Wednesday02 September 2015

City Making: Antwerp

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In the first of a new series looking at exemplary city planning projects, Ellis Woodman investigates the ‘slow urbanism’ being engineered at Antwerp’s former docks

The British visitor can’t help but be struck by the familiarity of much of Belgium’s built environment. Topography and climate are of course common determining factors but there are close cultural parallels too. A preference for living in houses rather than apartments and a none-too-convinced attitude to the merits of planning are two of the more obvious ones. As here, the Belgian landscape is characterised by fragmented patterns of land ownership and a weak articulation of urban form. The architect’s task more often lies in transforming an accumulation of past architectures than in building the city anew.

The redevelopment of Het Eilandje — the site of Antwerp’s former inner dock — has therefore presented a considerable challenge to Belgium’s prevalent culture of architectural production. Comprising 172ha of land, just a kilometre to the north of the city centre, this was a site of maritime industry for four centuries until the advent of container shipping rendered it redundant. Work is now under way towards meeting the city’s ambition of housing 6,600 residents on the site by 2020.

That story has echoes in the recent histories of port cities all along the coast of northern Europe. The methods employed to undertake these major expansions have, however, varied enormously. The redevelopment of the Isle of Dogs under the highly relaxed supervision of the London Docklands Develop-ment Corporation presents one model; that of Amsterdam’s Eastern Harbour district through the deterministic agency of the city’s Physical Planning Department, quite another.

Antwerp docks site plan

Het Eilandje Site plan
Westkaai Towers 1 and 2 Diener & Diener, 2009
2 Westkaai Towers 3 and 4 David Chipperfield Architects
3 Westkaai Towers 5 and 6 Gigon & Guyer
4 MAS (Museum aan de Stroom) Neutelings Riedijk, 2011
5 FelixArchief restored warehouse Robbrecht & Daem, 2006
6 Het Koninklijk Entrepot housing Hans Kollhoff, 2000
7 Montevideo warehouses Poulissen & Partners, 2013
8 Red Star Line Museum Beyer Blinder Belle, 2013
9 New Port House Zaha Hadid Architects, 2014


While the planning mechanisms now guiding the transformation of Het Eilandje are considerably closer to those that were at play in Amsterdam than in London, that is a recent achievement. Twenty years ago when the port authority sold off the first parcels of land to developers, there was no masterplan in place. The breakthrough came when Antwerp was made Europe’s capital of culture in 1993. As part of the celebrations community group Staad aan de Stroom (City at the River) staged a series of international ideas competitions for three large sites, one of which was Het Eilandje.

Kristiaan Borret, Antwerp's current city architect

Kristiaan Borret, Antwerp city architect

“It’s kind of a hinge point in the history of better urban planning in Antwerp,” says Kristiaan Borret, the current city architect. “In those times there was no interest from the political authority. It really came bottom up from the civil society.” Manuel de Solà Morales won the Het Eilandje competition and although his scheme was not adopted, it strongly informed the masterplan which Borret’s predecessor would go on to draw up in 2002.

Central to that plan is the creation of a primary axis projecting out from the city and heavily loaded with cultural activities. The recently opened Museum aan de Stroom (Museum by the River) represents the first contribution to this trail of crumbs. Designed by Rotterdam’s Neutelings Riedijk, the building is part museum — its exhibits tell the story of Antwerp’s history as a global trading hub — and part viewing platform. A Beaubourgesque free-to-access circulation route corkscrews around the stacked galleries, culminating in a terrace from which visitors can look back to the historic city and north to Het Eiandje’s soon-to-be-colonised quaysides. To the west, they can also see the wide expanse of the Scheldt, the river to which the MAS’s name refers. A central ambition of the city’s structural plan is to strengthen an awareness of Antwerp’s proximity to the river, with the redevelopment of Het Eilandje seen as offering particularly valuable opportunities.

Following the MAS’s opening, cafés and restaurants have sprouted up but the area still suffers from a lack of basic amenities. There is no supermarket, no bakery and not enough schools. Thus far the settlers at Het Eilandje have been very much of the two incomes/no kids variety. That is certainly true of those living in the twin towers, Westkaai 1 and 2, that Diener & Diener has realised further down the primary axis, a couple of hundred metres to the north of the MAS. These buildings are in fact the very furthest from the city centre to have been built, their occupants being drawn from that niche market of people prepared to pay a lot to be pioneers.

Looking across Willemdok towards Neutelings Riedijk’s MAS.

Source: Anita Verbeke

Looking across Willemdok towards Neutelings Riedijk’s MAS.

The fragility of this market is suggested by the site’s current condition. The Diener & Diener buildings have been planned as the first of six slim residential towers that will extend down the primary axis and form a frontage to Het Eilandje’s largest dock, the kilometre-long Kattendijkdok. The second pair has been designed by David Chipperfield and the final two by Gigon & Guyer. The floorplans of Chipperfield’s buildings have been redesigned more than once with the aim of increasing the number of smaller — supposedly more marketable — units, but two years on from the completion of Diener & Diener’s scheme, construction work has yet to commence.

Hopefully, the developer’s patience will be rewarded as the six Westkaai towers promise to form a compelling ensemble.

In this the architects have been helped by the edicts of the city’s Built Quality Plan which determines that new buildings in Het Eilandje should adopt a warehouse-like character through the use of simple massing and a single cladding material. Borret is clear, however, that legislation alone cannot provide an assurance of quality.

Visualisation showing Diener Diener’s Westkaai towers, their still-to-be-built neighbour by David Chipperfield and the positions of the remaining three towers.

Source: Image: Toon Grobet

Visualisation showing Diener Diener’s Westkaai towers, their still-to-be-built neighbour by David Chipperfield and the positions of the remaining three towers.

“It can only prevent really problematic buildings,” he says. “We have these guidelines but at the same time we have the architecture commission, which I chair ,where we talk with the architect and developer and find a common sensibility.” In the case of the Westkaai towers those discussions led to the decision that the buildings’ facades would be uniformly light-coloured, reflective and delicate — an articulation that contrasts pointedly with the low-rise red brick development being encouraged elsewhere.

If the Westkaai towers could be accused of being conventional high-end waterfront development, the reconstruction of the Cadix area to the east is intended to support a greater social mix. Here the City of Antwerp has taken ownership of the land and is building homes for family occupation. Although Antwerp’s population continues to grow, it has historically struggled to retain families.

“We have an anti-urban tradition dating from political parties at the beginning of the 20th century — that belief that the city is the place of evil,” explains Borret.

“If you have children, the normal thing is to live in the countryside and commute to work. We are countering that by building larger houses and keeping them cheap: 25% will be social housing with between 50-70% at the affordable level.”

The Montevideo warehouses are being converted by Chris Poulissen for commercial and office use. The Westkaai towers are behind

The Montevideo warehouses are being converted by Chris Poulissen for commercial and office use. The Westkaai towers are behind

Cadix will also accommodate many of the key amenities that Het Eilandje presently lacks. Borret acknowledges that their slow delivery has held back progress on the area’s development but argues that this incremental approach will ultimately produce a more successful outcome. He is notably critical of the Dutch culture of inviting a single developer to deliver a wholesale piece of city in one go.

“Everything becomes dated early in those sort of instant neighbourhoods,” he says.

“I really like the way we are developing Het Eilandje as a slow urbanism, often changing the way we do things but never changing the final aim. We want a variety of architecture and a variety of programmes. That gives a richer, multi-layered development.”

There is a large contingent of foreign architects working at Het Eilandje which Borret believes contributes to a cosmopolitan quality, befitting a port district. However, as is suggested by the finely gauged relationship between the Kattendijkdok towers, he is determined not to create an architectural zoo.

“There is a direct link between contemporary Flemish architecture and the kind of work designed by Diener & Diener. The MAS is one of the mostdiscrete buildings by Neutelings - in a way a very Flemish Neutelings building. We have foreign architects but we don’t have foreign architecture.”

The one obvious exception to that truth is Zaha Hadid’s proposed expansion of the port authority’s early 20th century headquarters. Resembling a gigantic stiletto crashing down on the roof of its host building, this extraordinarily overbearing project will dominate the view down the Kattendijkdok. Borret’s advice was to abandon the competition on the grounds that none of the submitted schemes were sufficiently strong but, new in the job at the time, he failed to prevent a winner being selected. It is an outcome that he describes as “one of something like five mistakes I have made as bouwmeester”.

No doubt there will be more, but Het Eilandje offers no shortage of evidence of the inestimable value of allowing a city architect to steer development towards a considered collective expression.

Timeline the history of Het Eilandje

Robbrecht and Daem's transformation of the St-Felix warehouse into the city archives

Robbrecht and Daem’s transformation of the St-Felix warehouse into the city archives

Het Eilandje established as Antwerp’s original port

First two docks excavated on the orders of Napoleon Bonaparte

Staad aan de Stroom ideas competition won by Manuel de Solà Morales

Work completes on the Hans Kollhoff-designed apartment building Het Koninklijk Entrepôt fronting Oude Dokken

Het Eilandje masterplan drawn up by Antwerp’s first city architect René Daniëls

Robbrecht and Daem complete work on the transformation of the St-Felix warehouse into the city archives

Neutelings Riedijk’s MAS museum opens, 11 years after the practice wins the competition

Target date for the completion of homes for 4,000 new residents in the Cadix area


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