DOUBLE OR NOTHING
Five-year exhibition layout Location: Bruges, BE • Invited competition: 2002 • Completion: 2003 • Client: City of Bruges • 51N4E: Full process • Programme: Semi-permanent exhibition • Built surface: 1,170m²
It seems like blasphemy to break open the sacral and retiring character of a museum like the Groeninge in Bruges and to extract the works of art from the reverent radiance of their security. Yet this sort of sacrilegious gesture can be salutary from time to time. The brief for the transformation of the Groeninge Museum dates from 2002. The radical approach taken by the architects was the only way to work efficiently. A conversion in stages was proposed. Only the first stage was carried out, but it clearly set the tone for later development. First and foremost, the museum was drawn out of its seclusion and given back to the city. The designers refer to a ‘public route’ and an ‘exhibition route’, which differ from each other in the intensity of the art experience. After all, there are many ways of dealing with art, as the designers demonstrate in their approach to the various rooms. The original 1930 museum, designed by the municipal architect Jozef Viérin, was stripped of all later additions. A clear chronological course was drawn up. In this framework, each room is treated in its own way by means of appropriate lighting. What is more, by using various materials and methods of display, each room is adapted to the works of art on show. In some rooms the light is reflected by the bright white mosaic floor, while in others the mood is set by an opulent red carpet. However, nothing is done to remind us of the expectations of a traditional museum. Everything revolves around the direct relationship with the work of art. As a result of the everyday setting in which they find themselves, visitors are either confronted with the bare essentials of the work of art, or else find themselves naked and unprotected in the face of the work of art – which amounts to the same thing. Geert Bekaert
As important as the collection is the public – whether tourist, flâneur or expert. A new museum arrangement should also elicit new ways of viewing the art, as well as new ways of interaction: attentive, inclusive, bulimic, superficial, punctual… (photo: The Modern Room)
The super-ellipse: scientific description
How low can a control tower be?
Longing for Abstraction Infrastructure makes the city. In our cities, however, modern infrastructure has become so dominant that its very presence annihilates the cherished image of what an inhabitable city centre should look like. This puts us in a schizophrenic situation: we need most what we hate most. Ports are different. Not burdened with aesthetic aspirations or the need to comfort human beings, the port area avoids all the contradictions of our modern cities. Its essence, blatantly, is infrastructure, the modernity of which is imperative. A genuine form of urban planning, addressing giant vessels instead of humans. As such, a modern port is a marvel of our times, one of the rare places where globalisation reveals its face. Here brute functionality, through its scale and awkward programmes, results in overwhelming aesthetics. From a designer’s point of view this raises a daunting paradox. Sheds and offices that architecturally are totally inferior seem to blend so perfectly into the overall setting that it often looks as if ugliness itself is an essential part of the composition. Somewhat awkwardly, deliberate design easily creates the opposite effect: in the context of a port it usually stands out as a misfit. In designing a new watchtower for a port area, therefore, the architect has to confront a delicate question. Due to its height and function the tower will represent the identity of the harbour and thus become, no matter what, emblematic in an environment that doesn’t absorb intentional design with too much ease. In other words: how to design an emblematic building that avoids being too much of an icon? That this question was not necessarily uppermost in the minds of either the architects or the jury members became clear when, as a member of the jury, I was confronted with the five designs for the new watchtower. Four out five were unashamedly proposing an architectural icon. For me, the proposal by 51N4E stood out on account of its brutal and functional abstraction – the same design approach that shipbuilders take in order to be both productive and cost-effective. In line with this, the design for the Coordination Centre emerges as the result of a hardcore scientific analysis. Every aspect of the tower is presented as being generated by applying logic. Its position, its height, the three sections, the viewing angles – every feature has a clear and plausible motive. The focus is firstly on organising the workspaces in which three formerly independent harbour institutes have to collaborate closely. With minimal obstructions the staff have to see not just each other but also a multitude of computer screens and the surrounding
river and harbour areas. To organise the workspace by means of three wings creates a simple and elegant answer to all these requirements. Each of the three departments works in its own setting but remains in open and direct contact with the other two. The main architectural question – how to keep 1,800m2 of programme high up in the air – is technically straightforward and therefore presented as a secondary issue. The impulse to make the tower as high as possible was resisted with the argument that an elevation of 50m is already sufficient to guarantee the required overview of the harbour. Yet the notion of seeing and being seen is introduced here. In silhouette tests the height was verified in relation to the context of both the harbour and the more remote city of Antwerp. For the rest, the design issues are straightforward. The former harbour building is not made redundant, but reprogrammed to absorb the entry to the new tower that cantilevers with poise over it. The result of all this is a strong and compelling functional structure that nevertheless presents a rich architectural image from every angle. The abstract appearance is a relief, fitting well in a context of ruthless winds and big vessels. The emblematic silhouette is sturdy and handsome, reinforcing an environment that normally absorbs ugliness with much more ease than beauty. And yet, the beauty of the design is by no means a by-product. Amidst the overkill of logic and functional reasoning it still is as if you are looking at Madonna dressed in a man’s suit – deliberately masking beauty in an attempt to make it even more alluring. Nothing wrong with that. Floris Alkemade
Guiding super-tankers through the shallow Schelde River demands ever higher levels of coordination. To this end, the coordination spaces are to be centralised in a single building. The programme â€“ an office floor raised in the air â€“ is translated into a straightforward three-dimensional object. The functional flow chart is laid out in a trident floor plan centrally balanced on a triangular base.
The arms cover a span of up to 60m, making the buildingâ€™s width more striking than its height. This is a design in which the form equals its content. As an important building in both the city of Antwerp and the port infrastructure, it stands as an icon of pragmatism.
Café and renovation of headquarters building Location: Brussels, BE • Project: 2005 • Completion: 2008 • Client: Unitas vzw • 51N4E: Full process • Programme: Offices, public café • Built surface: 2,390m²
In 2008 51N4E carried out the conversion of the headquarters of the Flemish Christian Democratic Party (CD&V) in Wetstraat in Brussels. At first sight the commission hardly seems to be front-page news – several head offices are housed in Wetstraat – but the result is nevertheless quite striking, not least because of its unusual name, Wet89, which refers only to the street and the house number and appears to have little to do with its political occupants. The design also distances itself from any explicit references to the ideology and power concentrated within these offices. What is more, the schedule of requirements has been extended to include extra space for related organisations and above all a place for public eating and drinking: the ‘Wereldsalon’ (world lounge). Against the background of the monotonous office facades that characterise this street and the never-ending rumble of traffic, Wet89 is striking for its lightness and openness. The old, low concrete structure – originally considered worthy only of demolition – turned out to be perfectly adaptable to new use. A clear organisational structure was applied to the office building, rising gradually to the chairman’s office on the top floor. The intention was to make the sections of the party visible, even at the level of the building’s finishes. The chairman’s floor also houses the offices of his immediate staff, a closed waiting room and formal meeting room for the heads of the party – an ingenious circuit of revolving doors eases diplomatic entrances and exits. Also part of the chairman’s office are a lounge and a bedroom, for overnight stays. Below the chairman’s floor are three levels of office, meeting and library rooms for the various departments and administrative sections. Although the open-plan offices create the best possible atmosphere for collaboration, ceiling-high cabinets provide appropriate visual screening and glass panels give acoustic separation. Since its completion, the first few floors of the building have been let out to related political organisations. The exception to the rule is the Wereldsalon, on the ground floor. Entered from the left of the facade, and highly visible, this independently run café makes a unique vestibule to the head office. Its relatively small area is counterbalanced by a striking, curved finish to the ceiling that extends over two storeys. With this Wereldsalon, Wet89 gives something back to the city and the street – a café and meeting place greatly enjoyed by many local visitors and passers-by. The actual reception desk is tucked away slightly to the right of the café, in a continuation of the vivid orange hallway that leads to the lifts, staircase, press room and adjoining building and the back of the café, which also contains an underground car park and
large conference room. The press room and the rear building were not included in the major renovation, but were just tidied up a little. The unique architectural quality of Wet89 would have been impossible to achieve without a good client who was willing to give 51N4E some elbowroom. The client opted for a sustainable approach, asking for the facade of this barely 40-year-old office building to be renovated and the concrete structure to be reused. He also respected the architect’s independence, picking up the staff’s objections to the design proposals, but not necessarily acting on them. With only one mass consultation meeting, the architects were essentially insulated from demands to incorporate party colours, slogans and logos into the design, to add the usual kind of partitions to break up the open-plan offices into cubicles, and to water down the public Wereldsalon into the standard political talking shop. At Wet89, the architectural quality itself is the main concern and the appeal of the party is more of a pleasing extra. All the designers’ attention is focused on the creation of a stylish work environment whose daily users feel good, and not on the design of propaganda. Simply giving priority to architectural quality rather than the ideological needs and desires of the client solves the usual tension between a building’s use value and its logo value. If too much attention is paid to the appeal of a building, this is usually at the expense of its daily use. Wet89 is able to perfectly side-step any discrepancy by making the high-level user-quality of the building itself the basis of its mediagenic allure. The complete absence of propaganda in its design (colour, logos, banners and cheap slogans) appears to break the ice for all its users. The negative connotations usually attached to the head office of a party in power are here swept aside by the appreciation of the building. Both habitués and outsiders identify Wet89 as a hospitable place with cooperation at its heart, rather than as an inaccessible bulwark that watches over ideological purity and distributes mandates. So in the first place this renewed head office aims to appeal within party ranks. This is logical, since it is of far greater advantage to a political party to convince its own members of its credibility than to attract the attention of the anonymous and often distracted passer-by in the street. Architectural quality is a suitable means to this end, because it wins people over in their everyday involvement and well-being. This sort of spontaneous identification is something an ideological discourse is incapable of and which absolutely cannot be achieved by a display of power. In this way, at Wet89 we see the added political value of purely architectural interventions. Openness was of primary importance in the design of the office floors and the Wereldsalon was intended to
Exterior view of the public café on the ground floor
be a public place – these are two of today’s architects’ hobby-horses. Such an exemplary attitude on the part of the client is not possible however if it is not accompanied by something one might call ‘good architectship’ – of how essential it was to be aware of the implicit preconditions and expectations that came with the commission. 51N4E fully appreciated the broadening of CD&V’s horizons by taking very literally the aim of creating an open house and at the same time distancing themselves sufficiently from ideologically tinged motives. The businesslike design of the offices and the addition of a neutral lunch bar responded well to the CD&V quest for confidence and credibility, both within the party and for the outside world. Although these expectations cannot simply be put into words in a schedule of requirements, with hindsight they turn out to be an essential part of the desire for a new party head office. So the quality of Wet89 does not necessarily emerge from any ideological kinship between architect and client – this matter is not touched upon. What is clear, however, is the mutual respect for the inherent individual logics of architecture and of politics. In this respect, 51N4E expressly presented itself as a provider of identity, handing the client an instrument without worrying about the way it was going to be used. 51N4E’s concern here was to inject into this neutral conversion a personal fascination for urban public space. And what the CD&V in turn gains from the architecture is not so much a contribution to the portrayal of its familiar political identity, as a means to sustain the vital process of urban expansion and renewal. Gideon Boie
AA Managing Editor: Thomas Weaver AA Publications Editor: Pamela Johnston Art Director: Zak Kyes Design: Wayne Daly Editorial Assistant: Clare Barrett
51N4E is a Brussels-based international practice that concerns itself with matters of space production, ie architecture, urbanism and cultural analysis. It was founded in 1998 by Johan Anrys, Freek Persyn and Peter Swinnen.
Concept: 51N4E (Johan Anrys, Freek Persyn, Peter Swinnen, Sotiria Kornaropoulou) 51N4E production: Karen Van de Steene, Sotiria Kornaropoulou Translations: Gregory Ball, Clare Barrett, Pamela Johnston
51N4E collaborators (1998 – 2011): Saar Persyn, Jan Opdekamp, Aglaia De Mulder, Ulrike Franzel, Sotiria Kornaropoulou, Jan Das, Kelly Hendriks, Tom Baelus, Karel Verstraeten, Aline Neirynck, Karen Van de Steene, Emmanuel Debroise, Paul Steinbrück, Brenda De Neve, Yannick Van Haelen, Nara Lee, Ivonne Weichold, Matthieu Moreau, Piet Geirnaert, Philippe Nathan, Tine Cooreman, Bob de Wispelaere, Geraldine Lacasse, Jeroen Beerten, Valbona Koci, Dritan Turabi, Enri Leka, Florian Pollo, Willem Broekaert, Sylvester Vandeweghe, Joram Van Den Brande, Karol Wawrzyniak, Olivier Roegiest, Konstantinos Pantazis, Andreas Amodio, Marian Beschoner, Maddalena Treccani, Lama Sfeir, Griet Kuppens, Marc-Achille Filhol, Pablo BarreraRodriguez, Joost Körver, Chris Blackbee, Astrit Vranovci, Lu Zhang, Nele Stragier, droon/William, Anneleen Sterckx, Halewijn Lievens
Union typeface by Radim Peško Printed in Belgium by Cassochrome ISBN 978-1-907896-09-5 © 2011 Architectural Association and the Authors. No part of this book may be reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission from the publisher, except in the context of reviews. Every effort has been made to contact copyright holders, and we apologise in advance for any unintentional omissions. For a catalogue of AA Publications visit aaschool.ac.uk/publications or email firstname.lastname@example.org AA Publications 36 Bedford Square, London WC1B 3ES T + 44 (0)20 7887 4021 F + 44 (0)20 7414 0783 This book is published on the occasion of the 51N4E ‘Double or Nothing’ exhibition held at the Centre for Fine Arts, Brussels from 1 June – 4 September 2011 and the Architectural Association, London from 1– 29 October 2011.