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Zaha’s ‘diamond ship’ is a clash between old and new

  • 4 Comments

At Antwerp Port House Zaha Hadid Architects has produced a fitting building for clients craving an icon, says Felix Mara 

PLANS • SECTIONS • CLIENT’S VIEW • ARCHITECT’S VIEW • SPECIFICATION • PROJECT DATA 

Owen Hatherley’s candid think piece published by The Architectural Review shortly after Zaha Hadid’s abrupt death in March referred to her as an aggressive, impolite talent. Seen in a positive light, Zaha – like her architecture – was certainly never mealy-mouthed.

But what of her most recently completed building, the new Port House in Antwerp? Zaha Hadid Architects (ZHA) casts this as a contextual addition to its dockside setting; but isn’t there something aggressive and impolite about the way this new headquarters for the port authority seems to stridently leap over and even terrorise its decent, law-abiding neo-Hanseatic neighbour?

The brief for the competition, organised by the Flemish government’s architects’ department in collaboration with the city and port management, stipulated only one requirement: the existing building on the site, a disused fire station on the threshold between the city of Antwerp and its port, was to be preserved. ZHA obliged by proposing a four-storey addition that was hoisted into the airspace above the fire station, rather than sitting next to it and obstructing views of its handsome-but-worthy façades. But what gave the London practice the edge was the organisers’ craving for an ‘icon’ that would promote the Port of Antwerp ‘brand’, albeit that ZHA does not consider itself in the crass business of catering for such demands to order. 

There was an additional step in the logic. The original design for the fire station, completed in 1922, included a spire like that of the 16th-century Hanseatic residence it was modelled on. Although this spire never materialised, it generated the notion of building above the fire station’s hipped roof and, as one views the skyline from the city to the south, the ‘diamond ship’, as ZHA director Patrik Schumacher calls it, seems not so much imposing as diminutive. Should it have been rotated 90° to present its starboard side?

Later, standing on the cobblestones of Dame Zaha Hadid Square, I realise a north-south orientation – with the new addition’s bow pointing at the city of Antwerp and its stern facing the Scheldt – was the only possible choice, as this enables the inclined leg of concrete, and the stair tower which supports it, to comfortably straddle the south flank of the fire station, assisted by four inclined shafts of fabricated steel sheet. It’s an ingenious structure, and the slight offset between the axis of the existing courtyard and the addition seems right, allowing daylight to enter the glass-roofed atrium. 

The bow appears to be thrusting towards the city 

If the composition lacks balance, this is because the bow appears to be thrusting towards the city. The dynamic addition refuses to play the fire station’s static game. Defiant, yes, but these are after all inanimate objects, so any assertion of impoliteness would have to focus on human expectations. ‘The tensions between individuality and conformity in Belgium are extreme,’ said Jonathan Meades. Same as everywhere, perhaps? As it happens, even the project’s conservation specialist seems to have considered the fire station rather stodgy. 

The extension and the upper levels of the fire station serve as replacement headquarters for Port of Antwerp staff who were previously housed in offices in some ways inconveniently located nearer the city centre. But the ground floor, including the courtyard, is open to the public and, although its generous fenestration provides visual connectivity, it is less permeable than one might expect of a Zaha building. The public enters through a large portal in the south façade, obscured from some angles by that Dalí-esque haunch of concrete, and this is co-located with the internal access way from the underground car park, with tapering steps and a clandestine sliding door. But wouldn’t it have been possible to enter through the eight lofty archways of what used to be the fire engine hall, and possibly through new doorways on the opposite west side as well? On the other hand, the fire engine hall does make a fine reading room. With doors in this location the ground floor might be too draughty, and this is a government-protected building.

When you enter the courtyard you begin to realise just how much is going on in this project and how ambitious it is. Here Serra‑like inclined columns shoot through a glass roof and tilt at the triangular-scaled underbelly of the diamond ship overhead. Where the scales are reflective, they reveal images of what lies below. The glass roof is supported by a grid of steel flats with complex diagonal trimming members at the column penetrations and Paolozzi tramline patterns around the parallelogram stair shaft. Some flats are tracked by tubular lights below, while sprinkler pipes, orange Pyro and smoke venting, add to the complexity and range of incidents and materials.

Banked panoramic lifts take you to the bridge level above, part of a vertical ring beam which stabilises the stair shaft and concrete leg and is completed by additional members below ground. ZHA project director Joris Pauwels explains how an excited structural engineer called him one night to explain that if the bridge was built in concrete, the steel columns supporting the four floors of structure overhead could be omitted. But what is most striking about this semi-exposed level is the view it affords across 12km of docks, Europe’s second largest shipping port, more than 20 times as large as the city itself. I feel as though I’m in one of Zaha’s early paintings, but conscious of the way the Port House’s vigorous structure resonates with the surrounding bridges, gantries and ships. This bigger picture, rather than a confrontational relationship with the fire station alone, identifies this as a contextualist project, a holistic vision on a vast canvas.

Triangular panels morph from chiselled angularity to curves and ripples

The floors above reveal more incident and complexity, with layer upon layer of heavy primary structure and secondary framing for the external envelope, stepped ramps like the decks of a galleon, caverns of activity-focused office space in white and grey and the beacons of sulphur yellow-lined cores. Triumphs of resourceful design and determination sit next to snagging items and the occasional uncomfortable moment such as a black handrail whose vertical face becomes a black surface as it traverses a beam. One of the greatest coups was the retention of the diagonal façade mullions, which the contractor wanted to rationalise into an orthogonal grid. Thankfully, the project retains its exquisitely integrated envelope geometry, which uses triangular panels to morph from chiselled angularity to curves and ripples.

At the son et lumière after the opening ceremony, the diamond ship – to use an image that plays on Antwerp’s trading legacy – is transformed into something more diaphanous, like a paper lantern. The fire station itself becomes a cardboard stencil, and its affinities with the scale of the extension’s surface patterns and discipline are revealed. 

‘Innovation built on history,’ says the poster at the Eurostar terminal, as the Port House and its extension pose like an ill-matched couple. But, apart from highlighting ZHA’s exploration of a more angular geometry involving more steel and glass, all this really seems to say is that the clients got their ‘icon’ while keeping their fire station.

Bridge floor plan

Antwerp Port House by Zaha Hadid Architects

Antwerp Port House by Zaha Hadid Architects

Level 0 floor plan

Antwerp Port House by Zaha Hadid Architects

Antwerp Port House by Zaha Hadid Architects

Level 2 floor plan

Antwerp Port House by Zaha Hadid Architects

Antwerp Port House by Zaha Hadid Architects

Level 6 floor plan

Antwerp Port House by Zaha Hadid Architects

Antwerp Port House by Zaha Hadid Architects

Level 7 floor plan

Antwerp Port House by Zaha Hadid Architects

Antwerp Port House by Zaha Hadid Architects

Level 8 floor plan

Antwerp Port House by Zaha Hadid Architects

Antwerp Port House by Zaha Hadid Architects

Underbelly ceiling plan

Antwerp Port House by Zaha Hadid Architects

Antwerp Port House by Zaha Hadid Architects

Section A-A

Antwerp Port House by Zaha Hadid Architects

Antwerp Port House by Zaha Hadid Architects

Section B-B

Antwerp Port House by Zaha Hadid Architects

Antwerp Port House by Zaha Hadid Architects

Client’s view

Zaha Hadid Architects was selected from almost 100 teams in an international competition, based on its reputation and proven ability to design projects of outstanding quality, as well as its exceptional proposal, which preserves the splendour of the existing fire station building while adding a new constellation to the site. 

There was only one rule laid down in the architectural competition, namely that the original building had to be preserved. There were no other requirements imposed on the new building’s positioning. The jury was therefore pleasantly surprised when all five shortlisted candidates opted for a modern structure above the original building. They all combined the new with the old, but ZHA’s design was the most brilliant.

The design concept has remained relatively fixed since the earliest stages of the project, staying consistent with the original budget envelope, with a 5 per cent increase that includes changes to the project brief and requirements from third parties. We enjoyed working with ZHA and are very pleased with the project’s progress.

Port of Antwerp

Antwerp Port House by Zaha Hadid Architects

Antwerp Port House by Zaha Hadid Architects

Source: Hufton + Crow

Architect’s view

The new Port House in Antwerp repurposes, renovates and extends a derelict fire station into a new headquarters for the port – bringing together the port’s 500 staff that previously worked in separate buildings around the city.  

The client’s requirements for an ‘activity based office’ are integrated within the design, with related at the centre of the upper levels of the existing building and the bottom floors of the new extension. The remaining floors more remote from the centre comprise open plan offices. 

Working with Origin, leading heritage consultants in the restoration and renovation of historic monuments, studies of the site’s history and heritage are the foundations of the design which firstly emphasises the north-south site axis linking the city centre to the port. Secondly, due to its location surrounded by water, the building’s four elevations are considered of equal importance.  The design is an elevated extension, rather than a neighbouring volume which would have concealed at least one of the existing facades. Historic analysis of the old fire station also highlighted the role of its originally intended tower – an imposing component of the fire station’s Hanseatic design. Its bold vertical statement, intended to crown the imposing volume of the building below, was never realised. 

These three key principles define the design’s composition: a new volume that ‘floats’ above the old building, respecting each of the existing facades and completing the verticality of the original design’s unrealised tower. 

With constant references to the River Scheldt, the city of Antwerp and the dynamics of its port, married with the renovation and reuse of a redundant fire station - the new Port House will serve the port well through its planned expansion over future generations.

Zaha Hadid Architects

Antwerp Port House by Zaha Hadid Architects

Antwerp Port House by Zaha Hadid Architects

Source: Helene Binet

Specification 

Office floors

Carpet tiles on raised calcium sulphate floors by Lindner

Core floors

Polyurethane liquid Floor System by BASF 

Drywalls

Sheetrock

Chilled ceiling

Custom made perforated metal ceiling panels by Lindner 

Facade

Aluminium unitised façade by Schüco

Custom made panoramic lifts 

Mitsubishu

Antwerp Port House by Zaha Hadid Architects

Antwerp Port House by Zaha Hadid Architects

Source: Hufton + Crow

Project data

Start on site September 2012
Completion September 2016
Gross internal floor area 20,800m²
Construction cost €55 million 
Construction cost per m² €2,644
Architect Zaha Hadid Architects 
Executive architect and cost consultant Bureau Bouwtechniek 
Client Port of Antwerp 
Structural engineer Studieburo Mouton
M&E consultant Ingenium Nv
Acoustic engineer Daidalos Peutz
Restoration consultant Origin
Fire protection EPC
Main contractor Interbuild 
Steel contractor Victor Buyck Steel Construction  
Façade contractor Groven+

  • 4 Comments

Readers' comments (4)

  • No soft landing here. More like an alien invasion.

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  • Horrible.

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  • Is there a growing trend for plonking uncompromisingly new structures on top of retained buildings of very different character?
    Herzog & de Meuron's Elbphilharmonie is a spectacular imposition (rather than intervention) in the Hamburg docklands, this is a more extreme example, and I wonder what'll come next?

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  • 'The design is an elevated extension, rather than a neighbouring volume which would have concealed at least one of the existing facades'. Lower impact then.

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