The design of this new group of buildings and public spaces presents a unique opportunity for Aalst: to reinvent itself and join the twenty-first century, bring strong public contemporary architecture into town, update its image, its regional role and its post-industrial identity. Our proposal aims to achieve these goals with the following series of urbanistic and architectural interventions.
At the urban level, we propose an eminently pedestrian public ground, a porous and continuous series of well-known types of urban spaces: gates, passages, courtyards and loggias. One such urban gateway is at the Filature du Canal building, the landmark on the Werfplein. We propose that its existing main gate be used to create an entrance to the site. The gate faces Wharf Square-as it customarily happens in traditional cities-and gives access to an east-west pedestrian passage that leads to the courtyard, continues to the new square beyond and terminates in the entrance to the library.
Our intention is to produce a significant new public space, which we believe will improve and enrich the quality of urban life in Aalst. By lifting our new central building's mass up to the first floor, we can generate a public space leading from the bus drop-off and train stations to the neighborhood south of it, to Wharf Square and the riverfront. This space will be "Aalst's Forum", the new heart of the city.
Raising the building creates three distinctive spaces within the Forum. First, facing the stations at the north, a kind of a loggia, a large scale "entrance" to the Forum, its monumental "doorstep." A large electronic sign, visible from the station, indicates this entrance and announces events in the Forum.
The central part of the Forum is located underneath the new building. It is a space like no other, about four meters high, clear of columns, flanked by entrances-to the NAC at the East and to the NGC at the West-with a ceiling of lights and a carpet-like stone floor, with bicycle racks, information/ticket booth and a café. This active, inviting, inhabitable public place will have a large staircase leading to the public room above.
The final space, the open part of the Forum, is designed in the tradition of the best small scale squares of Belgium; south facing, incorporating the school across the street as one of its boundaries, and containing steps that provide dignified access to parking below; it is a place for everyday affairs as well as for special events; such as carnival, weekly markets and fairs, or civic celebrations.
Adding the new Central Building is the most ambitious, memorable and iconic piece of the proposal, and has three key components.
The first floor, which is treated like a public piano nobile, hovers about five meters above the Forum. It is a people's gathering room; a sort of "town room" and an antidote to the unfriendliness often found in cities of post-industrial transition. It is connected to the Forum below by a transparent glass entrance pavilion that subtly separates the two spaces. The room also contains an informal wooden theater/projection space enclosed by retractable curtains, and sliding doors opening to a balcony overlooking the Forum. The design of this important space echoes, in a very contemporary way, the traditional grand rooms of the private residences of the past. But it is informal, open, popular, inviting, and useful in its programmatic flexibility.
Two floors of offices above the "town room" are designed with the aim of producing a comfortable work style for all. This is achieved through free plan office organization, with plenty of lounge and relaxation space for employees; natural light and exterior views; and green "lungs," such as a planted atrium in the NAC. All of these amenities produce a climate of camaraderie and small town service within the complex. The Central Building culminates with a roof garden, housing child-care facilities and a specially designed outdoor space for children.
Lastly, the new Central Building's exterior is designed to minimize its visual impact on the city through the use of multiple façade patterns. These various vertical planes, seen one next to the other, evoke the feeling of separate townhouses found along a street. This results in a diminished and more humane building scale.