Francesca Torzo’s new wing for Z33: the art centre as an analogous city

by Pieter T'Jonck

In less than a year, the new wing of the Z33 art centre in Hasselt, Belgium will be ready. This project by the Italian architect Francesca Torzo proposes a museum space that highlights a few fundamental ideas about the nature and the position of architecture itself. In this essay architecture critic Pieter T'Jonck runs through the particularities of the project.

In less than a year, the new wing of the Z33 art centre in Hasselt, Belgium, will be ready. Architect Francesca Torzo has designed a museum space that highlights a few fundamental ideas about the nature and the position of architecture itself. Her approach may be challenging for curators who are used to working with neutral spaces, but they get a lot in return — as do the inhabitants of the city.

In 1958, an exhibition hall was built on adjacent to the garden of the former beguinage in Hasselt. During the last 15 years, the exhibition hall as well as the former beguinage houses have been occupied by Z33, which organises exhibitions of contemporary art and design. In this short period, Z33 has come to be internationally recognised for its thematic exhibitions, which often showcase young artists and designers on the verge of a breakthrough.

Despite its success, the organisation has had to cope constantly with considerable practical difficulties. Wing 58, as the more recent building was called, was an excellent venue for showing modernist paintings or sculptures, and also boasted a cosy auditorium with a great fifties look. But there was hardly any storage or production space, and the galleries were not always fit for more contemporary work such as large-scale installations, video, or site-specific works that Z33 often presents. The old beguinage houses were even more of a problem when it came to their current use as exhibition spaces and offices. And the lack of a separate entrance area for  Wing 58 means that it does not meet the standards of a modern institute when it comes to welcoming visitors.

Entrance gate beguinage, copyright Z33/Province of Limburg

Entrance gate beguinage, copyright Z33/Province of Limburg

Moreover, the location presents with another difficulty: the exhibition spaces both in the Wing 58 and the beguinage houses were not accessed from the street, but on the garden side of the buildings, through the imposing 18th-century porch building, which severs the connection between the exhibition spaces and the city. But every cloud has its silver lining: As a common ground between the beguinage houses and the ’58 wing, the garden often served extraordinary purposes. Also, as a public space, the garden offers an alternative for a city centre almost uniquely devoted to commerce.

By 2010, it became evident that Z33 badly needed a space that would be better suited for its needs. The location did not offer any easy solutions, as the entire beguinage — at least the exterior of the buildings — and the remnants of an old church in the garden had to be preserved. It was never the intention to replace Wing 58 with a completely new building, because (despite the practical difficulties) of its inherent qualities as exhibition space, with spacious rooms where daylight flows. In 2010, however an opportunity presented itself when a school building next to the existing wing was abandoned. The province of Limburg, which was still in charge of Z33 at the time, was able to buy it. Plans were made to extend the institution on this plot, after which Z33 would abandon the beguinage houses.

Frederic Geurts (Un)Balanced; Installation View in Wing 58; copyright Z33

Frederic Geurts (Un)Balanced; Installation View in Wing 58; copyright Z33

For some time it was an open question as to how the new accommodation would relate to the old beguinage and its garden. For a moment, the province, which owns them, considered selling the older properties to a private partner, in which case the new art centre would be completely cut off from its original context. After substantial public protest against the privatisation of the garden, the province reconsidered, and a new design for the garden as a public space is currently in the making.

Meanwhile, the design for the extension of Wing 58 had to reinvent the relationship between the building and the street as well as the garden. But the greater challenge would be to complement the outspoken formal language of Wing 58 as well as the surrounding medieval city shape. This would entail a serious rethinking of what a contemporary exhibition space has to do or look like. One answer could be to radically neglect such questions: Some of the participants to the open call, such as XDGA, proposed a new wing that would function as a hyper-flexible, hyper-visible exhibition machine rather than an actual building. Another answer could be to steer around the question, as Yunia Ishigami did in his proposal for a building that merged almost completely with the garden.

In the end, Z33 chose to move forward with a proposal by the Italian architect Francesca Torzo, whose concept cannot be understood apart from the surrounding city texture. In a way, this relationship is even essential. Naturally, the sheer size of the building — roughly 50 by 25 by 12 m — has a strong impact on the neighbourhood. But the design makes some specific choices that are more telling. The most conspicuous one is the façade on Bonnefantenstraat, the future main access point to the building, which is almost completely closed, except for a single small slit that is cut out of a huge, uninterrupted wall.

Francesca Torzo, Façade, photo by Gion Balthasar von Albertini

Francesca Torzo, Façade, photo by Gion Balthasar von Albertini

That is not just a whimsical idea but a gesture that reinforces the character of the block. The street is almost completely lined with closed walls. Torzo follows suit, using bricks as a building material. But unlike, for example, the recent museum of Christ and Gantenbein in Basel, this brick wall is ‘real’: it does not simulate a wall by means of  a surface treatment. It even does not show any expansion joints. That is a real statement, and Torzo has gone to great lengths to make it. The only difference with the other walls on the block is that the bricks have the unusual shape of lozenges and have a deep purple-red hue, which gives the wall a more tactile and intimate feel.

Torzo also made the building fit very precisely in its context. Like a piece of a jigsaw puzzle, it slots in between Wing 58, the beguinage houses, and the gin museum on the other side of the former school. The new blind façade, connects the existing façades, yielding a triangular piece of its plot to the public domain. This marks a real facelift for a formerly rather dark and narrow street. It becomes a small public space in its own right, highlighted by the impressive backdrop of the subtly decorated new museum wall. Paradoxically, by retracting it, the wall also becomes more visible for visitors coming from the zuivelmarkt (‘dairy market’) nearby.

But even then, the building is relatively invisible, at least when one thinks of visibility as the effect of a design that dominates its surroundings and makes them spectacular. Seen from the outside, this building is completely unspectacular, breaking away from the expected and predictable trends of museum architecture. It is not ostentatious, idiosyncratic, or incomprehensible in its constructive logic, as is the case for recent buildings such as the concert hall Harmonie de Paris by Jean Nouvel or the museum building CaixaForum of Herzog and De Meuron in Madrid.

That is also true on the garden side of the building. This façade is quite closed as well. It recedes behind the adjoining walls of the Wing 58 and the gin museum. In doing so, the new wing creates a small rear garden that joins the larger beguinage garden while forming yet another space in its own right. That space is complemented with a new terrace at the end of the transversal wing of the ’58 building. It offers an outlook post on the beguinage garden from within the building.

The building’s conspicuous lack of spectacular features might make one wonder where the architecture is. However, if one understands architecture as an obstacle, or as a gesture that brings differences into the world in a compelling way, then this building is an extreme example of architecture. When passing through the opening from the street, for instance, one is immediately immersed in a dazzling spatial complexity.

The entrance area is a complex of thresholds and transitions in the open air, which directs the visitor’s gaze and experience in a very intentional way. For example, after turning twice, he or she walks in the direction of the exhibition spaces. It is a walk along a gently sloping, and almost imperceptibly widening corridor of extreme height. It does not take long before you understand that you are walking in a ‘street’ parallel to the one just outside, as if in a parallel universe. It is a strange, pleasing kinesthetic experience.

There is more to come. All through the building, Torzo’s ‘routing’ offers this astonishing variety of spatial experiences. They are due to striking differences in width, height, length of rooms, but also to the way they open to each other (totally blind spaces alternate with spaces that offer stunningly long  sightlines). Underlying the variation in spaces, the building feels like a parallel universe, as views to the outside are rare. You only see the garden again in the last exhibition space, on the top floor.

Francesca Torzo, Entrance area, photo by Gion Balthasar von Albertini

Francesca Torzo, Entrance area, photo by Gion Balthasar von Albertini

The experience the building offers is not only visual in nature: more often than not it offers very strong tactile and kinesthetic sensations as well. It is a complexity that is purely architectural and not contaminated by references, excessive technology, etc. Even the technical bravura is invisible, hidden in the walls. This is all about an extremely sensuous moulding of spaces and materials. However, through its many transitions, scale breaks, differences in incidence of light, etc. the building also feels like a city in miniature, a kind of kasbah — or, obviously perhaps, an analogy to the space of the beguinage itself, with its interlocking sequences of ever-smaller spaces. In this way too, as we pointed out before, one cannot fully understand this building without its context.

Due to the specificity of its spaces, connections and materials, this project challenges future curators. It is diametrically opposed to most of the recent museum buildings which offer spectacle on the outside, but have neutral white boxes when it comes to the actual exhibition spaces. In this art centre, on the other hand, the exhibition spaces are extremely compelling in physical and spatial terms. Curators and artists will have to consider the character of each room, not only on its own but also as part of a route with a specific tension and outcome. The stakes are even higher because the original Wing 58 already had quite outspoken and compelling features. Curators will have to find ways to make the old and the new building ‘talk to each other’ beyond the connections that Torzo has built into the program. But that really is the fundamental proposal of this project: to provide a real architecture to show art instead of oppressing the art with a building that is a hyper decorated shed on the outside and a bland void on the inside.


Pieter T’Jonck
Pieter T’Jonck (°1960) is an architect and art critic in the field of live art, architecture and visual arts. Since 1980 he has written texts for various media and books. He has been teaching architecture at the University of Ghent and the academies of Antwerp and Ghent, and was also involved with DasArts, Amsterdam as an advisor. He has run workshops on criticism all over Europe. In 2012, he curated the exhibition ‘Superbodies’ in Hasselt. Between 2015 and 2017, he was editor in chief of the architectural review A+; Besides that he runs the architectural firm T’Jonck-Nilis BVBA. He lives in Leuven.