Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Louvain-La-Neuve: A University Town

When I was working on the development of UniverCity at SFU, I tried to find other examples of 'purpose built' university towns elsewhere in the world. One place recommended to me was Louvain-La-Neuve, 30km south of Brussels...the only completely new town built in Belgium since 1666. While I thought about visiting, I never got around to it...until earlier this week.

Unfortunately, I did not make any prior arrangements to meet with university officials, and the main information centre was closed (since it was Monday!) But we did look around, spoke with an Irishman who ran one of the many pubs, and took some photos. I would like to have stayed longer, but Sally hated the place, and we both wanted to get to Brussels. I will return one day.

What I found was indeed a completely new town, built in conjunction with a new university. The raison d'etre for the university was linked to the linguistic conflicts between the French and Flemish in the 60's..without going into all the details, it seems that the Flemish students remained in Louven, and a completely new university was built for the French speaking students, along with a new town.

The buildings were designed in the late 60's and can best be described as a vivid example of "The New Brutalism". I found the following description of the place in Wikipedia:

The town was created with the sole purpose of hosting the Université de Louvain. As such all the grounds are property of the University.

Consequently, the University was able to play an important role in the conception and planning of the town. They decided that city should not be only inhabited by students, but rather draw a diverse community as is found in any classic city. Moreover, one of the main points of the urban design of Louvain-la-Neuve was to make it people rather than automobile centred. As a consequence, the city center is built on a gigantic concrete slab, with all motorized traffic travelling underground. This allows most of the ground level of the city center to be car free. Most buildings are built on the slab (la dalle), and the pedestrian area is expanding even far from the city centre.

As evidence by the photos, it is a rather harsh environment. Moreover, many of the buildings have been poorly maintained, no doubt due to the same government policies that make it difficult to maintain public universities across Canada.

While there have been some efforts to create a few elements of delight, the campus felt very oppressive, due to the 70's architecture, the lack of vegetation, and the general scale and site planning. However, some of the newer buildings were quite good, and I suspect that the outlying areas are more attractive. I just didn't get a chance to visit them.Today there are about 30,000 students and community residents. The goal is about 30,000 permanent residents in addition to 15,000 students.

From what I did see, both in terms of the physical form and student and resident programs, I suspect there are lessons to be learned from Louvain-La-Neuve which could benefit the continuing developement at UniverCity and UBC's University Town. If nothing else, it is worth a visit to try the moules frittes at Le Prof restaurant!

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