The new Universiteitsforum is the latest addition to the University of Gent campus which has deliberately been kept inside the old town centre. Designed by Xaveer de Geyter and Stéphane Beel, the building includes offices, laboratories, a conference centre and a 1,000-seater auditorium. It stands on an elongated site alongside the bustling Sint-Pietersnieuwstraat and one of the many canals that crisscross the city. The architects exploited the lie of the land, shelving down on either side towards the street and the waterway, and have managed to fit the new construction harmoniously into the urban landscape.
The outside is sober and linear in glass and concrete. Inside the auditorium, which soars the full height of the building, the walls, floor and ceiling are all lined in American white oak. The chief specifications to be met inside an auditorium are fire regulations and good acoustics throughout. The strips cladding the walls and ceiling were treated with a fire retardant. The layout forms panels filled in with fire-resistant plasterboard and fire-retardant tissue. Twenty different graphic models were devised for these panels: strips of various lengths were assembled ‘every which way’ leaving gaps through which one glimpses the black fireproof tissue beneath. Fitting the panels together has given rise to an apparently random, flowing pattern recalling the digital wave of an electronic spectrogram. The surface irregularity of this lining strengthens the sound-wave absorption and enabled at least 30% of the surface not to be wooden, as specified by the acoustic engineers.
The strips used on the floor, oven-dried white oak, received no fire treatment but were simply cut in slats of varying lengths and joined with a view to maximising sound absorption. Having to find the right technical solution to meet the performance requirements, whilst not losing sight of the aesthetic effect, has resulted in a warm, uniform yet far from monotonous interior. American white oak proved to be a wise choice: it is adaptable and good-looking, the colour tending to grey which perfectly matches the simple overall lines of this building.