Pop Gothic in Boxtel

The Sint Lucas academy in Boxtel has been ‘pimped’ by English design outfit FAT. Not only have exterior and interior been tackled, but the spatial organisation has also undergone a metamorphosis.

Sint Lucas in Boxtel has been 'pimped' and that’s resulted in a school complex that looked dated as soon as it was opened. It already looks like alterations will need to be carried out very soon. That’s not only down to the decorative approach to architecture deployed here but also to the educational concept that’s been incorporated into the building’s reorganisation. The finished renovation is in line with the historical development of the complex as an amalgamation of main and subsidiary buildings dating from the late 19th to late 20th century. It’s an approach that’s perhaps fitting for an academy where students are educated to work in advertising and set design.

Sint Lucas is a vocational college for communication, graphic, multimedia and spatial design. After former pupil Erik Kessels (KesselsKramer) had provided the academy with a corporate identity, his friends at the FAT office in London were asked to come up with a new look. FAT, as the acronym indicates, operates in the zone where Fashion, Architecture and Taste meet. Architecture, to them, is sandwiched between something that is fleeting and superficial by nature and something you can debate for as long as you want. You can see where such an approach ends in Boxtel. Project architect Sean Griffiths has loosely based the restyling of Sint Lucas on Catholic imagery. For example, he reduced the dimensional system devised by Dom van der Laan to a graphic motif and combined it with Gothic patterns and a Modernist play of lines. Griffiths calls this eclectic approach 'pop gothic'. In this style of architecture new concrete façades are placed in front of the existing front and rear façades. Almost all volumes are painted the same colour, and some of them are further enhanced with a surface pattern. All these additions form a new skin that succeeds in bringing together the many styles of building and enriching the bare look of the original architecture. This approach form a uniting factor because it is rigorously deployed throughout: in the decoration of the interior and exterior walls, the floor finishes, the hard areas outdoors and even the fencing to the street. This graphic architecture is the most striking aspect of the scheme.

The renewal of the organisation of the main building was even more sweeping. New teaching methods have been common practice at Sint Lucas for quite some time and they have now been expressed spatially. Students work on so-called ‘competences’ and take the initiative in developing skills and acquiring the knowledge needed. The teacher acts as a coach in this process. That calls for a building that facilitates encounters and interaction. The main entrance has been relocated to create space for a central hall that is both plaza and passage. By breaking down the barriers between the different building volumes, the designers created more or less fluid transitions to the exhibition spaces, studios, canteen and assembly hall. The canteen and assembly hall have been moved to a wing added in 1997. All this results in what for visitors is a better organised and equipped building. But will it survive?

The question is how long education will last in this form, and how sensible it is to make or adapt buildings to suit just one particular way of teaching. The commitment that lies at the heart of the scheme recalls the spirit of architect and social engineer Frank van Klingeren, in whose buildings from the 1960s and ’70s ‘everything could happen with 60% achievement, 20% encounter and 20% disturbance’. But teachers aren’t the only ones who see the balance tipping in favour of encounter and disturbance and see few students achieving to the full because of all the encounter and disturbance. Students too are beginning to wake up and are calling for a more traditional teaching method. But in any future form of education that offers a good mixture of information and skills, the building will have to be more than the classical typology of classrooms accessed by a long corridor.

What will be the next phase for Sint Lucas and Boxtel? Posters proclaim Sint Lucas to be a ‘Creative Capital’, but anyone who’s ever taken the local train to Boxtel can only chuckle and shake the head at such naive daydreaming. FAT has carried out a successful though expensive and largely cosmetic operation whose limited life-span is not in keeping with the theme of sustainability for which Boxtel, home to the Kleine Aarde organisation, is famed. Hopefully the next intervention will be more substantial. Eindhoven, located twenty kilometres further, is a city more entitled to call itself a creative capital (of the south). Perhaps Sint Lucas should consider relocating to Eindhoven. For the 1200 students this would improve access and ease contact with the Design Academy and Eindhoven University of Technology.