BRUSSELS (BE) - The opening of the BRONKS Youth Theatre by Martine de Maeseneer Architecten (MDMA) in the centre of Brussels puts an end to seventeen years of peripatetic theatre making.
The brand-new building stands in the heart of Brussels, a mere stone's throw from such cultural attractions as the Royal Flemish Theatre (KV), the Beursschouwburg and the Théâtre National (see A10 #16). Bronks is no cultural fly-by-night cashing in on the Belgian capital’s current baby boom. The well-established children's and youth theatre has finally acquired a place of its own where it can prepare and perform its productions and become an anchor point in the neighbourhood and the Flemish Community.
Given how long the theatre has been working to get its own place (17 years!), the present building couldn’t help reflecting that long journey. MDMA has been involved since the first steps in the search, debate, reflection and design of a home base. The building that has emerged from this long collaboration has been endlessly discussed and talked through. Happily, instead of an anaemic, overwrought building, it is a mature design that attests to an awareness of the possibilities and limits of flexibility and context.
The plot, enclosed by houses on either side and a laneway at the rear, imposed a lot of constraints on the programme and its two main spaces, a rehearsal hall and an auditorium. With any radical departure from the pattern established by the surrounding development ruled out, the architects were faced with the task of creating a subtle but nonetheless distinct identity. The building manifests as a brown envelope that emulates the contours of the adjoining houses. The lightness of the envelope is underscored by the lightweight grid of metal trusses and sawtooth roofs which together create a cheerful play of reflected natural light.
On the front elevation, a big bite has been taken out of this envelope and replaced by a glass facade that bulges out towards the street. This intermediary role between street and theatre is given added emphasis by an artwork by Sara Fenelli: the glass is printed with words that can be read from both sides: stressed-desserts, raw-war, devil-lived… Nothing can be taken at face value; meanings change when you cross this glass threshold. The rehearsal hall stands exposed to the gaze of the street; raised above street level like the piano nobile of a traditional Brussels mansion, it is like a huge stage that plays to the public gallery of passers-by. Mobile partition walls can be used to divide the hall in two and/or to screen it from the street. When divided it seats twice 120 people. Above the hall, the foyer and 'champagne bar' have a separate street access so that they can be used independently of performances. The half-underground reception area which is linked to the street by two entrances and a spacious light well, can also be used as a classroom or workshop space.
The non-public facade facing the laneway once again emulates the profile of the adjoining houses which is lower here than at the front. This facade folds back at the top to provide space and light for the auditorium behind it, as if the building were lifting a corner of the veil. The auditorium itself is an elaborate, 190-seat 'black box' with slide-out seats. The concrete walls have bulges reminiscent of the front facade but here the function is acoustical. The stage inverts the laws of perspective in that it is wider at the back and its open wings increase in height towards the rear, creating an enormous sense of space. The resulting colonnade pushes back the boundaries of the auditorium. The dressing rooms are above the stage behind a large window overlooking the auditorium. The two main spaces are surrounded by a network of circulation spaces ranging from goods lift to reception counter, backstage and public circulation, the foyer with champagne bar, offices and a terrace. The simple, static placement of two halls one behind the other is literally enlivened by the circulation: between the halls is a double stair system that can be reconfigured by means of revolving mirror walls on the three landings to allow the two halls to function independently. The flexibility generated by the stairs spreads beyond the bounds of the halls, creating a flexible and versatile use for the entire building. It is a radical and innovative response to the request for flexible, multifunctional spaces.
The main cobblestoned approach to the building continues past the huge glazed entrance and on into the building where it leads to reception area, rehearsal hall, goods lift, etc. It is a functional nod towards the typology of the historical coach house that once stood on this spot. As such, the building can be seen as a kind of podium with a strong link to the street – a podium as a 'step up' to theatre and collaborations, a podium as forum and window on the world, a podium from which to be seen and heard. If it is true that children are our future, then this architecture gives that future an enormous boost.
May | 2009 | Belgium | Veronique Boone