In 1878, engineer-architect Joris Helleputte designed a representation house in the Lange Leemstraat in Antwerp for mining engineer André Dumont, the discoverer of the Kempen coal basin. Today, the building still radiates its neo-Gothic vision: the same Catholic and corporatist identity as the glorious Flemish medieval cities. Dumont did not live there long.
Renovated and dilapidated, the building ended up in the hands of Literature Flanders and Everyone Reads. Through a competition they looked for an architect to turn Hotel Dumont into ‘a challenging and innovative work and meeting place’. Together with the restoration specialists Callebaut Architecten, Zoom Architecten charmed with an innovative renovation plan and an emblematic new building.
By demolishing all the extensions at the back, they not only freed up the old building, but also a fordable garden. In the old building on the street side, every historic room receives beautiful daylight again. The new elevator, the kitchen on the landing and the various workplaces were designed as monumental furniture in dark wood.
Inspired by the Renaissance studiolo, each office has a piece of furniture on a raised step that integrates a work table and bookcase. The raised step solves a lot of technical problems, but visually the furniture gives the impression that you can remove it in an instant. A bit like a carpet. It is a play of (apparent) temporality in a context of eternal heritage.
Atmosphere of a youth room
The new glass pavilion is less convincing. This has been set up in the garden, which has been cleared between the Hotel and the rear building in Van Noortstraat. The architects planted a glass cylinder in this semi-public space. That in itself is smart, because in that circle the garden flows endlessly, as it were. And inside, behind the glass walls, you also feel like you are in the garden.
The concept of organizing a pavilion in and around a gigantic bookcase sounds promising. But on closer inspection, the dream and reality of a transparent roundabout and a library cabinet also appear to be hampered by laws and practical objections. The glass facade ignores the cardinal points and the light sensitivity of books. When there is full sun, the blinds on the south side are automatically lowered. Away with transparency. Instead of the roof edge that literally and figuratively brings down the glass pavilion like an oversized cap, an awning would have solved a lot. The bookcase is also missing, because it was built in concrete blocks, like the rooms in the core of the pavilion. This creates the atmosphere of a youth room rather than a warm, intimate library.
You have to be adept at organizing practical and flowing spaces in a round pavilionas architectural firm Sanaadat did at the Kanazawa Museum of Contemporary Art in Japan. The garden pavilion unfortunately lacks the subtlety and precision with which Hotel Dumont was renovated.
While the pavilion diligently tries to create innovative architecture from wood, steel, glass and concrete, the renovation of Hotel Dumont gratefully and cheerfully surfs on the illustrious past and historical heritage. Is it that historical reflex, that comfortable bending of history, that connects us with the neo-Gothic architecture of Hotel Dumont? An architecture that contributed to the 19th century identity formation in Belgium? Perhaps Dumont 2.0 holds up an identity mirror to us that it is easier to fool around with heritage than to come up with fearless innovative architecture.