Q&A: Giving heritage sites a new lease of life


A new international Master’s at the University of Hasselt teaches students how to turn heritage sites into functional buildings

Like translating poetry

Koenraad Van Cleempoel is a professor of architecture at the University of Hasselt. He is in charge of a new international Master’s in adaptive reuse of architectural heritage, or providing new functions for old sites like churches and mine buildings.

How do you go about giving a building a new direction?
In Flanders, a lot of our heritage sites are frozen in time, but a building is not like a painting. It’s something that needs to have life in it. One of the things we want to instil in people is empathy, not just technical skills. On a conceptual level, you have to have a certain empathy because you’re adding a layer to a building, entering into a dialogue with it. You can’t give any building to just any architect. Adapting historical buildings with heritage value has been compared to translating poetry, because it’s such a delicate skill. 

How will you approach the topic?
It’s about taking our industrial or cultural heritage and making it fit the lives that people lead now. Societal values have become more important than heritage or religious ones, and you have to find a new balance between them, so one thing we’ll be doing is looking at philosophical texts. User value is a legitimate way to question vacant heritage buildings that may be beautiful and excellently preserved but are lying empty. Can you continue to invest millions in renovating sites if you don’t use them? We have to look at how these buildings can be part of an economic reality.

Can you give an example of good adaptive reuse?
The prison in Hasselt (pictured) that was converted to house the university’s law faculty is a wonderful example and shows that a building’s best function is not necessarily its original one. On the poster for the course we have a photo of a church in Madrid, which is now a library. It was destroyed in the Spanish civil war and was a ruin for many years. It’s located in a difficult neighbourhood, but its refurbishment has changed the whole atmosphere. It’s a great example of how changing the meaning of a building can have an impact on a wider social context. 

Photo: The city's old prison was converted to house University of Hasselt’s law faculty
© UHasselt

Hasselt University

Established in the 1970s, Hasselt University (UHasselt) is one of Flanders’ youngest universities. With six faculties, seven research institutes and two campuses, it’s become an established education and research centre.
PhD - UHasselt awarded Flanders’ first-ever doctorate in architecture in 2011.
Partners - The university works with Maastricht University in the Netherlands on many research projects and degree programmes.
Jail time - The centrepiece of the university’s city campus is the renovated 19th-century prison that houses the law programme.
1 973

university was founded

5 000



million euro budget for new city campus