In Flanders, Dutch architects can still build beautiful schools. Why is it so much harder here?

Cadix School Campus in Antwerp.

At the Nieuwe Dokken in Ghent, the former harbor area that is being redeveloped into a new part of the city, stands a building like a huge ‘monkey cage’. Children climb stairs and ramps, rush down slides, run across the sports and roof terraces and tinker with their hands in the kitchen garden, from where plants climb up the steel facade construction.

This is the multifunctional building Melopee, an eye-catcher in the new district. A young lawyer walking from his office towards Dampoort station is surprised: ‘Is that a school? Beautiful, says!’

Melopee, named after a poem by Paul van Ostaijen, does not resemble the traditional ‘monastery schools’ as they are known in Flanders, with classrooms arranged along a corridor around a courtyard. In this building, inside is outside and vice versa, classrooms are transformed into learning spaces with the help of sliding walls and instead of linoleum floors, sand, concrete and brightly colored outdoor carpets are used.

Melopee got a place of honor on the cover of this year Architecture Book Flanders, the biennial overview of the best buildings published by the Flemish Institute of Architecture. It is striking that the book contains many teaching buildings, three of which have a Dutch character. Melopee is part of the urban development plan that OMA, the office of architect Rem Koolhaas, made in 2004 for the Ghent dock; the school itself is designed by Belgian architect Xaveer de Geyter, who once started his career at OMA. The Spoorwegschool in Sint-Jans-Molenbeek and the Scholencampus Cadix in Antwerp, a secondary arts and engineering education located in a renovated and expanded monument, were designed by Rotterdam offices Kempe Thill and Korteknie Stuhlmacher respectively. The last project was presented by the Dutch trade magazine The architect awarded the Arc Architecture Award 2022.

Melopee school in Ghent.  Statue

Melopee school in Ghent.

It shows how school building in Flanders – thanks in part to Dutch designers – is booming, while concerns about educational stays are growing here. At the end of 2022, the PO council, the trade association for primary schools, sounded the alarm; almost half of the school buildings, more than 4,600 elementary schools and high schools, need renovation or new construction. They suffer from a poor indoor climate, which has a negative effect on health and learning performance, as recent research from the University of Maastricht shows. Due to rising energy bills, poorly insulated schools are forced to cut back on teaching materials and staff.

What can be done with the southern neighbors is apparently much more difficult in the Netherlands. Why is that, and can we learn something from Flemish ‘school examples’?

Public matter

The fact that the Melopee was the first public building of the Nieuwe Dokken to be built on an A site on the water speaks volumes for the important place that schools occupy in Flanders. Mechthild Stuhlmacher, partner architect at Korteknie Stuhlmacher Architecten, which builds schools in both the Netherlands and Flanders, sees a clear difference with the Netherlands in this. »School buildings such as Melopee and Cadix in Antwerp are considered by the city and the clients as projects of cultural importance, while school projects in the Netherlands are mainly considered a technical task. There is less emphasis on high quality architecture.’

This is reflected in the way the projects are organized. For Campus Cadix – part of the Schools of Tomorrow program launched by the Flemish government in 2006 to renovate 182 schools – a competition was held with the Vlaams Bouwmeester on the jury. As usual in Flanders, the architect received a ‘100 percent task’, from sketch design to execution and furniture design. Because a great responsibility rests with the designer, the quality of the projects is closely monitored during the design and construction process; for example, Stuhlmacher had to regularly submit his plans to the city architect of Antwerp.

Cadix School Campus in Antwerp.  Sculpture by Karin Borghouts

Cadix School Campus in Antwerp.Sculpture by Karin Borghouts

In the Netherlands, architects usually make only a preliminary design; then they are only indirectly involved in the project, which according to Stuhlmacher ‘makes a huge difference in the quality of the implementation’. Concretely, this means that the architecture is often cut down in the last phase.

But the main difference with the Netherlands is that Flemish public ‘builders’, such as municipalities and school boards, organize the commissioning themselves, assisted by city architects and experts from Autonoom Gemeentebedrijf Urban Education. An approach that stands in stark contrast to the school projects in the Netherlands, which are almost always outsourced to consulting firms. Stuhlmacher: ‘These agencies focus not so much on public affairs as on budget management, planning and technical solutions.’ In the best case, the school will get a nice facade and an auditorium with tribune stairs, while the classrooms – where the children spend most of their time – will be finished with standard suspended ceilings.

Open call

Stuhlmacher proved that things can be done differently – better – with projects like the extension of the Toermalijn elementary school in Rotterdam, developed as an alternative to the emergency containers that the school wanted to place on the square. She designed spacious, light classrooms that can be connected via sliding doors that open onto the terrace under the overhanging wooden roof.

The agency would like to use its expertise more often in the Netherlands, but ‘we are not intervening’, says Stuhlmacher. This is because the consulting firms that organize school assignments set strict reference requirements for architectural firms in order to limit risks. In practice, this means that only architects who have already built a certain kind of school can build such a school again. ‘We recently signed up to a secondary school in the south of Rotterdam, where we had to present a project larger than 8,000 square metres. The Cadix school campus covers 24,000 square meters, but because it is an intermediate course and not a higher vocational course, it was not a reference and we were excluded.’

Cadix School Campus in Antwerp.  Sculpture by Karin Borghouts

Cadix School Campus in Antwerp.Sculpture by Karin Borghouts

In Flanders, Korteknie Stuhlmacher works on a whole series of school projects, which the office acquired through the Open Call from the Vlaams Bouwmeester, which shapes the architecture policy in Flanders. In this competition system, developed for public builders, the quality of the plan is paramount. The fee is fixed in advance and there are no reference or turnover requirements for architects; which are selected based on their portfolio, which also means unusual suspects give a chance.

Interesting detail: Vlaams Bouwmeester as organizer of public competitions was introduced in 1999 following the Dutch example. Flanders had seen that good architecture policy can produce high-profile projects and offer opportunities for design talent; under the name Superdutch, the Netherlands grew into the Mecca of modern architecture in the 1990s. But while Flanders launched ambitious competitions and architects via Open Call, the Netherlands switched to more pragmatic tenders, where the architect with the lowest bid is awarded the contract. And while the southern neighbors once looked up to the Netherlands, the roles have now been reversed and Flanders is seen as a leading country.

Stack functions

Poor ventilation, delayed maintenance, premises not in line with contemporary education; The Flemish schools are also aware of the problems that play a role in the Netherlands. The fact that this rarely gives rise to special architecture in the Netherlands, while innovative schools arise in Flanders, also has to do with our Calvinist nature. It is often believed that an architecturally worthy design is expensive and causes delays; insulation, installation of CO2 meters and paint cost enough.

In Flanders, the reasoning is reversed: a school that has a lot to do with a limited school building budget benefits from the use of a well-thought-out design. Melopee supports this reasoning. The task consisted of a seemingly impossible sum of requirements and wishes: A primary school, a daycare center, after-school and a sports hall – also for use by the neighborhood – had to be built on a narrow plot of land, per where there was a footpath. In the limitation the master shows himself; The architectural firm Xaveer de Geyter came up with the idea to stack the functions, linked to a series of outdoor (play) areas that act as an escape route. “It is thanks to the lack of space that we were able to create this design,” explains De Geyter. ‘A client with sufficient land would never do this. Or invented it, he subtly adds.

Melopee school in Ghent.  Sculpture Maxime Delvaux

Melopee school in Ghent.Sculpture Maxime Delvaux

As unique as the building is, the architect believes that the model can also be used for other educational buildings. ‘Many schools in the Netherlands and Belgium are struggling with a lack of space, while there is no space to expand in inner city areas, or the land is too expensive. Stacking is then a solution.’

Use the existing one

Stuhlmacher’s tip for schools in need of renovation: Look not only at what’s wrong with the building, but especially at what’s of value and build on that. ‘Our trump card was this existing building’, she says in the attic of Campus Cadix, which has been converted into a studio, with a view of the hundred-year-old timber structure, several meters high. “You can never achieve such a generous height within the standards for new construction, and this also applies to cladding glazed tiles,” she points out in the hallway. ‘Fortunately, the existing school and the industrial halls at the back are listed monuments, and the preservation of monuments required the renovated and extended complex to form a whole. We have adopted it as a mantra to restore timber truss constructions, colors and ornaments and also enforce them in new construction.’

The architect shows the beautiful wooden tables on which jewelers-in-training learn to forge and a new dormer window that offers a magnificent view of the city. With her hand, she runs along the brick facades, executed in beautiful masonry connections. She is convinced that the users ‘at least unconsciously’ notice the spatial effect and the attention that radiates from the facades, the concrete floors and the custom-made furniture.

Save the schools

‘We need good school buildings for good education’, begins the manifesto that the PO Council and 23 education and building organizations presented to the Cabinet in November 2022: a call to structurally release at least €730 million (extra) annually to tackle outdated and poor school buildings. During the parliamentary debate on this, it was recognized that something must be done, but no money was promised.

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