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.

Michiel Van Balen

Michiel Van Balen

Architect and engineer/ Co-founder, Miss Myagi / Project co-ordinator, De Hoorn (1983)

Can you describe what you do?

I’m co-founder of Miss Miyagi, a 2.0 real-estate project manager who believes that cities need to be built by its users, rather than the present amalgam of commercial real-estate developers. I co-ordinate and support alternative real-estate projects developed by the actual end-users themselves. I live on De Centrale Werkplaatsen site, where I also co-initiated and co-ordinated the project HAL 5 and the temporary participatory park Central Park 3010. I’m also Project Co-ordinator for De Hoorn, which is where Miss Miyagi is based. I’ve travelled lived and worked abroad a lot in the past, but also enjoy actively engaging with the eco-systems in my close surroundings. It appears that most of the things I do start with co-.

How do you perceive Leuven?

Leuven is like a metropolitan village: it has a lot on offer – especially considering its size – with projects like STUK, Het Depot, OPEK, M-Museum and De Hoorn taking Leuven to a new creative, cultural level. In the past ten years, more and more creative locals have ceased moving to Brussels, Ghent or Antwerp; or (like me) returned here after a stint. Nevertheless, it’s super small and the cultural landscape is pretty intellectualised. There’s also no affordable spaces left for artists or experimentation, unfortunately…

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

Leuven is a great place to live in, and I really enjoy the short chains in this small eco-system. I’m guessing most of the Leuven Hundreds know each other pretty well already – that’s a pleasant and practical thought, but maybe not necessarily the best setting for great new ideas, and unfortunately Leuven has little to no “edge”. The City has been in “clean-up” mode for the past ten years, resulting in the wipe-out of places like the nightclub Silo, and creative office spaces in Hotel Hungaria.

We urgently need more affordable, undefined spaces for experimentation, friction, and urbanity.

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

The mission statement of Miss Miyagi is strongly influenced by the errors found in the urban development of Leuven, but which are not necessarily unique to the city per se. Leuven’s urbanity is at stake because the city is being built by bankers, contract builders or other self-declared real-estate developers. We urgently need more affordable, undefined spaces for experimentation, friction, and urbanity.

If you had to take out-of-towners to one place that truly symbolises the city, what would it be?

I would show them the full potential of our city, found in different under-developed places: on top of the former Silo and Brouwerij De Dijle in the Vaartkom neighbourhood, on top of the empty university hospital UZ Leuven, in the abandoned Hal9… Sadly, I’m not sure I’d still want to take them back to these same places in ten years’ time.

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

The saying that Café De Lantaarn has a direct pipeline to the Stella Artois brewery is unfortunately an urban myth – but the fact that gents can pee straight in to the Dyle from the toilets of that same café is not. I enjoy such historical self-made solutions that don’t necessarily comply with all the city regulations.