Jonathan Bray

‘LocHal’ – the library at the heart of railway regeneration in Tilburg

These days, on my list of things I could do when I have time in a new place, is to visit the library. It feels almost revolutionary these days to go somewhere where you are not obliged to spend anything at all. The ‘LocHal’ library in Tilburg is a beauty. And another example of how mainland Europe can teach the UK a thing or two about repurposing former industrial sites without bowdlerizing them (see Connections 3).

Tilburg was one of the Netherland’s rail centres with a rolling stock plant that first began in 1868 and by the 1920s employed nearly 1,500 people. By the time it finally closed in 2009 the municapility had a plan for the large area of land it covered close to the station and city centre. Part of the plan was to convert the locomotive hall into a library. None of the structural features of what is a large building were removed. The cranes which moved the locomotives around the site were left in situ, as indeed were some of the tracks. The tracks (set in concrete) are used to move three large wheeled ‘train tables’ so they can be used in different ways. As reading tables, or an extension of the café or as a stage. The LocHal (open from 8am to 10pm – seven days a week) is not only a library but also a laboratory where visitors are challenged, gain new knowledge and learn about new innovations. Specially designed labs can be found throughout the building: the Digilab, GameLab, FutureLab, FoodLab, LearningLab, TimeLab, DialogueLab and WordLab.

More than the sum of its many parts and interlocking dimensions. Dignifying its heritage without being limited by it. Everything about the library feels generous and true. The LocHal is set within a wider and spacious city campus known as ‘Spoorzone’ (railway zone) where other railway buildings and artefacts have also been repurposed. There are restaurants both in a railway carriage and also in a 1930s locomotive shed complete with an outdoor 1920s turntable. Also part of the zone are new homes for businesses – with a strong emphasis on tech and entrepreneurship. Something which should be boosted by the creation of a young professional campus with 20,000 square metres of living working and education focused on entrepreneurship affiliated with Tilburg university. Elsewhere on site another large railway building is now The Hall of Fame – an incubator for urban sports and culture.

There are many things that are great about Spoorzone – not least is that the symbol and showpiece of the whole site is a public library. But also that it can be found in Tilburg – which not chi chi or a property investment hot spot. Indeed it used to be known as the ugliest city in the Netherlands. Yet here is a highly successful repurposing of an industrial site of the highest quality. And it’s not the only example in Europe of massive former railway works which have been repurposed into new local mixed economies. Lokstadt (formerly the Swiss Locomotive and Machinery Factory) in Winterthur and Telliskivi on the old locomotives works at Tallinn have both gone with the grain of the architecture and atmosphere of the massive railway works they inherited to create new quarters that manage to combine different functions and activities in a way that feels interesting and real.

What equivalents of scale do we have in the UK for old railway sites (outside of restorations primarily for heritage or enthusiast purposes?). Kings Cross railway lands, Swindon works, Derby roundhouse, Camden Market, Manchester Mayfield all spring to mind. Though I’m not sure any of them are quite the mixed economy which Tilburg has pulled off. And what we usually get outside of the property hotspots is demolition followed by chainlink fences and big blank sheds. Can we imagine a Spoorzone equivalent?