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.

Katrien Kolenberg

Katrien Kolenberg

Artist and astrophysicist / STE(A)M co-ordinator, KU Leuven (1974)

Can you describe what you do?

I’m passionate about both the sciences and cultural arts and how these two, sometimes even together, bring people closer to making sense of their existence. From that starting point, I’m currently wearing several hats: one as an astrophysicist, teaching and doing research on stellar sounds. Another as STE(A)M (as in Science, Technology, Engineering, (Arts), Mathematics) co-ordinator for the KU Leuven, working on ways to bring all of these disciplines closer to (young) people. And finally, as an artist, in love with ideas and how they materialize – sometimes totally different from the initial thought, but always remaining fascinating. As you can probably already tell, I most enjoy mixed (and mixing) different fields, disciplines and worldviews.

I live very close to Leuven station: an ideal location, because I enjoy watching the perpetual motion against a still background. Trains, often full of people, coming and going.

How do you perceive Leuven? In your view, what kind of city is it?

Leuven’s pretty small – sometimes it can even feel like a village. I grew up just outside of the city, and walking around the centre, I always bump into people I know. At some point in my life, I wanted to get away from this familiarity and live in much larger, more anonymous cities. So I did: research at the University of Vienna, Harvard, and finally spent some time in West Africa for science and art. And interestingly enough, after several years abroad, I started to appreciate Leuven – small in size but big in ambition – exactly for what it is all the more. It’s top-notch academic environment, the practicality of having everything just a bike-ride away, its safety, its central position in Belgium.

Though it also has to be said that coming back to Leuven after twelve years abroad was not exactly easy. Asides the simple joy of being closer to my family and “roots” again, it wasn’t exactly so straightforward to fit into the local, Flemish landscape again. I love multicultural melting pots, and revelling in both the similarities and differences between people. Now, after a few years, I’ve started to compose my own potpourri network again. I’m a fan of places and initiatives that stimulate interaction between different (sub-)cultures; like Leuven MindGate, Pangaea, public parks and open spaces.

It’s impossible to ignore the presence of Belgium’s oldest and biggest university, and the tens of thousands of students and scholars it attracts.

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

My first thought would be the air of knowledge blowing through the streets of a small town – though others might associate that more with the hoppy smell of the Stella Artois brewery! It’s impossible to ignore the presence of Belgium’s oldest and biggest university, and the tens of thousands of students and scholars it attracts. Also, the cultural heritage of the University and its very early scholars (Erasmus, Mercator, and Vesalius amongst others) can still be felt in many corners of the town.

The presence of KU Leuven leads to a vibrant community, and a (young) student atmosphere. Therefore, Leuven has a very different feel during the summer months, when most of the students are not around. Instead, festivals take over.

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

I completed my school and university studies in and around Leuven. Besides this, I was a regular at the SLAC, the city’s extra-curricular Academy of Fine Arts. And then there was Wega, the club for amateur astronomers, where I started meeting fellow space-fanatics of all ages. Professionally, I’m trained in physics, and specialising in a young and (literally!) vibrant sub-discipline of astronomy: asteroseismology, in which the University’s Institute of Astronomy ( currently boasts an internationally-leading expertise centre.

Yet combining academic studies with art has always been the common theme running throughout my life. I was delighted that the City was enthusiastic to launch the collaborative project PiLoT1 with KU Leuven and SLAC this past academic year, whereby scientists and artists worked together across disciplines and which culminated in an exhibition in the art centre STUK.

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

Leuven has evolved a lot over the past decade, and for the better. I lived abroad for more than a decade, and came back to find a much more pleasant and liveable city. I also feel more and more vibrations of creativity in the air now. Places like STUK, OPEK, Cas-co, and the KU Leuven’s BAC atelier are great breeding grounds for that.

The city could do with more green and trees though – even if Leuven was awarded the Green Leaf Prize of the European Commission recently, which recognises cities that work with its residents on issues of ecology, sustainability and quality of life.

To you, what is the best way to spend a weekend in Leuven?

First of all, the classics: Leuven’s magnificent late-Gothic Town Hall, seen from Bondgenotenlaan by the train station – and with the right light (ideally sunset), it looks like a fairy-tale castle. After admiring Jan Fabre’s Totem statue, of the giant insect on a needle on Ladeuzeplein, you can climb the library tower, see Leuven from above, and witness how the carillon works. Going back down, you may catch a glimpse of students absorbing wisdom from the old library books.

There are plenty of places with character in Leuven: the UNESCO-certified Groot Begijnhof beguinage, the new Sluispark by the Vaartkom, great places to have a hot drink, ice cream, or excellent food. If you want some more action, you can even take a kayak on the Dyle, towards the historical centre. Personally, I just enjoy wandering around, discovering stories in all of its little corners.

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

On the bridge over the Dyle river, on Brusselsestraat, you’ll find the statue of Paap Toon: a jolly gnome-like figure, a sort of medieval jester or fool. In the 15th Century this figure became a celebrity in Leuven for not taking any kind of establishment – nobility, the University, the Church – seriously. He’s the grain of salt we need, when Leuven starts to take itself too seriously – a very healthy attitude.