings by painting one set of facades bright white and the other off-white. In one of the volumes, openings have been made in the outer façade, making it possible to see the pattern of the windows. In the south-facing façade of the other volume shutters have been installed that move in the course of the day.The central core contains the permanent facilities, circulation and technical ducts. On the first and second floor these are combined with a void, while on the third floor the core is combined with a patio. A cascade staircase links the various components of the production process.
The lines that structure the building consist of rows of concrete beams. Together with the entrance staircase, these are the only concrete elements that remain grey. The prefab concrete walls of the facades are painted. The windows are detailed so that they do not need any casing. The core is clad in black cowhide applied in a tile pattern over the cupboards and doors. The floors consist of tiles in resin-bound Calacatta marble. The ceiling around the core is patterned with separate acoustic panels suspended below the concrete, making use of concrete core activation. This made it possible to provide open workstations with a hard wooden floor and an agreeable acoustic environment. The open floors have a rhythmic arrangement of windows so that the spaces can be divided up as required. The result is a very flexible building with a logically composed plan that is able to respond easily to growth, shifts of emphasis and other changes in FNG’s internal organisation.
3. Villa H in W
The valuable landscape aspect of the area is characterised above all by the natural distribution of detached groups of trees alternating with expansive gentle slopes. The combination of low vegetation, grass and bushes with groups of tall trees provides this landscape with its typical views. In the course of time the farm buildings have formed a natural balance with the landscape: the buildings have themselves become essential components of this characteristic landscape. It is necessary to thoroughly analyse the existing landscape and typologies and the situation on the ground so as to be able to assimilate these data in a sound and interesting manner.
The design of the new building is founded, on several scales, on the typical features of the landscape and the existing buildings. A place to live, both in the landscape and in the house itself. The former yard is reinterpreted and reintroduced. The basic concept of the yard comprises the marking off of a place in the landscape where people can live and work, and this is here translated to a contemporary context.
The existing farmhouse is reinterpreted as a contemporary home that refers distinctly to the old typology. Habitation is reduced to the purest form of living in a place, in a building on a yard in a landscape.
4. Faculty of Economics Ghent University
The campus path that crosses the building, the topography, the nearby existing economics building, and the new program together generate the form of the building. The path leads down from the street towards the roof of the existing building. On one side are organized all the vertical circulation shafts of the new building, on the other side a double height foyer is accessed from the path. The auditorium is situated above it and accessed through a main stair. Behind is a meeting room of the faculty. On the top level a library is organized around a patio, combined with offices. The front and back façade are in glass and cantilever outwards; two lateral façades are in concrete, one of them being a screen made out of 20m high concrete fins.
5. Africa Museum in Tervuren
In 2006, the Belgian Buildings Agency launched a competition for the redevelopment of the site of the AfricaMuseum in Tervuren. The multi-disciplinary team headed by Stéphane Beel Architects, laid out the new masterplan for the AfricaMuseum and its surrounding area. In a first phase of the execution of the masterplan, the existing museum building was restored and extended in 2017. Besides a reorganization of the museum spaces, the children’s workshops, the logistical and secondary spaces, new exhibition rooms have also been provided. To these were added: a restaurant-brasserie, the reception, new children’s workshops, a museum shop, an auditorium and meeting rooms. This reorganization and the extension of the museum building were conceived in such a way that the direct environment of the museum building was preserved as much as possible and was once more connected to the French garden.
All secondary museum functions such as the reception, shop and cafeteria were removed from the layout of the earlier museum, optimized and housed in the new construction. This created more space in the museum building for the new permanent exhibition. The existing museum building has been left intact as much as possible. The original entrance to the museum and the open covered rotunda in the interior courtyard have been reinterpreted; besides the meticulous restoration, they form some deliberately foreign interventions that are to be read as critical annotations on the original architecture. The new entrance pavilion was meticulously lined up with the front of the museum building and lies on the border between the two gardens that date from different periods. The visitor centre and the museum shop on the ground floor of the pavilion are located at the level of the park. In the restaurant on the first floor, visitors enjoy a panoramic view of the French garden and the museum building.
The rooms for temporary exhibitions are also underground, as it were stretched between the new pavilion and the museum building. Three exhibition rooms have been arranged in a row along a publicly accessible gallery. These black-box spaces can be subdivided flexibly into an auditorium and two separate rooms or be transformed by a mobile wall into one large exhibition room. The visitors go from the entrance pavilion to the restored museum building via a long gallery. In doing so they first pass a widening through which daylight enters, a point of orientation, and walk along a showpiece of the museum collection, a large pirogue that evokes the Congo river, in the direction of another light point in the distance: the sunken courtyard of the museum building, which introduces light and orientation.
The exhibition rooms are subtly equipped with new technologies that bring the museum building up to date as regards the conservation and presentation of the collection. Those technologies are highly sophisticated and have been integrated almost seamlessly: improved thermic isolation and airtightness, management of incoming light, air-quality control embedded invisibly in the new exhibition platforms, interventions at the level of accessibility and fire safety are all elements that enable a new approach to exhibiting in the existing monument, without tampering with the monument and its intrinsic value.
6. University Psychiatric Centre
The psychiatry building is part of AWG Architects’ master-plan for the further development of the UZ Gasthuisberg campus. It is structured around an internal patio. The exentrically position of the patio allows the creation of different sections for large therapy rooms and for smaller spaces such as patients’ rooms. The master-plan sets out measures to create an urban context, which include creating density and differentiation in the public space, and building a diverse range of streets and squares. This will enable the open ‘green’ zones around the site to be safeguarded. The patio has been developed as a ‘therapeutic landscape’. This ‘landscape’ is connected to every floor, so that patients can reach their therapy areas by passing through it. At the same time, it is a place for relaxation and informal contact between patients, visitors and healthcare professionals. On the third floor, this ‘therapeutic landscape’ culminates in a spacious terrace, which connects to the sports hall. From here, patients have a view out over the green zone and Leuven city centre.
The central patio is covered with a sliding greenhouse roof, which creates a tempered outdoor climate. This increases its potential uses, as well as having a positive effect on energy consumption.On the ground floor, adjacent to the main street, are the public functions: the reception area, consultation rooms, training and administration rooms. On the first, second and third floors are the hospitalisation units, together with their respective therapy areas. For structural reasons, the double-height sports hall is located on the top floor. Much thought has gone into choosing the right materials and decoration. Perforated glazed bricks and acoustically absorbent floors and ceilings have been used to create an acoustically pleasant environment. More specifically, the rubber tiles chosen for the patio floor meet both acoustic and other requirements (safety, look and feel, etc.).
Look and feel studies were carried out for the entire interior decoration. A lively colour palette was created to complement the champagne-coloured masonry and it is by no means sterile. Although this is a hospital, the idea is to create an environment that feels both homely and safe. Based on detailed research, a standard room was designed with a colourful sliding partition to conjure up a homely atmosphere. Three oval green islands were placed in the patio, which serve to bring it down to a more human scale. This design was created in collaboration with the garden architect Ludovic Devriendt. The inner patio is surrounded by perforated brick-work. This material is absorbing and helps to avoid loud noises in the patio. In the whole building there was a lot of attention to acoustics. A crucial item to create a relaxing and tempering atmosphere.
7. Joc Rabot Gent
The new Rabot park consists of several distinct strips. Two parallel circulation axes, a tree-lined lane and a wide cyclists and pedestrian zone along Opgeëistenlaan define the central park zone. Each has its own different rhythm and feel, corresponding with the specific conditions in the immediate surroundings. The presence of the youth centre reinforces the program for the park and stimulates a richer experience in a more intensely green environment. The JOC will have its own place at the North East side, in the active zone of the neighbourhood
This meeting place for youngsters accommodates three youth organisations and a polyvalent hall to be used by the three of them. Within this layout, the three services are considered as separate, autonomous entities with their own rooms, lavatories, storage spaces, secretariats and access entrance from ground floor level. Providing for a common space that is in fact a dual, separately accessible configuration allows multiple use, by the associations, by external people or by both. This configuration also allows it to be used as a party hall. This way,two projects were realised in one go, which yields a number of obvious organisational and budgetary advantages.This well-considered layout provides all rooms with ample daylight and fresh air by means of three patios and two walkable light roofs. Strategic positioning of glazed walls and ceilings allows the light to penetrate deep into the lower floor and offers a broad range of perspectives and connections. The four aboveground volumes provide separate entrances and secretariats for each of the associations as well as access to the communal space. Each of the rooms is accessible to the handicapped. The volume near the central access stairs is constructed out of a translucent material and functions as a light funnel during the day and at night as a beacon of light that renders activities in the polyvalent hall visible to visitors to the park. The park extends over the top of the subterranean volume, in effect forming a green roof – a sustainable way to keep rainwater from seeping through.
8. De Warange Turnhout
The initial commission (adaptation of a building to its contemporary function as a cultural centre) was examined within the wider context of the complex of buildings on the site. In consultation with the client, the necessary adjustments were made to alter the specifics of the commission in accordance with this wider view. By means of a couple of small interventions, the circulation pattern in and between the buildings was altered to become a clearly legible structure, along which all parts of the program become accessible.Opening up these buildings has meant that formerly underused rooms are now being put to maximum use. Consequently, space was freed up in the adjoining building to create meeting rooms, in the library a previously unused car ramp was suppressed to
make room for extra office space for library staff and an excessively large furnace room was converted into a new polyvalent space.
The program is being realised maximally, with a minimum of construction. The existing building’s spatial quality modernist design by architect Paul Schellekens) is being restored to its original splendour as well as being adapted to the program’s requirements. For instance, the original open floor or void above the reception hall is opened up again, and thanks to its glass facade the building’s original view of the castle park is being restored to its former glory, providing room for the reception area, immediately adjoining the central hall, the cafeteria and an outside terrace. At basement level, where the acoustics and the light are more easily controllable, the exhibition;zone winds around a sunken patio. This level also houses the underground extension with its high-walled exhibition room (a facility that was lacking in the existing complex) equipped with up-to-date technical
10. Athenaeum Wispelberg
This historical school building has a central location on the school site in Wispelbergstraat.
The street façade of the existing building on the site, the school designed by the municipal architect A. Pauli in 1882-83, is mentioned in the inventory of Architectural Heritage and had to be restored as part of the new project. In consultation with Ghent city council’s Department of Monuments & Architecture, the dimensions and the visual appearance of the wing of the existing building along Wispelbergstraat were retained. On the basis of these preconditions, the new programme was integrated into the dense site of the Athenaeum Wispelberg.
In this way, the various users of the building are guided to their different destinations from the building at the centre of the site. The staircase in the entrance hall leads to the gymnasium via the bridge. At level +1 the corridor along the façade connects the changing rooms to the gymnasium and the multipurpose classroom. The level of the floors in the corridor and the multipurpose classroom connect up with the underside of the window openings in the historical façade, so that these spaces give the school’s activities a presence in the street scene. The size of the gymnasium is in accordance with official competition standards to enable it to be used regularly after school. A ‘distance’ is kept between the volume of the gymnasium and the retained wing of the school.
This void enables visual relationships between the various components of the programme and allows natural light deep into the multipurpose spaces under the gymnasium. In the basement there are a few additional rooms for technical utilities and archives. The gymnasium and multipurpose rooms can be used separately and simultaneously. To make the maximum use of the school infrastructure possible outside normal school hours, several entrances have been provided from the entrance hall.