Garden castle Gaasbeek

Castles are an unmistakable part of our identity

Interview with Prof. Dr. Krista De Jonge, full professor of architectural history at KU Leuven's Department of Architecture

Castles are important European heritage. Indeed, according to Krista De Jonge, they determine European identity. Their study is therefore gaining in importance, says the professor at KU Leuven’s Department of Architecture. De Jonge knows better than anyone what she is talking about. She has been researching castle architecture in the European context for 30 years. Her current work is part of the European Palamusto project, which focuses on the study of palace museums and their conservation for tomorrow.

Krista De Jonge, full professor of architectural history at KU Leuven's Department of Architecture
Arenberg castle Leuven - © Layla Aerts

A century ahead in building techniques

One of De Jonge’s specialities is the building techniques used in castles in the Low Countries in the Late Middle Ages and the Renaissance. These techniques are very special, according to the professor. And just as Flemish experts are invited abroad today to share their expertise, this was also the case 600 years ago.

De Jonge: “The Low Countries have long played an exemplary role in building on difficult ground. The name “low countries” says it all: it was one big swamp here, so builders and engineers had to deal with water. Everyone knows that Venice is built on poles, but that is also the case, for example, with the building that I am sitting in now, Arenberg Castle in Leuven.

Building with bricks was another technology that reached a very high level here. This occurred mainly out of necessity, as natural stone quarries in Flanders were rapidly becoming exhausted. The bricklaying technique was already being exported to other regions, for example to eastern England, before the fifteenth century.

Another typical element of Flemish building technique was our roof structures. Flanders was a hundred years ahead of France in this respect. The composite roof cap was invented here, for example, which meant that enormously long tree trunks were no longer needed. That, too, was a necessity, because our forests had been completely cut down early on.”

A landscape shaped by castles

There are no scientific studies on this, but according to Professor De Jonge Flanders may have the largest number of castles per square kilometre in the world. The explanation: the intricate building infrastructure in Flanders.

“Already in the Middle Ages, our cities were barely a day’s journey apart. Each city’s periphery was demarcated by castles and their associated grounds. The landscape outside the city was therefore largely shaped by the nobility. Their castles soon became much larger than the original fortified towers on an artificial hill, and they drastically changed the landscape. For instance, the construction of long, straight drives and ornamental gardens had an immense impact on the environment.

Garden castle Gaasbeek

The landscape painted by Bruegel was man-made

Even though Flanders is densely built up – factories have been built, motorways constructed and canals dug – that castle landscape is still visible in many places. The Pajottenland, the landscape around Gaasbeek that Bruegel painted, is a man-made landscape, created in interaction between the lord of the castle and the surrounding villages. The entire castle landscape around Ghent is still present. One of my students is currently studying the castle of his ancestors, and the landscape he describes is – apart from a motorway and a viaduct – identical to that described in 18th-century travel journals. So, that landscape is much more permanent than we think.”

A new life for the future

So, castles have a huge, long-lasting impact on the Flemish landscape. And that is exactly the effect that Flanders is aiming for with your conference. We want your association or PCO to organize a conference that creates legacy: a positive long-term effect on society. What does Professor De Jonge consider her own legacy to be?

“We should not only look at castles as heritage embedded in the past, but as an unmistakable part of our identity. Consequently, we must ask ourselves: how do we give this heritage a future life? That is exactly what I see as my legacy: ensuring that this unique heritage still has a future.”

erfect Binding brochure Mockup

Fancy more inspiration for your conference? Download our free e-books.

Contact Gemmeke De Jongh for more information about your conference in this domain in Flanders

Free inspiration for your next conference

A successful conference is one that inspires. That's why we offer you here tons of inspiration. For a conference in your domain, for your conference in Flanders.