A Tale of Two Towers
Introduction to the Priory Buildings in Leuven
The central tower of the priory, as seen from the Ravenstraat
Tolkien fans may be inclined to link the image of the two semi-brutalist towers of the Leuven priory to the two towers featured in the Lord of the Rings. In Tolkien’s trilogy, the towers were not signs of something holy but omens of evil. The two towers symbolised the forces of evil in the world. Sauron’s tower, Barad-dûr, represented the unexplainable evil coming from without. Orthanc, Saruman’s tower, represented the evil that comes from pursuing our ambitions, the evil from within. Despite the popularity of the Lord of the Rings books in the late 1960s, Tolkien’s towers did not inspire the architecture of the priory. At the time, other forces were at play.
The two towers are connected by a bridge.
Sustainability and Crisis
The story goes that when the priory was rebuilt - which seems an odd way of talking about the project because it replaced a 19th-century neo-gothic monastic complex - the brothers decided that the new buildings should be adaptable for other uses should the Dominicans ever leave the place. Decades before Pope Francis’ call in Laudato ‘Si to the Church and the world to live and plan more sustainably, the brothers were already doing it.
Sadly, the reality underneath this sustainable approach, however, was different. The tale of the Leuven towers is rooted in the vocation crisis in religious life in the 1960s. At the time, the brothers could imagine that they might have needed a big building for, say, 20 years, but certainly, they did not believe in a long-term future for the place. And so, the building was built in such a way that the two towers could be turned into a hotel “afterwards.”
A view from the 8th floor of the central tower towards the second tower that houses the chapel, the library, the refectory, the kitchen and the common areas of the priory. Notice the cloister on the roof where the brothers could walk around and pray their rosaries.
A Different Future
The “hotel”-approach to the building has led to some - let’s spin this positively – “creative usages” of spaces in the building. For example, the house was not envisaged to have a public chapel, only a private oratory. The chapel seems to have been added as an afterthought, and you can tell that by the way it was designed. Furthermore, the central tower holds more than 60 rooms, which would have been over-optimistic for a monastic building in 1968.
The two towers never became a hotel and remained functioning as a priory until today. But the Flemish-speaking community gradually became smaller and smaller. Some parts of the building were rented out to provide some income for the maintenance of the building.
Today, more than 50 years after the opening of the priory, we are planning for a new international community, and significant rebuilding works to create a place where brothers can prepare for their future missions through their involvement as students and teachers with KU Leuven’s excellent faculty of Theology and Religious studies. In future blogs, I will return to some of the more interesting or peculiar aspects of the buildings.