Aalst is the administrative centre of a district of 130,000 inhabitants, located exactly between Brussels and Gent, in the middle of the densest territory of Flanders. These geographical conditions do not disappear once we focus our attention on the city centre and on the Pupillen-site. The proposal for the transformation of the Pupillen-site must be able to understand and challenge the city at its many different scales, reading the territory into the architectural types and proposing a possible new way of life by simply modifying flows and uses inside the city.
Aalst carnival is one of the main carnivals in Europe. Carnival puts a relatively small city like Aalst in the same range as Basel, Binche, Cadiz, Cologne, Ivrea, Mainz, Nice, Santa Cruz de Tenerife, Viareggio and Venice. Although carnival – in its current form – has been organized only since 1923, the first references to Shrove Tuesday celebrations in Aalst date back to the fifteenth century, making Aalst carnival almost six hundred years old.
While our project for the Pupillen-site has no immediate connection to carnival, it uses carnival in order to understand spaces and scales, and it tries to build upon carnival’s extreme public nature. Carnival in fact shows that Aalst is inhabited by a plurality of times. The exceptional time of the Carnival does not entirely disappear during the rest of the year. The carnival remains as a possibility of an entirely different world, a potential dimension of the city that never disappear into the everyday city.
The new Pupillen-site and the neighbouring areas will evolve into a complex urban realm, able to deal with different uses, as well as with times, different quantities of users, different rhythms of use, different meanings, different styles of city-occupancy. As a strategy to confront this complex requirements, we propose to treat the area as a field with different intensities and different architectural characters. As a result our proposal is made of different pieces (different in size, style and relation to the pre-existing buildings) operating at different levels and in different periods of the year. The result is an open set of urban devices that will allow a multi-faceted experience of the city, combining different possible perceptions into a shared idea of community.
We propose to introduce into the Pupillen-site a new program able to enact a general transformation of the area. The new program will not occupy more than 20% of the surface but it will be sufficient to generate a new context for all the other functions.
The new program is related to food. New shops, new study centres, new workshops, new restaurants, occasionally a street market will turn the series of courtyard around the Pupillen-site into an urban attractor built around an obvious (an more than understandable) fascination for food. The food-related program is concentrated in the ancient Stadhuis, in the new triangular building in the intermediate court and in the Pupillen courtyard.
The Pupillen-site is currently made of a strange combination of urban elements: the old Stadhuis facing the Grote Markt and the related courtyard, the parking area behind it, the large court of the Pupillen-site, and the former industrial area along the Zwarte Zustersstraat. The system not only is made of heterogeneous elements from different epochs and following different urban and architectural criteria, but it does not establish fixed borders with the neighbouring elements (as for instance the Graanmarkt and the Atheneum). This condition corresponds to a city fabric that has always been very loose, made of relatively large city blocks including not only gardens but also agricultural fields. We believe we should remain loyal to this hidden geography of the city and protect (and sometimes expose) its open structure.
We propose to imagine the Pupillen site and its surroundings as an open collection of city-elements. Also, by proposing to remove the eastern side of the Pupillen courtyard, and merging it with the Graanmarkt producing a new park, we propose to imagine a new conclusion for the series of courtyards starting from the Stadhuis. In this manner the series of courtyards (Stadhuis, intermediate, Pupillen) mixes with the collection of public squares (Hopmarkt, Grote Markt, Graanmarkt) producing a new, multi-layered public landscape.
The series of spaces is connected also through a thematic link: all spaces include bits of program associated to food, such as shops, markets, restaurants, public restaurants.