Boekentoren - University Library, Ghent, Belgium

The conservation project for the Book Tower aims at restoring the historical site of the University Library, situated in the lively quartier Latin of Ghent, meanwhile at transforming it into a library for the 21st Century. The design unites the ambitions of the University to respectfully repair the monumental site to its original condition, but also to render it a contemporary house for a great diversity of users and for the valuable own collection of the institute.

The Ghent University Library is internationally renowned for its ‘heritage collection’ of manuscripts, books, coins, curiosa, newspapers and magazines. The study into the conservation project revealed that the conservation of these precious objects according to current climate policy (Ashrae) would not be possible without harming dramatically the monumental character of the building. Therefore a first phase of the project consisted of the realisation of a new underground book depository underneath the historical courtyard, where 40 km of books and objects are being preserved for the future in optimal climate conditions, on tree underground levels. The realisation of this first phase permitted us to start with the conservation project of the historical building itself, after the evacuation of the collection from its different spaces. 

The historical site of the Book Tower, a modernist masterpiece by Henry van de Velde (1930-35) is characterised by the contrast between the horizontality of U shaped building complex and the verticality of the actual Book Tower placed in one corner. They clearly display Van de Velde’s pioneering library concept: Contrary to 19th century Library layouts, Van de Velde separates collection from consultancy, stacking the collection efficiently on man high tower levels and foremost allowing for brightly lit and spacious reading rooms.

The brutal fair-faced concrete skin and the elegant exterior framework in steel accentuated Van de Velde’s volumetric game of horizontal vs vertical. The second phase of the conservation project focused on these two emblematic aspects of Van de Velde’s facade: We started by ‘scraping off’ the current non-original protection layer together with the concrete affected by concrete carbonation decay process, then pouring back a thin new concrete layer on top. The recent completion of this new concrete skin has been considered an important milestone during the process of the construction site. All windows and doors are brought back to their original divisions and fine profiles, and foreseen with high performing but ultra transparent glazing; The integration of contemporary building physical demands within a conservation logic was a constant challenge and ambition within the study of this project. 

Today, the third phase of the project has been finalised. This fase was focussing on the one hand on the pure conservation of the main historical interiors, situated in the main wing of the building, such as the Main Reading Room and public corridors. Valuable interior finishing and furniture are restored, original plan layouts were carefully studied to re-establish meanwhile lost spatial situations. On the other hand the conservation project aimed at a few crucial interventions and functional reshuffles into the interiors to increase their meaning and use for a diverse range of users, from students, to researchers, honourable guests and even tourists. The main wing has been discharged from improper back office functions and received a contemporary climate installation, fully integrated into the architecture, as well as new roof lights to prevent excessive summer heating without obstructing the characteristic daylight infiltration into the spaces. The Main Wing retrieved its originally ‘silent’ character by regrouping and reinforcing a few student facilities in the West wing (HIKO): a new entrance pavilion in the arm pit of the site allows direct access to a multi media centre with increased capacity, two new class rooms and a future reading café. This student hub in the West wing will form a hinge between the Main reading rooms and the adjacent Faculty of Arts and Literature.

On the other end of the horizontal complex, the ‘belly’ of the Tower will house a new visitors centre with exhibition facilities. From this foyer the public will be able to visit the most emblematic space of Henry van de Velde’s project, the Belvedère with its panoramic view on the skyline of the city. The intermediate book storage levels in the Tower received an interior box-in-box layout to allow to store less precious collection objects in bettered climate conditions. A few levels with the original floorings, will be on display for visitors to educate on the emblematic library concept of Henry van de Velde.
Ghent University
Robbrecht en Daem architecten
conservation and renovation of the university library by Henry van de Velde (1939)
Ghent, Belgium
Floor Area
20.000 m2
Paul Robbrecht, Hilde Daem, Johannes Robbrecht, Tine Cooreman, Kristoffel Boghaert, Katrien Cammers, Aslı Çiçek, Florence Daem, Barbara Deceuninck, Arne Deruyter, Linde Everaert, Gert Jansseune, Jolien Naeyaert, Frédéric De Vylder, Sofie Reynaert
Execution Architect
Sum, Baro
Barbara Van der Wee Architects
Structural Engineering
Bureau d’Etudes Greisch
Services Engineering
VK Engineering
Furnibo (stage 1), BAM – Renotec (stage 2), Artes Depret – Roegiers – Woudenberg (stage 3)
Building Physics