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.

Mattias Staelens

Mattias Staelens

Co-founder, architect and designer, ONKRUID (1987)

Can you describe what you do?

I studied architecture at Ghent’s Sint-Lucas, and worked as an architect for various firms in Antwerp, Brussels and Leuven for four years. Recently, I’ve made a full-time switch over to a collective I co-founded, ONKRUID, as designer and co-ordinator. Through our projects, I’m able to combine my interests and expertise in not only architecture and urbanism but also music, nightlife, visual arts and anthropology. We love to include innovative and metropolitan approaches to the designs within our projects, and as such try to contribute to a creative vision for Leuven’s future. I feel blessed to be able working within a network of friends, interesting influencers, and important individuals from the architecture, government, events, arts and marketing scenes. I live in downtown Brussels, and work in Leuven – and this combination of the busy and uniquely diverse capital city with a more intimate lifestyle in Leuven works really well for me.

How do you perceive Leuven?

Unmistakably, with its mere 100,000 inhabitants, Leuven is a rather small city – but at the same time, I feel that this is precisely what makes it such a remarkable place. You can get to know the city thoroughly, both spatially and socially. And even its residents: there’s a strong “everybody knows everybody” vibe to be found here, making for an intimate and social place. The feeling that you’re able to know a city in all its details and underground activities is enjoyable, with a small and familiar network emerging – even if you do sometimes have to look elsewhere for new influences. Overall, this means that the relations or connections between citizens and its policy-makers are positive and constructive.

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

Standard of living is rather high here in Leuven, making it possible to invest in “extra perks” like its cultural scene, leisure, sports and youth. As such, there are plenty of possibilities for young people in the city to expand their talents or get inspired. To be entirely honest, I think Leuven is missing an edge – but I also see certain opportunities being created and support being provided to youngsters and students, by giving them more freedom develop their own goals and ideas. One way or another, more space should be set up for informal and bottom-up cultural initiatives.

Leuven has the drive to innovate and stimulate new initiatives of a more creative and metropolitan character.

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

Leuven has the drive to innovate and stimulate new initiatives of a more creative and metropolitan character. In that sense, the City’s always listened to our experimental ideas and been very supportive of them. Sometimes they were successful in its implementations; other times, less – but this was only more reason to collaborate further, work on the details and deliver a strong, spatial or urban follow-up experiment. Overall, such dialogue with the City and the opportunity to experiment is precisely what gave us the possibility to develop an interesting portfolio.

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

Even though there’s been many discussions and new ideas floating around, the issue of Leuven’s nightlife is still present and impending. We most definitely lack suitable spaces for qualitative nightlife, clubbing and more informal concerts. A very important aspect of any city, since it’s where a lot of important networking happens and ideas can ignite. Besides this, having a space to organise parties is really important for the professional development of youngsters, their culture and visions.

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

The art centre STUK is a lovely place to hang out in, with their grand, sun-lit café during the day and a really unique cultural program towards the evening. Besides STUK, I always head to Zoff for weekend lunches, and Café AperO for drinks or dancing.

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

To me, the Gijs Van Vaerenbergh design practice is a truly unique and valuable part of the city. They work on artistic, architectural installations with a lot of patience, love and detail, which makes their work both strong and internationally renowned. Even though they don’t often work on projects which concerns Leuven, they keep embracing it as their hometown and workplace; and have conducted many strong, reflective exercises about its architecture, mobility or governance. I’m confident that they could develop a really interesting exposition concerning the critical, theoretical work of Leuven.