The Port House in Antwerp: A lighthouse for the world

The Port House in Antwerp: A lighthouse for the world
Photo source
Schüco International KG
Of the final projects designed by the late Zaha Hadid, the Port House in Antwerp is one of the first in the world to be completed.

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 Port House in Antwerp: A lighthouse for the world
Picture credits: Schüco International KG
The Port House in Antwerp: A lighthouse for the world

As the second largest commercial port in Europe, Antwerp plays a significant role in international maritime and domestic trade. The port thereby creates countless jobs, not only in Antwerp but also with its trade partners worldwide, and aims to design a site and a company that is sustainable and future-proof.

The motivation behind the 2007 competition was to build a new headquarters at the port in Antwerp which represented the values of the company both internally for its 500 employees from areas of technology and administration, as well as externally in a local and international market.

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.
Picture credits: Schüco International KG
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.

The need for a new office building for the port authorities and the wish to keep the listed Hanseatic-style building of a former fire station on Mexico Island in Antwerp's Kattendijk dock led to an invitation from the Flemish building authorities and the Antwerp port authorities to take part in a competition with the brief of retaining the old building and transforming it.

 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.
Picture credits: Schüco International KG

Together with Origin, a consultancy for cultural heritage, Zaha Hadid Architects got to grips with the history of the site and the building. The decision to have an elevated extension to the existing building instead of an adjoining new structure emerged from this historical analysis.

The design is a nod to a tower that was originally intended for the Hanseatic building and was to be added as a large landmark that could be seen for miles around. What did not come about at the time is now being realised in the extension.

 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.
Picture credits: Schüco International KG

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. Equally important for the design and crucial for the decision to have a vertical extension was the interpretation of the four façades in the old fire station as equal.

 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.
Picture credits: Schüco International KG

An extension would have obstructed at least one side of the building and impacted on the façade hierarchy. The new building appears to float above the old one, and the austere, angular solidity of the existing building contrasts with the dynamic curved surface of the new building, which represents the principle of a single, flowing façade like an organic object.

 The weight of the new building rests on one concrete column in the middle of the atrium and another in front of the building.
Picture credits: Schüco International KG
The weight of the new building rests on one concrete column in the middle of the atrium and another in front of the building.

With its sensitive nod to the existing building and the location, the new structure shows that it not only stands out like an icon, it also knows to integrate into the context. Located on the threshold between city and port, the new extension points like the bow of a ship towards the river Scheldt, connecting the building to the river on which Antwerp was built.

The inside of the new building is also reminiscent of a ship in terms of its dynamics. Numerous views of the port, city and river have been created in the white rooms by means of a glazed panoramic façade.

 Diamond or ship? The city and port authorities see the new Port House as a symbol for the tradition of the diamond trade and shipping.
Picture credits: Schüco International KG
Diamond or ship? The city and port authorities see the new Port House as a symbol for the tradition of the diamond trade and shipping.

Surrounded by water, the façade of the new extension consists of a glazed surface which appears to move like a wave and reflects the changing shadows and colours of the city's sky.

Developed by architects, façade planners and Schüco, the special construction consisting of triangular segments enables the formation of apparently smooth curves with flat glass plates and also creates a gradual transition from flat façade on the south end of the building to a wave-like façade in the north. Most of the triangular segments are transparent, while some are opaque.

 Diamond or ship? The city and port authorities see the new Port House as a symbol for the tradition of the diamond trade and shipping.
Picture credits: Schüco International KG

This precise, coordinated mixture ensures that there is sufficient sunlight inside the building while also controlling the level of solar radiation. Furthermore, the mixing of transparent and opaque façade units interrupts the building volume of the new extension and offers panoramic views of the river Scheldt, the city and the port.

The rough, wave-like design of the façade is emphasised by the flat façade joints in the south which become increasingly three-dimensional in the north. The new extension appears as a transparent volume, the surface of which changes with the varying intensity of daylight. Like the rough waters of the surrounding port, the façade reflects the ever changing light conditions.

 The new Port House is the structural link between city and port – this connection is also produced inside by means of visual axes.
Picture credits: Schüco International KG
The new Port House is the structural link between city and port – this connection is also produced inside by means of visual axes.

The inner courtyard of the fire station was closed with a glass roof and converted into a reception area for the new Port House. From this central atrium, visitors can access a public reading room and a library within the former fire engine hall, which has been carefully restored and transformed.

 The new Port House is the structural link between city and port – this connection is also produced inside by means of visual axes.
Picture credits: Schüco International KG

Panoramic elevators allow direct access to the new extension via an external concrete bridge between the existing building and extension, and offer views of the city and the port.

The port authorities' requirement for offices with high communicative value is fulfilled by means of corresponding areas such as a restaurant, meeting rooms and an auditorium, which are all located in the middle of the top floor of the existing building and in the lower floors of the newbuild.

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

Working together with energy consultancy firm Ingenium, Zaha Hadid Architects developed a sustainable and energy-efficient design which was awarded a "Very good" environmental certificate by BREEAM. Despite the challenges posed by integrating a newbuild into a listed building, it was still possible to achieve the high standards of sustainable design by implementing effective strategies in each stage of construction.

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

A geothermal heating system pumps water from 80 metres underground to over 100 locations in the building, providing heat and cooling. This system uses chilled beams in the existing building and chilled ceilings in the newbuild.

Waterless washrooms and motion detectors reduce water consumption, while the building automation system and optimum sunlight control minimise the use of artificial light. The waterfront location also facilitated a sustainable construction method, as it was possible to transport material and building components directly to the building site by means of waterways.

 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.
Picture credits: Schüco International KG
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.

For more information, visit www.schueco.com/porthouse

 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.
Picture credits: Schüco International KG

 

Project details

Project: Port House

Location: Antwerp, Belgium

Client: Antwerp port authorities, Belgium

Architect: Zaha Hadid Architects (ZHA), London UK

Design: Zaha Hadid, Patrik Schumacher

ZHA project director: Joris Pauwels

ZHA project manager: Jinmi Lee

ZHA employees responsible for implementation: Florian Goscheff, Monica Noguero, Kristof Crolla, Naomi Fritz, Sandra Riess, Muriel Boselli, Susanne Lettau

ZHA competition employees: Kristof Crolla, Sebastien Delagrange,
Paulo Flores, Jimena Araiza, Sofia Daniilidou, Andres Schenker,
Evan Erlebacher, Lulu Aldihani

Site management: Bureau Bouwtechniek, Antwerp, Belgium

Structural planning: Studieburo Mouton Bvba, Ghent, Belgium

Energy technology: Ingenium Nv Acoustic, Bruges, Belgium

Acoustics: Daidalos Peutz, Leuven, Belgium

Restoration consultancy: Origin, Brussels, Belgium

Façade design: Groven+, Liège, Belgium

Surface area: Existing building: 6600 m2

Newbuild: 6200 m2

Competition: 2007

Completion: 2016

Schüco systems: Aluminium special façade construction

 

Interview Project Director

 

„A dynamic appearance in contrast to static dignity“

Joris Pauwels, executive director for the Port House project at Zaha Hadid Architects.
Picture credits: Zaha Hadid Architects
Joris Pauwels, executive director for the Port House project at Zaha Hadid Architects.

Joris Pauwels, verantwortlicher Direktor für das Port House bei Zaha Hadid Architects, über den respektvollen Umgang mit dem Bestand und die multidisziplinäre Zusammenarbeit bei der Entwicklung eines neuen Fassadenmodells.

 

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.

 

Interview director of Groven+

 

„Linking design and production was a must“

Etienne Clinquart, director of Groven+
Picture credits: groven+
Etienne Clinquart, director of Groven+

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.

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