Mechelen opens new library in abandoned monastery


A complete restoration of a 17th-century monument has created Flanders’ most stunning library

City hot-spot

Mechelen’s city library has moved into a centuries-old monastery. After 40-years of standing empty, De Predikheren has been restored to its former glory and put to good use.

With the move, Mechelen wants to emphasise both its past, and its future. “We want this to be the living room for anyone from Mechelen,” says Roel Van den Bril, cultural co-ordinator at De Predikheren. “And the location is quickly becoming a cultural hotspot. It really is the place to be in Mechelen right now.”

The city library moved to the new location a few weeks ago, their new home being located right next to the Kazerne Dossin Holocaust museum and documentation centre. The restoration of De Predikheren had been long in the making, with the architectural competition launched in 2010. But now the new library is fully up and running, with visitors busily checking out books and passers-by frequenting the bar and restaurant.

Yet for all its new elements, this building breathes history. The 17th-century arches are clearly visible throughout, marked graves have been left in the floor, and 1664 is prominently inscribed on the ceiling – a reminder of the time it was populated by holy men.

It had become completely dilapidated, bats having made themselves at home in the rafters

De Predikheren was founded in 1654 by Dominican monks fleeing the protestant reformation in the Netherlands. In Dutch, Dominicans are also called Orde der Predikheren, hence the name given to the building.

These Predikheren built the monastery, continually adding new elements and an entire church over several centuries. When French troops conquered the Low Countries after the French Revolution, they kicked out the Dominicans and turned the building into a barracks, and later a military hospital.

The Belgian state continued using the building for that purpose until 1977, when the last troops moved out, and the Predikheren became derelict.

In 2010, Mechelen finally decided to do something with the historical structure. It had become completely dilapidated, bats having made themselves at home in the rafters.

The restoration yielded other interesting finds. “We found the graves of previous occupants,” says Van den Bril. “This includes monks, but also of French officers who were posted here.”

They even found the skeletons of cats inside the walls and roof, for reasons they haven’t yet been able to determine.

Rotterdam firm Korteknie Stuhlmacher won the architectural competition and restored the building, together with Callebaut Architecten in Drongen and Bureau Bouwtechniek, based in Antwerp. In their design, they emphasised the history of the building, maintaining historical elements and giving them a prominent place in the library.

This building has been many things in its history. Now we’re adding a new chapter to it

- De Predikheren cultural co-ordinator Roel Van den Bril

You can sip coffee a few metres away from centuries-old graves, but the library’s various rooms call to mind decidedly 20th-century figures. Names like Arendt, Mandela and Rushdie serve as a reminder that you’re across the street from Kazerne Dossin, a museum dedicated to human rights, and the location from which over 25,000 people were shipped off to concentration camps during the Second World War.

Of course the move was not without its difficulties. “The 40 years of neglect damaged the building,” says Van den Bril. It also wasn’t originally meant to be a library, which required some clever interventions from the architects.

To fit in all the books, racks had to sometimes fit into irregular shapes, and supporting beams are visible in the building to handle all the new weight. In the meantime, the restoration of the adjacent church is ongoing.

For help in moving the library’s collection, the staff allowed lenders to hoard up to 30 books for a period of two months. In this way, most of the books were moved from the old to the new location by the readers themselves.

For all its history, De Predikheren is a clear example of how a library of the future should look. Touchscreens can be found throughout the building, automating some of the staff’s work.

“This frees them up to help visitors, especially when we’re hosting events,” explains Van den Bril. On the ground floor, you’ll find a hip bar and an upscale restaurant, which doubles as a caterer during events. Some of the event rooms also host art exhibitions.

De Predikheren wants to not only be a lending library, it wants to be a gathering space for the people of Mechelen. Events scheduled range from jazz concerts to meetings of Rotary International.

The library even has a corner where children can play and enjoy story time with their parents. “It’s a great place to work,” beams Van den Bril. “This building has been many things in its history. Now we’re adding a new chapter to it.”

Photos top and middle ©City of Mechelen, above ©Luuk Kramer / Korteknie Stuhlmacher Architecten