A Common Problem

by Don Friedman on September 16, 2016

A good chunk of the conference was held in the second floor* of the University Hall of Catholic University of Leuven. As might be expected of a building that reached its current size in the early 18th century, the original egress is not very good: one big stair with an open well, with inadequate egress capacity, inadequate handrails, and no provision for the disabled. So a sliver of a new building was added to incorporate multiple egress stairs and an elevator:

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The addition is starkly modern, with exposed steel (possibly fireproofed with intumescent paint) and a glass facade. In the picture, you’re seeing the former exterior wall of the University Hall to the right.

This is a classic response to the architectural program of the addition. It exists solely to add modern vertical transportation to a very old landmark; the reasons for that transportation are cultural: the Belgians (and people in the rest of the EU, and the US, and any number of other countries) now believe it is necessary to provide upper-floor access to people who can’t readily climb stairs, and to provide adequate means to escape fire. The old building did not provide those two functions, and an addition that was architecturally indistinguishable from the original building would be grossly misleading about the building’s appearance, and also would be misleading about the history of the building’s use and function. The modern functions are housed in a modern addition, while the age-old functions in the adjacent spaces continue as before.

I’m not a huge fan of the steel-and-glass aesthetic, but it is absolutely appropriate here. It doesn’t draw the eye the way the beautiful old stone and woodwork do, and it makes clear what has happened with the alteration.


* The first floor, using the European system of numbering.

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