Pieterjan Gijs and Arnout Van Vaerenbergh

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.

Pieterjan Gijs and Arnout Van Vaerenbergh

Pieterjan Gijs and Arnout Van Vaerenbergh

Founders, Gijs Van Vaerenbergh (1983 and 1983)

Can you describe what you do?

We are visual artists and architects. We create projects of different scale, from sculpture to architecture, and in different conditions, from experimental to commissions and public competitions. We work from our base in KU Leuven’s BAC Atelier, situated in the pivotal area between the historical city centre and the new developments found in the Vaartkom neighbourhood. Together with the University, we’re aiming to develop this space into a future institute for art.

How do you perceive Leuven?

Leuven is a provincial city with two distinguishing features: it’s situated near Brussels, and it hosts an important university. This results in a high percentage of educated, working inhabitants. It’s a very comfortable city to live and work in, with excellent services. And it’s the “exchange” between the city and its University, as well as with the capital city, which creates Leuven’s energetic character.

At the same time, Leuven doesn’t have to deal with structural, urban challenges that larger cities like Brussels, Antwerp or Ghent (or even a smaller city like Genk) are confronted with. Challenges like multiculturalism, high rates of unemployment, social exclusion and so forth. Leuven, on the other hand, will sometimes see or create problems when there’s not – like bikes parked on a street, or noise nuisance.

Also, the identities of cities are often defined by their structural challenges. Something which Leuven is still in search of. For example, Leuven feels the need to present itself as an innovative and creative city; at the risk of playing a branding strategy, rather than forming a real identity.

Thanks to its specific size and location, Leuven is a place where you’ll be able to create dense social and professional networks, through which we’re all linked.

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

Leuven is located very strategically, and is well connected with other cities and regions. At the same time, it’s a city in the “periphery”, with a certain appealing peacefulness which is good for productivity. Thanks to its specific size and location, Leuven is a place where you’ll be able to create dense social and professional networks, through which we’re all linked. At the same time, each “scene” is too small to be significant on its own. There’s enormous potential to be found with Brussels nearby – but unfortunately Leuven’s relationship with Brussels is seen more as a problem, instead of as an opportunity. We’re firm believers that Leuven should redefine its relationship with the capital.

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

We did our studies here, so Leuven was the first setting in which we started to “intervene” as students and in the following years. When we started our practice a decade ago, we were able to carry out interesting projects that helped us develop our body of works: Greenhouse Intersect or the local Ithaka arts festival in 2008, the Upside Dome in Saint Michael’s Church in 2010, the industrial sculpture Framework on Joanna-Maria Artoisplein in 2012. Each of them important works in our development as architects and artists, and all with the support of the City. Today, our activities have moved out to other locations – but we’re still involved with HORST arts & music festival in the wider region of Leuven.

The City lacks ambition in creating and maintaining architectural and urban quality.

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

As architects, we’re concerned with the quality of buildings and public space. There’s been quite a lot of construction going on in Leuven recently, and unfortunately many that we would consider low quality. It’s a cliché, but the patrimony of tomorrow is built today. As such, the City lacks ambition in creating and maintaining architectural and urban quality. Over the last few years, big developers have unfortunately transformed the city with their generic and over-priced apartments, rather than by creating urban quality and diversity. The recent “Vaartopia” program seems to have emerged as a specific reaction against this kind of urban development in the Vaartkom area – and we hope it will succeed in providing an alternative. Furthermore, we also hope that a strong vision for the Silo building complex can be established. Arguably the most beautiful echoe of the historical industrial activity in Leuven, we’re confident that this could become the future landmark of the city. But for now, we can only dream of it becoming a public and cultural destination. Another prevalent theme in our practice – as well as to us personally – is the question of art in public space. For the time being, there’s not much to boast of in Leuven – it’s quite simply a big void. There’s no vision, no debate and no strategy surrounding this.

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

We would recommend lunch in Bar Stan, a coffee in Koffie en Staal, an afternoon spent in M-Museum, finished off with dinner in Rossi.

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

Perhaps this doesn’t say much about the spirit of Leuven, but it’s still a funny anecdote we often refer to. Our installation Framework was built straight up on the roundabout found on the Joanna-Maria Artoisplein square, on the outskirts of Leuven. We had to wait a few hours before tilting it into its final and intended position, in order to not disturb traffic. Once the work was done, we hung about on site when a journalist came to us, saying that he’d heard that the artwork “had fallen down”. When we told him that the tilt was intentional, he left because he didn’t think it was worth an article anymore.