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1(11)/2002, p. 121

Ewa Cisek
Belgian and Dutch Begijnhof – model of a community dwelling centre


    Hofjes are small green courtyards surrounded by houses with gables turned towards the centre – they have been built since the 13th century for the poor and the old. They were autonomous complexes, isolated from the rest of the town. Women, who had chosen religious life, lived in them willingly (even if they had not taken all their vows). Often, they had their own chapel. These women were called begins, and the hofjes where they lived – Beginhofs. Renovated and restored, Belgian and Dutch hofjes are attractive places to live in up to this day. Some of them were adapted for housing: blocks of flats, student flats and flats for elderly people. The territory occupied by a Begijnhof was named a beginage. It consisted of individual houses concentrated around an internal courtyard – a garden, a chapel and rooms for collective work. A stone portal of a unique form accentuated the entrance to the complex. The abode of the community already began in the green courtyard – the communal garden. A characteristic feature of all the Dutch hofjes is the individualisation of particular houses in the complex. The main difference among them is their width, the look of the facades and the functional solution of the interiors. The best preserved objects of this type are Begijnhofs in: Brugge, Lier, Diest, Leuven, Kortrijk, Diksmuide, Gent, Oudenaarde, Aalst, Dendermonde, Antwerpen, Hoogstraten, Turnhout, Herentals, Mechelen, Tongeren, St. Truiden, Hasselt, Zontleeuw, Tiennen, Aarschot, and Amsterdam. The complex of blocks of flats named „De Poesje” in Antwerp (arch. Roger Groothaert, 1998) is a contemporary version of a Begijnhof designed as a social dwelling place with an extended area of common use. Hofjes create a spatial area where basic elements of a neighbourly bond may be observed: a limited number of dwellers, a defined territory of action, a point of integration (the central place), and organized care of the offspring.