The Flemish city of Antwerp is, quite simply, beautiful. From the point of view of an architecture fan, it has that rare combination of ingredients: centuries of trade wealth translated into bricks, mortar, heritage, and culture. And it makes sense that some of the best-dressed buildings in Europe should house some of the best dressers: Since the 1980s and the emergence of the so-called “Antwerp Six” (fashion design graduates from the Royal Academy of Fine Arts including Dries Van Noten and Ann Demeulemeester), the city has grown into a major fashion center. Add to that mix dynamic music and arts scenes, and Antwerp has grown into one of the continent’s resurgent culture capitals.
And now, southwest of the city center in the upcoming neighborhood of Berchem, a leading figure in Antwerp’s design scene, Vincent Van Duysen, has transformed a former Augustinian cloister into his (remarkably) first-ever hotel project—August, opening in spring 2019. “I’ve been approached many times by other people, even big names, to design hotels,” said Van Duysen. “In a way, I was never ready for it. But with August, the building, the location, the fact that it’s my hometown and with a family that I know, means that the chemistry is just right.”
The story of August begins with Mouche Van Hool, owner of what has to be the most stylish boutique hotel in Antwerp, Hotel Julien, set in one of those beautifully boned residences in the city center. Van Hool worked in public relations and advertising before she and her husband Laurent De Scheemaecker, a shipping and business lawyer, bought the house and converted it into a hotel. It wasn’t long however before it was exceeding capacity, so they were looking for a new location to add to their portfolio, says Van Hool, “when in 2014 a friend called me about this former cloister in the Green Quarter that was being sold as a hotel project.”
Het Groen Kwartier (the Green Quarter) is a pedestrian-only luxury development on the site of a large 19th-century former military hospital complex that used to belong to the Belgian army. The area is a vibrant one with numerous new shops and restaurants and small cafés. One of the first businesses to open there in 2014 was The Jane, a two-star Michelin restaurant in the former hospital chapel at the center of the building ensemble, whose young star chef, Nick Bril, is developing the food and beverage concept for August. It has been joined by three new apartment blocks, luxury apartments in the renovated former officers’ houses, an advertising agency, a bakery, and now, this special new hotel.
Van Duysen made his name as an architect and designer in the 1990s. Right across his broad range of architectural and design output—from private houses, offices, and showrooms, to furniture, light fittings, cutlery, and even his own range of gorgeous pottery storage vessels—a sense of “less is more” and a meticulous attention to detailing have become his trademark. Yet he hates to be called a minimalist. His particular aesthetic vision, restrained choices of materials, forms, and desaturated color palettes are very much pared to the essentials, but there is a richness there that is anything but spartan. Perhaps luxurious functionalism best describes his much aped and admired style, which is in high demand from clients around the world. Van Hool and De Scheemaecker were delighted when he accepted the commission, beginning work in November 2014.
Dealing with a listed monument means there are a lot of rules to respect. “We have to make sure that the program of the hotel fits in the kind of building that we are interfering with,” says Van Duysen. “It’s also a challenge for me to design without too much ostentation within this type of building that already has a strong identity. There were floor tile patterns, for example, which needed to be restored, particularly in the chapel. They are part of an existing aesthetic that determines the kind of style I have to pick up on, yet I still needed to design a hotel that has its own unique features that make it different from any other hotel.”
The entire project is a labor of meticulous love for the architect: In the end, he says, “the most important thing is that this has to be a place where people can feel calm, comfortable, and at home, but without neglecting the fact that we are still in a place that was sacred. This sacred soul, or sacred feeling, is still around, and you cannot deny that. You don’t have to have a chapel to disconnect from the noise around you. I call my own home in Antwerp a ‘sanctuary,’ and I’m sure that this will be another sanctuary, which makes me very happy.”
The preceding article is excerpted from the 2019 edition of Directions, an annual magazine by Design Hotels that looks at movements underway in art, design, food, wellness and fashion, and how they affect the way we live and travel. This year’s issue explores the New Sanctuaries, spaces both physical and figurative, natural and designed, where we find renewal, shelter, communion, and expressions of the sublime.
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Sophie Lovell reported “The Making of August” for this issue of Directions. An editor, art director, and author of books such as Dieter Rams: As Little Design as Possible, she’s the co-founder of the &beyond collective and lovell_studio, both dedicated to next-level publishing.
Robert Rieger accompanied Sophie to Antwerp to shoot “The Making of August.” A Berlin-based photographer working primarily in editorial and advertising, he has contributed to Monocle, Freunde von Freunden, T Magazine, and F.A.Z. Quarterly.