More than 100 years after the last major restoration under the direction of former city architect Alexis Van Mechelen, the Vleeshuis, protected as a monument since 1936, is again in urgent need of restoration. The design by Origin Architecture & Engineering and FVWW architects, in collaboration with HP engineers, connects the Vleeshuis' rich past with the future.
A high-quality construction case
In recent years, some urgent interventions had already been necessary in anticipation of the total restoration, including bracing of the tip gables, reinforcements to the truss structure, and installation of nets against falling debris and temporary gutters. Penetrating moisture was affecting the joist heads for the iconic wooden roof cowl, causing the rafters and loft floors to begin to warp. The monument's wooden windows were also literally blown out of their frames during a storm.
Owing to the exponentially progressing damage picture and the high-pressure structural work on the rafters, it is appropriate for restoration work to begin in the near future. The engineering office Origin Architecture & Engineering and FVWW architects in collaboration with HP engineers, along with the city of Antwerp, Museum Vleeshuis and the Flanders Heritage Agency, went through an intensive process for this with various preliminary studies, such as the preparation of a management plan, a feasibility study and stability studies. The study process results in the preparation of a high-quality restoration case.
In 2024, the restoration case will be completed by the design team and the permit applied for, and the city will start looking for a specialist contractor. If everything goes according to plan, the restoration works will be able to start in 2025.
An overview of the main interventions
The Vleeshuis looks out along the west side onto Het Steen and the Scheldt, the place where Antwerp was born. This is why the main entrance will be relocated to the Scheldt side and provide easily readable and findable access to the monument and museum. The new reception area, which includes a museum shop, offers museum visitors greater comfort.
The 'City Hall'
The former butchers' market hall is a monumental space with cross vaults and stained glass windows. Currently, the permanent collection of musical instruments and objects is displayed there. In the restored Vleeshuis, this hall will become even more of a heart to the building. The 'city hall' connects the street and the district to the monument. It will become a place where people gather for small concerts and open rehearsals (whether or not played on Museum Vleeshuis's unique collection of historical instruments), lectures, exhibitions and other cultural activities. Welcome events and receptions are also possible. It is a flexible and inviting space.
Visitors will enter the City Hall from the vaulted basement, via a new staircase or elevator. Or from the street, via a moon-shaped public platform and entrance lobby, on the east side.
Along three sides of the City Hall, there will be a mezzanine. On that mezzanine, visitors can admire the stained glass windows and vaults up close and get a wonderful view of the city hall on the one hand and the city on the other. Under the mezzanine, masterpieces from the museum's collection will be safely displayed.
From basement to loft, the Vleeshuis has seven floors. After restoration, they will all be open to the public. A new ingeniously designed set of stairs will wind artfully through the various floors. The staircase adapts its shape to the structure and character of the different building levels, as a declaration of love to the building. The barrel-vaulted basement is stony and dark. The ground-floor city hall is majestic, tall and light-filled. The first floor is more intimate, with round arches and three historic, protected period rooms. In the triple-height loft space, the huge wooden roof truss is the eye-catcher, and the fourth and fifth floors offer impressive views of the city and Scheldt.
Revamped music museum
On the higher floors, the museum tells the story of 800 years of musical life in Antwerp and Flanders in an innovative way. In addition, there is again plenty of regard for the history of the monument itself, always linking it to the Vleeshuis district's musical past.
The second floor will be the core of the museum. Here we display the most special, most fragile pieces, where you will discover everything about musical life in Antwerp and Flanders over the centuries. With instruments, prints, scores, texts, models and sound, we will tell the stories of internationally renowned instrument makers, famous music printers and great musical stars. But also those of street singers, organ grinders, café pianists, collectors, etc. Piece by piece, they have defined the soundtrack of Antwerp and Flanders for hundreds of years. The presentation of our special collection of historical musical instruments and objects is thus fully reimagined, with greater regard for an accessible experience, (musical) interaction and offerings tailored to different target groups. Also on the first floor are the three historic period rooms, spaces created in 1913. One of them is a recreation of the old Council Chamber of the Butchers' Craft.
The second floor, which is the start of the huge roof structure, we call the 'Work Floor'. In the Living Studio, instrument builders and restorers get to work, in front of visitors. And in the exhibition room, you will discover more about how instruments are built. This floor also houses the offices and a library for researchers.
The upper floors, with their impressive roof truss, provide space for the historical story of the monument and the (musical) Vleeshuis district. On the third floor, we are also setting up an educational space for workshops, among other things. And Wannes Van de Velde's Work Room will have its permanent home there too. Numerous vacant spaces will be restored, creating some beautiful vistas up and down, just as architect and city architect Alexis van Mechelen intended back in 1913 when he designed the museum. The highlight of any visit is the impressive view of the city and Scheldt from the fourth and fifth floors. Here, you can hear the sound of the city!
Building physics improvements
Finally, not only does the design take into account the preservation and restoration of the protected monument – some sustainable building physics improvements such as roof insulation, gutters and techniques for optimum air-conditioning will also be incorporated.
New stairs and an elevator will connect the floors and prepare the building for intensified future use. This will allow as many people as possible to enjoy the monument. To preserve the view of the iconic exterior, the choice was made to integrate the elevator and stairs on the inside of the building.
About the Vleeshuis
The 1503 Vleeshuis is a symbol of Antwerp's economic self-confidence and the flourishing of guilds at the beginning of a time period often referred to as Antwerp's Golden Age. After the dissolution of guilds in 1795, the Vleeshuis was sold publicly. A collective of 29 members of the old butchers' guild bought back the building and repurposed it as a meat market. The upper floors housed artists and an opera company, among others. In 1841, the butchers sold the Vleeshuis to a wine merchant who used the immense building primarily for storage. The latter in turn sold the building to the city of Antwerp in 1899.
From 1904 to 1913, the Vleeshuis was completely restored by city architect Alexis Van Mechelen to house a museum. In 2006, that museum evolved into Museum Vleeshuis | Sound of the City. Today, Museum Vleeshuis brings to life 800 years of Antwerp's musical culture, in the district where that music originated.
The Vleeshuis was protected as a monument in 1936, along with the City Hall, the Rubens House and the Hendrik Conscience Heritage Library, among others.