Contradicting existing inner-city block structures with a new building usually requires a good reason. With the Utopia library and academy building in the Flemish city of Aalst, this strategy makes sense upon consideration of the newly created free space surrounding the structure. Three triangular forecourts, intimate yet appropriate to the public function of the building, separate the complex from the surrounding, primarily two-storey apartment houses.
Utopia is a conglomerate of uses that combines Aalst’s municipal library and an academy of performing arts in a single, closely interlocked spatial program. It is also a conglomerate of buildings that connects parts of a 19th-century cadet school with a cubic, three-storey new structure. The institution takes its name – and its official address- Utopia 1 from the genre-spawning novel by Thomas More, which was first published by Aalst’s Dirk Martens in the 16th century.
While the old building accommodates seminar rooms and administration offices, the three-storey reading room of the library, which is lined with ceiling-high bookcases, forms the heart of the compact new structure. The reinforced-concrete supports are integrated into the shelves, so the ceilings appear to lie atop the built-in fittings. An auditorium and several large rehearsal rooms belonging to the academy are grouped around the reading room.
In contrast to the classic, regular perforated façade of the old school, the windows in these spaces take up the entire height and width of the space. Soundproofing in the building played an important role in the planning: most of the spaces have double floors. The doors and double-glazed windows function as sound barriers.
As radical as the new building’s design may be in terms of setting it apart from its older neighbour, it is quite subtle in differences of materials: both buildings have brick façades. However, for the new building, the architects decided in favour of a rather flat brick measuring 50 x 10 x 4 cm, which is also a bit darker than the bricks of the old building.
Apparently there were enough bricks on hand for the new building, for a row of older structures had to make way for it. Instead of simply discarding the rubble, around 230,000 bricks from the demolished buildings were cleaned and then reused at other construction sites. This recycling strategy was one of the reasons that Utopia was awarded the BREEAM Excellent green building label. Other aspects of the sustainability plan are a concept to use rainwater, photovoltaic modules on the roof, the use of geothermal energy for heating and LED-based lighting.