KU Leuven architecture students design and build festival stages Contrair Open Air: “Something other than drawings or models” | Antwerp

ANTWERPWith two days and four stages, the alternative dance festival Contrair Open Air moves to Ekerse Putten this year. As always, the festival requires great attention to the design of the stages, and architecture teacher Michiel Helbig at KU Leuven and his graduate students were once again involved. “Building your own design creates a kind of reality that is missing from the drawing board.”

Master’s students at the LUCA School of Arts campus at KU Leuven must use extra credits of their choice in addition to their regular program of workshops and theory courses. One of the possible projects is the scenography of Contrair Open Air, which takes place on Friday and Saturday in the nature reserve Ekerse Putten. Led by teacher Michiel Helbig, they collected ideas throughout the school year and designed different scenes for the festival. In May, Helbig sat with the organizers of the festival, and the decisions were made. The stages ‘Het Lab’ and ‘De Viering’ were built at the festival this year. The live concert stage and the smaller, secret stage were not designed by the students.

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The structure of The Celebration. © Tessa Kraan


Particular. More than half of the twenty architecture students give this holiday time to build their own designs at the festival. Completely voluntary. “It was a very nice group this year,” says Helbig. “It was also clear that the students had not signed up for the extra points for this project. Good for the experience, the opportunity, even, to be part of something you build yourself. Because we are designers, we come to the drawing board with ideas and all we do with our hands is build models. We are not stage technicians, it is also an experience for us every year.”

Because Helbig and his students are not ready for their test piece. Years ago, the festival organizers came across a light installation by Helbig and were very impressed. “We would also like that”, the architect was told at the time. Helbig designed a brand new creation for the KleinHouse festival in Noordkasteel, the forerunner of Contrair in 2017. In the following years, Contrair Open Air was born in the same place, and Helbig also involved his students in the project. In the meantime, the festival has moved to Ekerse Putten, and Helbig and his colleagues are making new creations again.

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The Construction of The Lab.
The Construction of The Lab. © Tessa Kraan

Beech of a church

“We are designers, of course we want to come up with something new every year. The intention is not to set up the same scenes every year,’ he emphasizes. “The De Viering stage was a challenge, a scaffolding structure with a roof, but the contractor said it was possible, so we went for it. In principle, the stage can be taken apart completely, and can therefore be rebuilt in other ways. The scene is somewhat reminiscent of a church nave, although that was not the intention.”

“Het Lab’s wooden construction is also designed in such a way that it can be easily set up and taken down. Of course, this has everything to do with the location, a protected nature reserve. We want to keep the impact on the landscape as small as possible and leave no trace after the festival. It is therefore not a question of a heavy foundation or anchoring. In The Lab we hung giant reflective balls. It will make for an interesting and dynamic game, especially in the evening when the stage is lit.”

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The students build the scenes themselves.
The students build the scenes themselves. © Tessa Kraan

Voltage field

“The festival gives our students a good platform to experiment,” concludes Helbig. “We have to find a balance between the spatial, architectural and functional aspects. Because a festival is of course about a lot of people close to each other and experience. That tension is very interesting. The fact that the students also build the scenes themselves and not just design them also creates a certain reality that is less present at the drawing board. It’s a fantastic project. And no one has had problems,” the teacher winks.

Contrair Open Air takes place on Friday and Saturday at Ekerse Putten from 15 to 14 and from 12 to 13. More info contrair.be. More about the Belgian festival summer in this file. More about music in Antwerp in this file.

The laboratory
The laboratory © Tessa Kraan

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