Port House in Antwerpen

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Port House in Antwerpen

A lighthouse for the world

The vertical extension, renovation and transformation of a former fire station into the new headquarters for the Antwerp port authorities combines the old with the new and is a symbol for the future of maritime trade that is visible for miles around.

The need for a new office building for the Antwerp port authorities and the wish to keep the listed Hanseatic-style building of a former fire station on the docks led to an invitation to take part in a competition with the brief of keeping the old building and transforming it. The design by Zaha Hadid Architects for an elevated extension to the existing building is a nod to a tower that was originally intended for the Hanseatic building and was to be added as a landmark that could be seen for miles around. What did not come about at the time is now being realised in the extension. Its signal-like effect is a reference to Antwerp as the "city of diamonds" and its shape resembling the hull of a ship symbolises the maritime trade in the port of Antwerp. The new building appears to float above the old one, and the austere, angular solidity of the existing building with its four equal façades contrasts with the dynamic curved surface of the new building, which represents the principle of a single, flowing façade like an organic object.

Developed by Schüco, architects and façade fabricators, a special construction consisting of triangular segments with variable angles at the intersections enables the formation of apparently smooth curves with flat glass plates and creates a gradual transition from flat façade on the south end of the building to a wave-like façade in the north. The mixing of transparent and opaque façade units interrupts the building volume, the seemingly transparent surface of which changes with the varying intensity of daylight. The new Port House in Antwerp is a prime example of the sensitive treatment of history and the needs of the location in equal measure. It also points confidently towards the future in terms of form, sustainability, design method and production process. A glittering lighthouse for all the world to see.

The new headquarters for the Antwerp port authorities is a result of the interaction between three spatial elements: the existing listed building, a concrete bridge and the vertical extension.

Port House

Location: Antwerpen/BE
Client: Antwerp Port Authority/BE
Architects: Zaha Hadid Architects (ZHA), London/GBK
Design: Zaha Hadid, Patrik Schumacher
Project director: Joris Pauwels
Project manager: Jinmi Lee
Site management: Bureau Bouwtechniek, Antwerpen/BE
Structural planning: Studieburo Mouton Bvba, Gent/BE
Energy technology: Ingenium Nv Acoustic, Brügge/BE
Acoustics: Daidalos Peutz, Leuven/BE
Restoration consultancy: Origin, Brüssel/BE
Façade construction: Groven+, Liège/BE
Surface area: Existing building 6.600 m2
Newbuild: 6.200 m2
Competition: 2008
Completion: 2016
Schüco systems: Aluminium façade special construction

  • Schnitt, M 1: 1 200
  • Grundriss Ebene 0, M 1: 1 200
  • Lageplan, M 1: 6000

Developed by Schüco International,architects and façade planners, a special façade construction gives the newbuild its specific shape and surface.

„A dynamic appearance in contrast to static dignity“

How do the three spatial elements of the new port house – the existing building, the new extension and the concrete bridge – relate to each other?

Looking at the existing building and the new building as a whole, we like to see them as two entities, where one cannot work without the other. The existing building provides the base for the entire project, it is not something we dismissed, we see it as an equal part of the constellation. Despite the very different nature of the two buildings, we have been trying to give the same qualities of space to both the existing and the new building. In order to connect the two programmatically, we applied some kind of sandwich-concept, whereby we have chosen to put all the common program such as auditorium, restaurant, foyer and meeting rooms, in the middle of the building, so they are organised on the top floors of the existing building and on the bottom floors of the new building. We proposed the concrete bridge as a third element, which had not been part of the competition brief. In order to break and shift its volume, we suggested to create a multi-purpose external environment, a viewing terrace for multiple use above the existing city fabric and with access to the restaurant. Obviously there are various views to the port and to the city from up there. Looking down through cut-outs in the bridge one can see the square in front; looking up, there are windows that expose some of the interior of the new building – it is a very three-dimensional, spatial environment.

How did your office approach the re-design of the existing pre-war building, technically and formally?

Zaha was very interested in layering, in working with the existing building. We chose to respect the existing, listed building as much as possible. Both the external and internal facades, the courtyard and the staircases were still very much intact, most of the original interior, however, had been already changed throughout its former use as a fire station. We very much followed our heritage consultant when it came to the renovation, we gave them the lead on what we could or could not do; there was a constant dialogue with heritage consultants and with heritage authorities. We restored all the facades in a very low-tech way. The brickwork for example is very much patchy and you can read historically what has happened, because we did not want to damage the fabric of the brickwork too much. The doors were kept original, where possible, where not, we made copies. For example, we automated the massive doors between the atrium and the reading room, which used to be the hall for the fire trucks, and we automated these. So the technical system is new, but the doors are kept intact as much as possible and we worked with the original framing.

The new extension seems to float on top of the existing one. Are the two volumes structurally connected at all?

Structurally, we tried not to interfere too much with the existing building, the structure of the new building is completely independent. However, there is a new element we brought in, that has an impact on the existing structure: the new roof of the previously open atrium is supported by the brick walls of the existing building. The weight of the new building is fully carried by two concrete columns, one is central in the atrium, and one is, inclined, positioned in front of the building. The concrete bridge connects the two columns on top, while there is an underground connection as well. Basically, a vertical ring out of concrete goes over and under the South wing of the existing building to support the new building. The black columns inside the atrium space provide lateral stability.

The facade of the new building is one dynamic surface. What is the underlying conceptual intention of the transition on its surface from flat to rippling, from transparent to opaque? What design technique did you apply?

We wanted the new volume to have a dynamic appearance in contrast to the static dignity of the existing building. To reinforce this dynamic in addition to its geometry, we wanted it to appear as if in motion. By triangulating the segments of the facade, we created the transition from flat to more cracked. Initially, at the competition stage, this was a kind of random pattern. Throughout the process, we were collaborating with our local architect, the facade constructor and Schüco to develop a realistic concept that would meet both aesthetic and economic expectations. We made an analysis of how many different modules we could afford, how many modules we would need to keep the random effect and not to see repetition throughout the building.

In the original design of the existing building, there was a tower included which had never been realised. What role did this tower play in your design?

When our heritage consultants came up with the original design, which had this very tall, ornamental tower, we thought this original intention would justify a vertical element on top of the existing building. The fact that the existing building does not have a main facade, but rather four equal facades, which is quite exceptional for a building from that time, is another reason why we immediately thought it would be interesting to put something on top and not build something in front, because it would block one of the facades.

Joris Pauwels, executive director for the Port House project at Zaha Hadid Architects, talks about the respectful treatment of the existing building

„Value of design as a spectacle"

The new Port House is very iconic. What is the message behind this gesture?

We have opted for Zaha Hadid Architect’s design because of the value of design as a spectacle. We were looking for a bold landmark for the city and the port, creating an identity which combines the old with the new. For centuries, our port has been one of the leading ports in the world. We as a community want to work towards the future, be innovative and courageous in order to maintain our strong position as a global player. We want the building to be a signal which represents our willing to connect with the world and to represent our open and challenging look towards the future.

How does the new office building change the work environment for the port’s employees?

The new Port House's main objectives were the establishing of new work modes, and the integration of our technical and administrative services in one location. A number of services were established in the former fire station, other services were in the Hofstraat and in the old Port House at the Entrepotkaai. By grouping these services, the internal co-operation is far more efficient. The 500 employees of the Port Authority who work at the Zaha Hadidplein will use this time flexibly. This means they will swap their fixed workplaces for mobile workplaces. Moreover, they can swap desk depending on the nature of the activity: telephone, concentrated work or meetings. We wanted a sustainable and future-proof workplace for our employees, representing the Port’s ethos and values in a local and international arena.

How has the new Port House been perceived by the public?

First designed exclusively as the office building of the Antwerp Port Authority, we realised throughout the process an increasing interest among the public. The iconic architecture by Zaha Hadid Architects in combination with the specific scenery and panoramic view of the site became very attractive for visitors. So we decided to open up our building for guided tours for the public. Visitors interested in the building and the panoramic view on the Antwerp skyline or at the port can take guided group tours, where on one evening per week and on weekends experienced guides will explain the design of the new building and the history and future of the port (http://www.visitantwerpen.be/detail/the-port-house-group-en). The tours are available in Dutch, French, English and German. The Port House also offers a meeting place for the many international partners of the Antwerp port community.

The production process of the Port House has been rewarded for its sustainability. How sustainable is the building utilisation?

The new Port House is a textbook example of sustainability. Sustainably-sourced materials were used for its construction, and the building is heated or cooled throughout by a ground heat storage system that saves 270 tonnes of CO2 emissions annually. The Port Authority also facilitates sustainable travel between home and work for its personnel. In the car park there are 30 charging points, 20 for electric bicycles and 10 for electric cars, there is a City Bike station in front of the door, and the Shuttle Bus offers two direct connections free of charge for employees.

The Port House is one of the projects Zaha Hadid had been involved with planning before her death. How did your organisation contribute in honouring Zaha Hadid?

The public square beside the Port House has been named after Zaha Hadid, so the address of the Port House is now „Zaha Hadiplein 1“. From the opening until the end of this year, there is an exhibition in the atrium of the new building, dedicated to her life and work as the first female winner of the world-class Pritzker Architectural Prize. The exhibition features models of Zaha Hadid buildings all over the world, as well as other items designed by her such as vases and shoes. Also on show will be information about the Port House construction project. In addition, we soon will publish the book „The Antwerp Port House” (Pandora Publishers, 2016). In this book, we document the history of the port and the old fire station, document the construction process of the new building and honour the innovative and iconic design as one of Zaha Hadid’s legacy.

Annik Dirkx, press officer for the port authority in Antwerp, talks about the identity-defining importance of the new building for the location an dealing with an iconic building

„Linking design and production was a must“

Together with Schüco, Zaha Hadid Architects and façade fabrication company Groven+ developed and built a unique façade system for the Port House in Antwerp. Etienne Clinquart, Director of the Belgian façade fabrication company, speaks of the particular challenges posed by developing and building the new façade system.

How would you describe the collaboration between Schüco, Groven+ and ZHA in developing the customised façade system for the Port House?

Combining our on-site experience as a façade construction company with the system-based approach from Schüco, we were able to realise the specific design by Zaha Hadid Architects with a customised façade – using cutting-edge technology, whilst working and communicating very closely throughout the entire design, production and construction process in this triangular constellation with builder, manufacturer and designer of the façade. Together, our task was to develop an innovative solution within the process, as the design requirements were unprecedented. Every party contributed their own knowledge and expertise with regard to a sustainable solution.

Our engagement with Zaha Hadid Architects was a performance guarantee both in terms of technical aspects of the façade as well as aesthetic aspects. For the latter, we guaranteed that the final design should respect the architectural drawings. Working on our 3D-CAD-System, all of our drawings were transmitted to the architects for approval, as the complete architectural design was a requirement developed by Zaha Hadid Architects. The collaboration with Zaha Hadid Architects during the planning process would look as follows. We received from them the external points of the façade in 3D, in the angles between the triangular glass elements, which were the parametric quotations from the outside. All of the profiles where defined in three dimensions, not in terms of the technical demands, but on an architectural basis. That meant that we had to develop a façade in a very narrowly defined frame, which we did with success.

Could you talk about the interfaces between designing, planning and manufacturing?

Given the complexity of the façade, working with a program like our 3D-CAD-System was a necessity; linking design and production was a must. For this reason, the 3D design was a large part of the work and became the basis for the construction planning. This work took over two years. Considering the extraordinary position of the new building above an existing one, the erection and installation was a challenge. Therefore, we produced and assembled as many components as possible in our workshops – more than 450 frames, each with at least 3 triangular glass units. The fact that all of the units were different necessitated sophisticated organisation in terms of logistics.

How did you plan and execute the assembly of the facade elements?

Once the engineering was completed, we started production. Given the fact that installation would proceed faster than production, we had planned to produce at least 50 % of the facade units before starting installation. We defined the necessary materials with our 3D-CAD-system, then we used STEP files to transmit the required information to the CNC machines. Assembly in the workshop was strictly on theoretical basis, as defined by the 3D model. It was only on site, after installation, that we could check that the construction was good.

Did you test the new facade system before production and construction?

Acoustic tests as well as air and watertightness tests were performed by Schüco. Given the specific location of the Port House in the middle of the harbour and on the River Schelde, the requirements for air and watertightness were very high. They were combined with deformation tests to simulate the working of the steel construction. These tests were conducted before production started in order to adjust the engineering work in accordance with the results. In fact, the test results were not only considered in the engineering, but also integrated into the design.

What role did BIM play in the overall process?

The challenges on this project were considerable. A complete façade system that met the architectural and technical demands needed to be developed; an overall approach to logistics had to be established for production and installation. Another major challenge was the combination with the steelwork, as we had to combine steel plans and facade plans in different installations, taking into account the different deformations and settings of the construction in view of the weight. The only way to work properly with such a complex design was by creating a complete BIM-modelled façade, defining all of the production and construction parameters. Everything was executed on the basis of this model.

Etienne Clinquart, director of Groven+

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