041 City Campus Hasselt University

Restoration and extension of the former prison, plus a new building for a Faculty of Law and the Rector’s Office.

Procedure Open Call 1521
Client Hasselt University
Surface 14.500 m2
Phase completed
Date 2008 – 2015

After the name of the institution changed to Hasselt University, there was also a desire to acquire a more pronounced physical presence in the city centre. When a Faculty of Law was established, this desire took concrete form. The search for a suitable location led to the former prison. Slight panic ensued. Can a small-scale, open university really move into a building conceived as an instrument of power?
This urban campus consists of three buildings. The former prison is the public focal point, and also takes on the role of urban reception area for lectures and symposia. The Faculty of Law stands on the land behind it and the Rector’s Office is sited next door along the city’s ring-road.
The prison dates from 1859. Although it looks like a star-shaped panopticon, it isn’t. From the monumental central hall you see the end walls of the cells, built back to back with the corridors running along the outside. The hall did not originally contain a central control post, but a pulpit. It was intended that a combination of religion and individual isolation would lead the prisoners to see the error of their ways.
If you look long enough, it is precisely those characteristics that initially arouse aversion that turn out to offer added value. The prison wall forms the strength of the place, being a universally-known landmark in the city and a bearer of much meaning. Leaving the wall as it was generated new connotations. The privilege of spending time inside the wall replaces the image of imprisonment. The presence of so many lateral corridors made it possible to fit two auditoria and a cafeteria into the outdoor areas between the wings. Its labyrinthine nature offered unexpected potential for the creation of a separate world inside the prison wall. The building thus becomes a small town, with several entrances and exits, squares, streets, courtyards and unexpected roof gardens for which the prison wall acts as no more than a parapet.
The faculty building with its classrooms and lecturers’ rooms nestles into a piece of land at the back. Scale is important here, and the upward-sloping fan shape eases the confrontation between the large volume and the terraced houses on the other side of the cycle path. Here the building has its own spacious entrance with a distinctive concrete canopy. The passageway to the prison building is subterranean and spatially interwoven with an outdoor auditorium, which makes for an unexpectedly complex and light space.
The third building has a more representative role. It is a corner-piece on the city’s ring-road, tall and compact. The façade consists of several layers of green glass, with dark green zones created where they overlap. So what we have here is Rector’s office versus former prison, green versus red, transparent versus closed.