The Leuven Hundreds

Portraits of a city's people, today

We’ve joined forces with Leuven to highlight 100 local people, places and projects that contribute towards making the city what it is today. From artists and architects to producers and professors, these are the driving forces powering Leuven forward one ingenious initiative at a time.

Benjamin Denef

Benjamin Denef

Founder and engineering architect, DMOA (1978)

Can you describe what you do?

I’m the owner and founder of the architectural company DMOA in Leuven. We are an office of fourteen architects – all nice, ambitious and passionate individuals with a good sense of humour – who I’ve had the pleasure of leading together with my associate partner Matthias Mattelaer since 2009. We specialise in custom-made architecture, and aim to create tailor-made biotopes. We love to combine traditional craftmanship with modern techniques, which often leads us to new innovations. We’re also active social entrepreneurs, finding solutions to the needs of displaced people all around the world. For instance, we recently designed the Maggie Shelter in order to provide larger sustainable constructions, temporary schools, vocational training centres; and medical wards in remote areas, refugee camps, or harsh climates. We built our own office building in the Heverlee area, next to the charming Molenbeek creek; and it’s the ideal setting for us to experiment and combine craftmanship with modern techniques and regulations. I live close by in the residential neighbourhood of Berkenhof, all with identical builds. Built in 1952, this post-war neighbourhood was constructed because there was an urgent need for larger family houses around Leuven – and today, these houses are increasingly being renovated by young families.

How do you perceive Leuven?

Leuven feels like a small community, with high chances that you’ll run into somebody you know anytime you walk around the centre. Often the same trendy places are frequented by the same faces. It’s not really a metropole where you can hide away in anonymity.

There’s a lot of creativity and a high level of education in and around Leuven, and a lot of university students decide to settle down here after their studies. It’s a typically more sceptical crowd and maybe even a little bit stiffer and calculated. Impulsivity is not always that high, which could be the reason why hip and trendy places to shop, eat, stay, make architecture, or innovate spring up rather slowly and less visibly (even if more steadily) than in other cities like Antwerp, Brussels or Mechelen / Malines. Such a level of experimentation is pretty hard to find, but there’s a lot happening beneath the surface. The potential, know-how and intelligence are definitely all present in and around Leuven. It just needs some extra juice, some pepper, fireworks, more Antwerp assertion, more Brussels rock’n’roll from time to time. But we’re getting there – slowly, steadily and more modestly!

Experimentation is pretty hard to find, but there’s a lot happening beneath the surface. The potential, know-how and intelligence are definitely all present in and around Leuven.

What would you say is Leuven’s main appeal as a city? What gives it its edge?

Leuven’s historical centre, its easily comprehensible small-scale, and its top-notch University. The presence of a cross-over platform between all kinds of start-ups and creative professions, as well as the abundance of high-level spin-offs within the University (think UZ Leuven, Imec). Its proximity to nature – making it more peaceful and quiet than its larger neighbouring cities – is also a major plus.

How has Leuven contributed to making you who you are today? What role has the city played in shaping your outlook and career?

Definitely the excellent level of education provided here – teaching me to be critical, analytic, well-trained and creative –, all resulting in what I hope to be quality innovation. This is also exemplified in the numerous aforementioned spin-offs found within KU Leuven. Besides the University, the living conditions of the various residential areas made available here are prime for raising a family, with plenty of nature close to hand. Overall, staying close to my hometown was an easy way to take care of my family and establish my career, thanks to existing networks.

On a personal level, what would you like to see more of in the city? What could it do better?

It would be great to see more bold and innovative architecture, as well as “richer” parks. Improved “slow transport” services (pedestrian paths, cycling) or eco-friendly automobiles, using electrical and renewable energy would be a plus too. Otherwise, more trendy spots for eating and sleeping – all-in-all, it would be nice to see a 24/7 cultural rhythm be established in Leuven. More (experimental) public art; or even visionary, ambitious, urban and sustainable decisions in larger domains are sure to liven up our streets.

A local legend, neighbourhood anecdote or urban myth that, to you, encapsulates the spirit of the city?

Big Bill, a blues singer and local legend that enters the city on a white horse. He learned the blues after a stint in the US.