The Port House in Antwerp: A lighthouse for the world
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.
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 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.
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. 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. 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.
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.
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. 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 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. 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.
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. 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 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.