Antwerp’s complicated relationship with its river and harbour has been well documented. In recent years the old quays which cut off the city from the Scheldt are finally being redeveloped into buzzing public spaces: the unsightly scars left by the departure of the old harbour activities are being healed and put to use. Where the interface zone between river and city was defined by trade and commerce once, it is now being taken over by leisure activities.
At the northern end of these quays stands the important “Loodswezen” building: the one-time base for the maritime pilots navigating ships through the river. The heavily ornamented building in eclectic style marks the transition from the medieval city core to the old harbour: it is here that the first docks were built by order of Napoleon, marking the start of the meteoric growth of the harbour infrastructure which now reaches all the way to the border with the Netherlands.
This historically charged area deserves to be more than the black hole of surface car parks and dilapidated buildings it currently is. When the city invited architects to put forward proposals for this site, POLO took on the challenge with both hands. The fact that our offices directly overlook this site made this an undertaking that was extra close to our heart.
Our design team partnered up with developers, investors, designers and other specialists to conceive a varied program of functions and a healthy mix of public and private spaces. The aim is to give this space back to the general public to enjoy, while simultaneously adding a commercial component to generate the funding necessary to ensure the architectural quality it deserves.
The most eye-catching component within our intervention is a new hotel, which we dub “the Loods”. This is to be the first truly riverfront hotel in Antwerp, a high-end destination for conferences and events. Standing at just shy of 50 metres tall, it is a new landmark within the city, commensurate with the significance of its location. Its carefully considered massing is a result of extensive volumetric and sightline studies. It avoids competing with the neighbouring historic buildings, while forming an attractive new beacon that is visible from the different urban axes converging at the site. Its silhouette is set to signal the northern entrance to the inner city of Antwerp.
The hotel tower stands on an L-shaped podium housing the lobby and shops. This ground floor features an expressive fragmented concrete ceiling and mushroom columns, making reference to the old warehouses down the road. The facade is set back at the ground floor, providing a covered walkway around the perimeter. At the upper levels there is a ballroom for events and a rooftop restaurant with two outdoor terraces.
The facade features horizontal brick banding and vertical fins in bluestone, the materials used in the neighbouring historical buildings. The varied articulation of the fins references the movement of the nearby water.
The structural grid of the tower is based on a module that is carefully dimensioned to accommodate both the guest rooms and an efficient layout for the basement carpark underneath. This carpark features a space-saving split-level arrangement and is built wide rather than deep so as not to conflict with the tunnel under the Scheldt or the frail old quay walls.
Landscape and heritage
The landscaping around the hotel — developed in collaboration with Okra Landschapsarchitecten — picks up on certain historical traces and renders them visible and readable in the landscape once again. Simultaneously a higher tidal barrier needs to be integrated. Instead of doing so through a conspicuous flood wall as before, this is achieved through a carefully choreographed play of level differences, gradients and operable gates. This makes for a functional but varied landscape design which features a stimulating interplay of lawns and more lush greenery, hardscape areas for events and copious seating arrangements.
The old canals which used to connect the river to the inner city— and have long since been filled up or covered — are expressed in raised tree-planted zones which culminate in urban balconies, providing panoramic views over the river.
POLO collaborated with celebrated architects Cruz Y Ortiz to reimagine the heritage buildings on the site. For the Loodswezen building we proposed a cultural and public function like a museum, in keeping with its important location and proximity to the MAS museum. In general the outside of the building is left intact and the logic of the original layout is respected. The central patio is sunk down below the level of the piano nobile to let light penetrate deeper into the building. This patio is rendered in white to provide a striking contrast with the restored original architecture. The addition of geometric“light cannons” above the patio are the most striking indication to the world outside that this building has been given a new, exciting lease of life. These also transform the formerly outdoor patio into an interior space, making it usable for all sorts of events and happenings.
The small “Boeienloods” building next door is envisaged to become a restaurant. However space is limited here and we do want to conserve the outer appearance of the building as well as the unique roof truss structure. Hence we propose digging down: in a radical move we locate all services and kitchen facilities in a new basement under the existing building. This preserves the proportions and unique qualities of the interior space with its tall windows for the customers to enjoy.