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A minimalist home in a Flemish abbey

Get me to the church

This ancient Belgian chapel has become a cool, contemporary space.
For Jonathan Glancey, it’s an ideal conversion

This ancient Belgian chapel has become a cool, contemporary space.
For Jonathan Glancey, it’s an ideal conversion

Jonathan Glancey | February/March 2018

Sint-Truiden, a Flemish-speaking town in the Belgian province of Limburg, grew up around a Benedictine abbey founded in the seventh century and dedicated to Saint Trudo. His relics drew pilgrims on a Chaucerian scale. When French revolutionary soldiers pillaged the town in 1794, the abbey, which was a thing of Romanesque, Gothic and Baroque glory, was largely destroyed. But one part of it survived: this haunting brick building.

Quite what it was built for, no one knows, although from 1872 it was used as a chapel, reworked inside with gothic-revival vaults and vivid decoration. Known as the De Waterhond (water hound) chapel, it has since been home to a music and drawing academy and a local theatre company. Vacant again for half a century, it has now been adapted by Klaarchitectur, a firm specialising in crystal-clear modern buildings.

From outside the most obvious feature is the white box under the roof in one corner, lit up enticingly in winter gloaming. But this is the only intrusion into the structure the architects have made. Their additions are contained within a freestanding, four-storey, steel-framed structure which leaves the chapel’s patinated walls and faded frescoes exactly as they have been for the past 50 years. A black staircase climbs around this irregular stack of white boxes, giving on to timber terraces with views across the chapel.

An island kitchen is the only element located outside the new structure. Finished in brass, this resembles an altar with cabinets and cookers housed in a cross-like structure behind it. The spirit of Saint Trudo might find this profane, yet placing the kitchen here means that the main body of the chapel can be used for comfortable socialising. With under-floor heating and a new roof, the chapel is a warm and welcoming space despite long shadows and worn decoration. Redundant churches and forgotten chapels need new purposes. Here is one sensitive solution: Klaarchitectur’s building within a building could be taken away leaving no sign it had ever been there.