Over the years a lot of ink has been spilled over the much maligned “Manhattan Plan” in the north of Brussels. As a textbook example of megalomaniac modernist excess this urban desert remains unloved; yet its scale and ambition continue to fascinate. Hot on the heels of nearby regeneration projects, the time has come to address its historic shortcomings and liberate this masterplan from the chilling grip of autistic architectural powerplay.
The CCN building sits at the heart of the North Quarter and is central to its failings. This mute monolith internalises public space and sucks life out of the streets around it. It obscures and overwhelms the fine historic architecture of the Brussels North railway station; and in one fell swoop undercuts any interaction with the urban fabric of Schaarbeek to the east. We undertake to right these wrongs with a building that breaks down its bulk to create and engage public space and start a long overdue dialogue with its surroundings.
An urban vestibule
The CCN complex currently sits at the head of the Boulevard Simon Bolivar. It feels like a strange anti-climax: the awkward postmodern slab seems morphologically unaware of its central role in the masterplan. Confusingly, there was a ready-made monument already there in the form of the station it smothered. In our design we re-open the vista towards it and create a proper station square in front. The latter is raised to allow space for the untouched Gordian knot of transport links underneath; and is covered with an urban roof to protect it from rain and downdraughts from the surrounding high-rises.
At last the monumental axis of the Boulevard Simon Bolivar gets the finale it deserves: the finely proportioned facade of the old station building, fronted by a human-scaled public space so severely lacking in this neighbourhood. Opening up this vista also offers up tantalising glimpses of old Schaarbeek beyond, to which the station now acts as an almost ceremonial entry.
As we subtract the station square from the building volume, we extend the building envelope southwards in order to provide the floor area required by the brief. As a result our design re-engages with the street there — whereas the CCN hung back awkwardly to leave nothing but undefined residual space in its wake. A stepped square between our building and the railway gives appropriate breathing space to the prominent bell tower of the station. This also marks the start of a generous pedestrian passage between the station and the new building, which slopes up to eventually join the station square.
Flexibility in diversity
The proposed station square splits the new development into two separate building blocks. These are courtyard blocks reminiscent of the historic city’s perimeter blocks, with density concentrated at the edges and on the corners.
We want to distance ourselves from the heroic “International Style” interpretation of flexibility which is characterised by generic typical plans and maximum structural spans — as found in the surrounding skyscrapers and the old CCN building respectively. We believe true flexibility is offered by diversification. Hence we break down the building mass in a variety of mini-towers and slabs. Some of these are dedicated to housing, others to offices, while F&B and retail occupy the lower floors. To optimise sustainability, daylight requirements and the need to limit cooling loads are key to determining which activities go where — higher towers tend to be residential, while commercial programmes can accommodate deeper plans.
The formal articulation of the different building strands continues down to the ground floor. Instead of an impregnable fortress-like podium this introduces a varied and relatable facade at street level, with recognisable addresses for retail outlets,.
On the roofs and throughout the buildings we find semi-public and private green spaces. Besides mediating the micro-climate and acting as a source of fresh air for natural ventilation, they offer breakout spaces for users and visitors as well as habitats for urban fauna and flora. A three-dimensional matrix of open spaces generates exciting perspectives incorporating hanging gardens, urban balconies, multi-storey atria and green courtyards.
We devise a structural grid that works with the existing foundation — the latter is fixed due to the complexity of the subterranean traffic infrastructure it needs to accommodate. Although we cannot change the underground layouts of the bus and subway stations, we introduce visual links through perforations in the station square and lower retail floors of buildings. These voids deliver dazzling Piranesian perspectives into a busy netherworld while providing daylight and improving social control.
The structural grid module is optimised to balance flexibility with structural performance.The ambition is to make this building’s structure at least partly out of timber composite members, dramatically lowering the carbon footprint of the building, speeding up the construction process and improving the indoor climate.
The grid of the structural system is expressed in the external envelope as large protruding frames to the glazed facade. This introduces a more readable and relatable scale to the buildings in contrast to the curtain-walled monoliths next door. On top of that, these deep frames provide a measure of passive solar shading and decrease velocity of downward winds along the facade.
In general the massing aims to provide a formal transition from the large scale development of the North Quarter to the older fine-grained urban fabric. The building becomes a stepping stone between disjointed parts of the city both below and above ground; a vibrant connector that relishes being at the crossroads of different urban flows.