Construction and innovation at Hasselt’s Z33 House for Contemporary Art

Having closed its doors to the public earlier this year, Hasselt’s Z33 House for Contemporary Art is amidst an extensive and promising renovation and remodelling process. In a candid interview with Jan Boelen, the institution’s artistic director, we figure out how and why these construction works are more than just a shuffle of bricks.

All photography (c) Francesca Torzo

“We want to move beyond the traditional exhibition program, which proposes one show after the next” says Jan Boelen, Z33’s current artistic director, while adding that during the transition period, the Z33 team is working on a new way of presenting and documenting its exhibitions. “Our work will most likely be based on a set of themes we’re currently developing, which will serve as an axis from which we will develop a set of exhibitions, performances, and body of research”, he states. Partly inspired by the recently started construction work, Boelen mentions that Z33 isn’t just adapting their brick and mortar home, they’re simultaneously developing a new form of organisation as well. “One of the things we want to create is a cooperative model with other institutions.

Z33 isn’t just adapting their brick and mortar home, they’re simultaneously developing a new form of organisation as well.

An example would be an exhibition in the studio of the Flemish Bouwmeester. We’re also looking to install a small exhibition space somewhere in Brussels. While it might be quite preliminary, Brussels is the centre of Europe, where a lot of important debates are taking place – such as Nuclear Culture, the exhibition and research collective that contemplates on the nuclear industry and our ways of dealing with it. The political and scientific know-how that is present in Brussels must be linked with artists, so we feel it’s imperative to be there”, Boelen clarifies. Furthermore, Z33 will appoint a dramaturge to work with its team of curators to continuously ask questions and refer back to the major themes. A role traditionally present in the performance arts, placing it in other projects questions them entirely while equally putting them into a larger perspective.

The original building dates back to 1958 and is very functional and straightforward. “We found ourselves in need of exhibition spaces that left a bit more to the imagination, with different sizes and scales, creating a more interesting circuit. In a way, we return to the roots of Z33 – situated on the former site of the Hasselt Beguinage, dating back to the beginning of the 18th century”, Boelen explains. The architect entrusted with the task of reworking Z33 is the Italian Francesca Torzo, who is known for her thought-out and visceral designs that make use of natural materials. “Torzo has decided to install a very feminine and tactile building, formulating an elegant response to the more masculine, rational structure of the former 1985 design”, Boelen illustrates. “This new structure will pose interesting questions for artists and curators alike”, he ponders. Besides the architectural plans, Toro moreover designed every tiny detail of the space, from light switches to doorknobs – all of which will be presented to the public at Milan’s Salone del Mobile, by the way.

Talking at length about the importance of an exhibition’s architecture, Boelen emphasises that Z33’s goal isn’t to oppose the white cube, stating that by offering creative restrictions through design, Z33 wants to inspire its artists and curators to make more meticulous choices.

Though still a relatively small town, Hasselt has seen considerate commercial developments. Thanks to a growing number of shops and restaurants the city centre now bustles with out-of-towners. “Hasselt gained a lot of speed, so to speak, as well as intensity,” says Jan, concluding that just like the beguines of our history sought refuge from the outside world, Z33’s new building aims to create a sense of intimacy. The architecture of Z33 proposes a different way to experience time, opposing the world outside the venue’s walls. Jan Boelen hopes it’ll open up the opportunity to pay attention to the projects Z33 has on display, and feels that offering an alternative tempo is an important role for museums in general, not just for Z33.