On the 20th October, over 125 intrigued visitors discovered the many features of the prestigious Vesalius Project in Leuven. The project comprises sixty student rooms, a range of 68 apartments, a university auditorium, two cinemas, a wide variety of office and shop facilities, and a spacious entrance hall with lobby. As a consequence, this inner-city project adds real value to the vibrant student city around it.
A large-scale comprehensive project with a mix of new constructions and restorations in the centre of an age-old, but still very much alive city such as Leuven is not exactly commonplace. Consequently, many people were interested in the long-awaited project visit that was hosted by developers Immobel and ION and building contractor Houben in cooperation with the magazine Bouwen aan Vlaanderen (Building Flanders). Over 125 visitors witnessed the launch of this state of the art development in dedicated presentations by Kristof Vanfleteren (ION), John Eyers (Jaspers-Eyers Architects) and Karel Luyckx (Houben). Alderman Carl Devlies for Spatial Planning also chipped in. Afterwards, everyone was invited to discover the Vesalius complex in a 45-minute tour that was concluded when drinks were served in the spacious lobby.
The Vesalius Project is located at the crossroads of Vesaliusstraat, Tiensestraat, and Brabanconnestraat – adjacent to the premises of Groep T, the internationally renowned university of applied sciences for engineers. It is also located within a stone’s throw of the educational facilities of KU Leuven, the historic city centre and the epicentre of Leuven’s bars, restaurants and hotels and provides a well-considered mix of residing, shopping and working. Moreover, below surface level it accommodates an impressive circular auditorium that seats no fewer than 750, two cinemas and a cinema bar. Cosy inner squares complete the design. All in all, Vesalius occupies no fewer than 30,000 m², split over six building blocks that are grouped around outdoor areas that are open to the public. “It took 18 months before the concept was finalized,” explained Kristof Vanfleteren. “In view of the scope and location of the site we had to cope with a range of preconditions and a very large number of stakeholders. It was definitely a complicated, but also a highly fascinating project.”
The project was realized to a design by Jaspers-Eyers Architects. The main challenge was to transform the closed, uninviting site into high-quality architecture that appeals rather than repels, said John Eyers: “Dynamics were the key characteristic. Groep T acted as a bench-mark from a yin-yang perspective. Perception of the adjacent T building is focussed on the bright atrium; contrary to that, a dark outdoor atrium is pivotal in the Vesalius complex. Dynamics were also created by the accessible character of the project and integration of public facilities (cinema, retail, hotels, restaurants, bars…). A third contribution was the facade cladding, which is not composed of monochrome brickwork, but of level, ceramic cladding in three sandy shades. The playful and airy facades and the high-quality inner area ensure that the premises appear not to have ‘rear sides’. Besides, the complex is very well integrated in Leuven’s inner city. The axes of the project are aligned with nearby historic buildings. Contrasts between the variegated Vesalius facade and the uniform character of adjacent structures allows surrounding premises to stand out better. Therefore, the site is not left to its own devices, but engages its environment in the project.”
Vesalius comprised both new constructions and restorations. Some 17th and 18th century facades along Tiensestraat had to be reinstated, in order to be integrated seamlessly in the development project. Along with some other features, this turned the project into a constructional feat. “Constructing detailed architecture with very strict tolerances, inserting twelve-metre deep sheet piling straight behind preserved historic facades, moving 60,000 m³ of earth in an extremely wet period, manoeuvring pre-cast I beams of 30-metre length in the narrow city centre of Leuven, creating various facades with specific dimensions, managing a crowded area with so much traffic, having little to no storage facilities on site, coping with a complicated stability issue …: we faced innumerable challenges,” said Karel Luyckx, Technical Director at Houben. “Moreover, the construction period was extremely short – construction only lasted 24 months in total. We have taken ‘just in time’ to the next level at this site. The combination of revolutionary architecture, a tight schedule and logistic challenges has undoubtedly turned Vesalius into one of our most complicated projects ever.”
Both the design and construction process were no plain sailing, but the final result is very rewarding indeed. An area that has been shun for many years will be a hot spot in future. “It is an immensely project,” confirmed Carl Devlies, Alderman for Spatial Planning, “Leuven is an absolute trendsetter in the field of urban planning. The Vesalius Project is a perfect match with this philosophy. The process of revitalizing the south-east part of the city is definitely on its way, and the gap in urban tissue between ‘Beneden Tiense’ and ‘Boven Tiense’ (lower and upper Tiense) has finally been repaired. Our city will benefit from it.”