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library within baroque walls

public library in the Predikherenklooster in Mechelen

The baroque Predikherenklooster, or Dominican Monastery, is a more than impressive building. In 2011, after several failed attempts to repurpose the ruins of the monastery, the city decided to restore the historic landmark building and turn it into a public library, which will open in the autumn of 2018.

Before the restoration work began, the monastery and adjacent church were a harsh, monolithic block; for many years the expressive texture of the derelict façades told passers-by an enigmatic story of its tormented history.

The baroque monastery was built starting in 1650 and was deconsecrated at the end of the 18th century. In the 19th and 20th centuries it was mainly used for military purposes and has been abandoned since 1975. Together with the neighbouring buildings, the new Holocaust Museum, the Kaserne Dossin and the new Tinelpark, the Predikherenklooster is part of an ambitious development on the edge of the city center: the Tinelsite.

We developed our design for the library in the Predikherenklooster with the utmost respect for the particular characteristics of the existing edifice. The programming, the spatial design, our concept for the restoration as well as the design of the technical installations, and all structural interventions are intended to preserve and reinforce these characteristics.

location: Predikherenklooster, Goswin de Stassartstraat, Mechelen (BE)
design: 2011-2012
realisation: since 2015 THV Korteknie Stuhlmacher Architecten | Bureau Bouwtechniek | Callebaut Architecten
competition: 1st prize, Open Call Flanders 2213, competition in collaboration with Hildundk, Munich
restoration architects: Callebaut Architecten
technical advisor: Bureau Bouwtechniek
client: City of Mechelen
structural engineer: ABT Antwrepen
advisor - technical installations: RCR Herent
contractor: Renotec (roof and façades), Monument (interior)
photography: Luuk Kramer
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inner and outer ring

The building has a clear structure consisting of an outer ring consisting of broad multifunctional rooms, an inner ring (the cloister), the courtyard, the attic and the church. Over the years the structure has been entirely preserved and can be experienced everywhere in the building. For our programmatic setup, this architectural structure and the existing character of the spaces were the leading principle.

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The brief divides the new library into three zones: the "nabij/near" zone for multipurpose use; the "diep/deep" zone for people seeking a quiet environment for reading and study; and the "midden/centre" zone, the general library for adults and children.

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restoration concept

We consider the building’s imperfections, resulting from various modifications over several centuries and from neglect in recent decades, to be its great strength. Our restoration strives to preserve the traces of its long and tumultuous history. We avoided reconstructing its original state: later renovations, additions and traces of decay remain visible both outside and in. In our view, the building’s distinct features and and its scars and patina are an integral part of it, and are as attractive as they are disturbing.

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situation 2013/2018
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the "near / nabij" zone as the mediator between city and library

The rooms on the ground floor constitute the ‘near’ zone, including the entrance hall, the café (and newspaper reading room) and the cyber zone. The courtyard serves as a terrace and a multipurpose 'outdoor room'. With its various entrances, openings and public functions’, the ground floor opens the building to the city.

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the church as ‘agora’

The church remains empty and will serve as the 'agora'. Using minimal means we will make the space suitable for a variety of uses, such as markets, exhibitions and performances.

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the "deep" zone on the first floor

The premises of the former monastic library are located on the first floor in the inner ring. These rooms, with their beautiful vaulted ceilings, their dignified proportions and their soft light, are ideally suited for use as a classic study library. The spaces around it in the outer ring serve as office spaces and classrooms that are both multifunctional and interchangeable.

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the "centre" zone in the attic

In contrast to the other rooms of the monastery, the impressive attic is free of religious meaning and history. With its monumental wooden structure, the attic is a room full of stories and associations, and in our view the ideal place for a general library for children and adults. For additional natural light and better views of the city, we added several dormer windows and skylights.

To preserve the character of the attic as an open, very high space, the main collection is concentrated in a two-level 'bookcase' with gallery and special reading areas ("studioli") in the area of the inner ring. The rest of the attic is furnished with low shelves, tables and benches.

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In the new library the impressive timber structure of both the attic and the first floor, with all its original beams and planks, remains visible. To ensure the safety of the space we reinforced the existing structure from above with an additional steel structure that is largely invisible after completion of the work, concealed in the floor as well as the new roof. It supports the renewed slate roof, relieving load stress in the original timber structure. The space between the existing boards and the new slate roof is filled with insulation material. The attic space thus provides the comfort of a contemporary, well-conditioned room while retaining its original character.

a library for the future

In recent years the character and significance of public libraries have been rapidly evolving. We are aware that the role of printed media, books and other sources of information will be different in the future. However, we believe that libraries, as public living rooms and collective working environments, can continue to play a vital role in the public life of our cities.

The building owes its charm to the timeless power of the former monastery. Due to its impressive interior the new library has the potential to become an important social venue in Mechelen and a lasting attraction. In the years to come the Predikherenkloooster will become, as the mayor put it, "a literary wellness centre".

We think that many of the spatial and functional qualities of these spaces do not necessarily depend on the presence of physical books — the powerful interior can easily be adapted to future needs. We made an exception only for the former monastic library on the first floor, where we would like the interior lined with books to remain: after two centuries without books, this space is finally set to become the heart of a library once more.

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