Cultural venues plan renovations, expansions following crisis


Thanks in part to the Flemish government’s emergency funding, concert halls and theatres are pushing ahead with much-needed renovation projects, with Hasselt planning a whole new cinema and theatre complex

Looking to the future

It might not be a good time for theatres and concert halls at the moment, but many of them are planning for the future. Three well-known venues in Flanders have announced major renovations and extensions during the last week.

The nearly 200-year-old Bourlaschouwburg in Antwerp, home to Toneelhuis and possibly the most iconic theatre in the region, is making preparations for a €67 million overhaul. The neoclassical building must undergo changes required for the functioning of a contemporary theatre company while maintaining its historical aspects.

The Bourlaschouwburg is a protected monument, and it still operates with the original wooden stage machinery – one of the last theatres in Europe to do so. Renovations will include incorporating new technologies and steel reinforcements while leaving the original machinery intact so it can continue to be used.

It’s the perfect compromise between preserving the authentic stage machinery and the needs of the world-renowned Toneelhuis

- City councillor Nabilla Ait Daoud

“A few years ago, the Bourlaschouwburg was on the list of the seven most threatened heritage sites in Europe,” said Nabilla Ait Daoud (N-VA), city councillor for culture. “Today, we are preparing this theatre for the 21st century. We are creating the perfect compromise between preserving the authentic stage machinery and the needs and ambitions of the artistically idiosyncratic and world-renowned company that Toneelhuis is.”

Improvements to Bourlaschouwburg also include alterations to the stage, which now sits at a 4.5% slope from back to front. In the future, the stage will be able to be adjusted to maintain the current slope or to use flat. The 940 seats in the theatre will also be rearranged for more optimal viewing, and more seats will be added.

Other renovations include re-opening the side doors to the public, refurbishing the salons on the second story to be rented out for events and connecting the Bourlaschouwburg to the Toneelhuis offices via an underground passageway.

The last time the landmark round building underwent works was in 1993, when a restoration was required to keep it stable. For this renovation, the government of Flanders is financing 60% of the €67 million total cost, and the city of Antwerp will cover the other 40%. The renovations are expected to last six years.

Ostend’s Kursaal will become the biggest performance venue in West and East Flanders

In Ostend, meanwhile, the Kursaal plans a renovation and expansion that will allow it to host 1,000 more people. The current concert hall will be altered from the current 2,000 stationary seats to the ability to host 3,150 standing. The seating will become mobile for maximum flexibility, allowing a new multi-purpose space that could also host parties, for instance, or banquets.

The change will make Kursaal the largest performance hall west of Brussels and Antwerp. “We’ll be able to attract new artists,” said Björn Anseeuw (N-VA), city councillor of urban renewal projects. “Residents of Ostend and the surrounding area will not have to sit in traffic on their way to other city centres to attend concerts by their favourite artists.”

The city is helping to finance the €15 million Kursaal project, which it hopes to see begin next year. How long the alterations will take has not yet been determined.

Finally, the city of Hasselt has announced that a new city theatre and cinema will be built in part of the old monastery on Hemelrijk. It will be the first time in 25 years that residents of the capital of Limburg will be able to go to the movies in the city centre.

Hasselt’s new city theatre and cinema will be created from a mix of both new and existing infrastructure

Culture will be front and centre in our city in the coming years and will connect all Hasselaren,” said mayor Steven Vandeput (N-VA). “Next to that, it will be another reason for visitors to come to Hasselt.” The timing of the development project is not yet clear, but the city hopes to be ready to begin works in 2023.

The project will see new construction as well as incorporating parts of the structure that are protected heritage. As the city already has a Kinepolis on the outskirts of town, the new cinema will be more art-house oriented, the mayor said.

Hasselt’s project is one of several that can go ahead thanks to a €160 million financial injection from the government of Flanders. The money is meant to help the cultural sector rebuild following the coronavirus crisis.

Other projects in the works that will be partially financed by the new funds are a new museum site for Bruges, renovations to the Schouwburg in Kortrijk, new offices for the Flemish Architecture Institute and new rehearsal studios for the Bijloke site in Ghent.

Photos, from top: ©Lynn Van Oijstaeijen/Toneelhuis, courtesy VRT, courtesy Kursaal