Augustinian OrderA Stay at August Hotel, Antwerp
“Our vision for the renovation was to respect the authentic ambiance of the buildings; to keep them untouched and modest.”
Among the restaurants, shops and bars of the leafy, pedestrianised Het Groen Kwartier (or Green Quarter) in Antwerp, Belgium, a former convent stood vacant and decaying; forgotten for the last 20 years amidst the feverish development of the city’s latest up-and-coming district, on the site of a 19th century military hospital. In 2014, hotelier Mouche Van Hool – founder of Antwerp’s Hotel Julien – visited the five redbrick, neoclassical buildings that make up the convent. “I have a weakness for old, abandoned buildings,” she says. “When I first heard about these, I initially thought it would be far too big a property for me to take on, but I was intrigued. As I explored the convent, I began imagining it restored to its former glory. I was affected by the large, sheltered gardens, and the tranquillity that the whole place radiated. It felt very atypical, which convinced me to buy it.”
Five years on, the convent has been fully renovated and opened as August, a hotel and hospitality destination, named for the Augustinian order of nuns that once lived there. For the renovation work, Van Hool enlisted veteran interior architect and fellow Antwerp resident Vincent Van Duysen to apply his signature serenity to the interiors, making August the first hotel project he has undertaken.
“Our vision for the renovation was to respect the authentic ambiance of the buildings; to keep them untouched and modest,” says Van Hool. “It was natural for me to work with Vincent Van Duysen for this project. I have been following him for a long time, and I admire his sense of elegant, sober simplicity. He was able to feel the style of the building perfectly and re-introduce its glory as I imagined it.”
“I know the Van Hool family very well,” says Vincent Van Duysen. “I have worked with them before; I understand their specific needs, and they appreciate my style. I already knew Mouche’s other hotel in Antwerp, Julien – its interiors are beautiful, and very much aligned with my design aesthetic in general. So when she contacted me about August to see if I was interested, I said, ‘Yes, of course!’. I incorporated all the experience I had from residential work into this design, to make the hotel feel like a home.”
The front building, formerly an entrance and reception area for the convent’s visitors, now acts as the lobby, and behind this, a voluminous chapel houses the hotel bar. Touches of marble appear in the tables, the bar top, and along the walls, reaching up to the towering, arched clerestory windows. A warm orange carpet lies underfoot, reflecting the tone of the convent’s brick exterior. Armchairs and sofas in shades of green rest behind cosy wood panel screens, creating a series of intimate spaces within the chapel’s monumental proportions. The ceiling ascends into a lofty nave, painted a dark green hue, and high above the entrance, a terrace level with a small seating area looks over the space towards the bar, reflected in a vast mirror behind.
“We didn’t want to neglect the fact we were working in a sacred environment,” says Van Duysen. “We wanted to preserve the chapel’s contemplative and serene ambiance, and create a space that stands for visual silence. I added green touches throughout the room in response to a green dividing panel we discovered in the cloister. We loved that detail, so we used it as a basis to design all the panelling for the whole hotel. There was lots of red brick, some touches of Belgian blue stone, and the windows in the chapel are one of a kind – decorated with incredibly beautiful crests, and subtle tin details as dividers in the glass. There were so many layers of materials already present in the building, we felt it had its own identity even before we started any interventions.”
Alongside the chapel, the clerestory windows open onto a glass-roofed winter garden, scattered with palms. This is home to August’s restaurant, where tables line the redbrick walls, and spill out into the main courtyard garden. The hotel’s rear building, set further back among two other cloistered gardens, is where the hotel’s 44 rooms are laid out, in what was once the nuns’ private quarters. The gardens have been designed by landscape architect Martin Wirtz to act as green walkways between the hotel’s zones, as well as quiet places to sit and absorb the tranquillity. A smaller building leading from the chapel houses the spa, where an outdoor swimming pool neatly hugs the wall, flowing below the secluded courtyard garden’s oak trees.
The serenity of convent life certainly remains intact, but crucially, it is balanced with an openness to the city – somewhat unlike the cloistered existence of the nuns. “August is a destination, it is much more than a hotel,” says Van Hool. “It is a total experience, unlike anything that had existed in Antwerp before. It has an open character due to its spacious gardens and bar, which means local people from the neighbourhood feel welcome to come in, take a seat and spend time here. You can feel that the monument has come back to life.”