YPRES – Bruges-based Architectuurburo Govaert en Vanhoutte recently undertook the repair, restoration and conversion of an historically-charged armoured structure located in the Belgian municipality of Ypres, in the Flemish province of West Flanders.
Dating back to the mid-15th century, the casemate (a defensive military fortification from which guns are fired) was built at the initiative of a whimsical French general – known to have been elevated to the rank of Marshal, the highest distinction in France's armed forces – at a period when Louis XIV, then the king of France, exercised an unrestricted control over the region.
Kazematten – as it has been dubbed by locals – was part of a larger military fortification complex that was almost entirely torn down in the aftermath of the country’s successful transition to independence, in order to allow the city to expand further. The newly-renovated shelter was spared that fate, owing to a lack of sufficient funds.
Having suffered very little damage during the two World Wars – which is rather surprising given the fact that it served successively as a bakery, a cooling and storage room as well as, obviously, a shielding structure, providing protection against bomb, mortar and grenade attacks – no substantive architectural changes have been made to the exterior of the existing infrastructure.
The project led by architects Benny Govaert and Damiaan Vanhoutte involves the conversion of the underground military installation consisting of five independent, oblong-shaped vaults into a space with wholly new functions. It now features an information desk, a restaurant, meeting and exhibiting spaces, as well as sanitary facilities.
The creative duo’s layout arises out of complex considerations, dictated by the original, rigid organisational scheme. The proposed plan was thoroughly examined so as to ensure its coherence, clarity and functional efficiency. It underlies a careful approach whereby the architects broke a difficult task into manageable parts – focusing on better wayfinding and usability solutions, striving for the betterment of the visitors’ experience. It goes without saying that the intervention was carried out with respect towards the local architectural and historical context, and most of the character-defining elements were retained.
Photos courtesy of Architectuurburo Govaert en Vanhoutte