Discover Antwerp’s renovated stock exchange at Christmas concerts
Vacant for 20 years, the port city’s opulent Handelsbeurs has reopened as a meeting and event space – part of a bold new vision for the site
Rising from the ashes
Its enormous ground floor is equipped to host 1,600 people, and 10 further rooms on the first floor cater to groups of up to 120. With the first stage of restoration complete, the Handelsbeurs has already hosted an Urban Walk for the public, a fashion show by Ann Demeulemeester and conferences Fashion Talks & Creative Ville.
“The uniqueness of the site and the demand for a location with this capacity in central Antwerp means we’re hosting events almost every day,” explains Maryse Daniels, project co-ordinator for developer Handelsbeurs Antwerpen NV.
A RICH HISTORY
Facilitating its new role, a three-story car park has opened underneath the building, operated by Q-Park. J&M Catering, the on-site caterers, are due to open a global restaurant, Fiera, in the Schippersbeurs, a side aisle of the building, in early 2020.
This will be followed by the arrival of Antwerp’s first five-star hotel, The Autograph by Marriott, which will have 139 rooms and occupy the old Hotel du Bois on Lange Nieuwstraat.
“This new commercial remit is what allows us to preserve the building’s heritage,” says Danny Achten, Handelsbeurs Antwerpen’s CEO. “We want everybody to be able to come here and enjoy it.”
The Handelsbeurs, or stock exchange, was designed in 1531 by Domien De Waghemakere and quickly became a hub of Antwerp’s 16th-century Golden Age, drawing traders from around the globe.
As the first exchange built specifically for financial and commodity trading, it predated the first shares, creating the template for all other European exchanges, including London and Amsterdam (which later outstripped it).
It twice went up in flames – in 1583 and 1858 – and was rebuilt, with architect Jozef Schadde’s current neo-Gothic building dating from 1872. Its stock exchange days came to an end in 1997, when it was merged with the Brussels Beurs.
At every stage we went back to the original 1872 design
Though the Handelsbeurs continued to host events – notably the Antwerp fashion academy’s annual show – it was closed in 2001 amid fire-safety concerns.
For the City, restoration was a pressing concern. To increase its commercial appeal, they opted to lease it as part of a portfolio with the Schippersbeurs and several buildings on Lange Nieuwstraat.
Mopro Invest won the tender, but development stalled. The arrival of a new government in 2012 added impetus to the project, and in 2015 Handelsbeurs Antwerpen NV took over its development.
Since 2016, the company, which comprises both public and private shareholders – PMV and AG VESPA in the former case, and Diepensteyn NV and Denys Global NV in the latter – has painstakingly restored the site to its former glory at a cost of some €60 million.
The main challenge: equipping a 19th-century building with 21st-century technology, while preserving its unique wall- and ceiling-paintings, ornamental wood joinery and stained-glass windows.
“At every stage we went back to the original 1872 design,” says Daniels. “The parquet floor, which is always mentioned in articles, was not historically correct, so we removed that and put back the original stone floor.”
Three millimetres higher
The creation of the subterranean car park was a major feat: the ground floor was essentially removed, with jet-grouting technology used to inject temporary foundation piles about 14 metres deep in order to hold up the walls and stone columns. In the process the building was lifted three millimetres.
The overall result is a triumph. “Our contact at Flanders Heritage said she’d use the building as a best-practice reference for integrating modern techniques into a heritage building,” says Daniels. “That was a huge compliment.”
The plan is for the site to become fully accessible to the public once the restaurant and hotel are complete. Meanwhile, to sate curiosity, a roster of public events has been planned.
This weekend, two Christmas concerts will feature CASCO Phil, the Chamber Orchestra of Belgium, playing festive classics by Mozart, Tchaikovsky and Brahms. City guide Tanguy Ottomer, collaborating with Daniels on a book about the building, will also be on hand to give a talk about its past, present and future.
If you miss it, Ottomer’s BeroepsBelg offers regular guided tours of the site, taking in the surrounding former financial district. They are available in eight languages.
It’s all part of an unlikely turnaround for this once-derelict site. “It’s a real rebirth,” says Daniels. “It’s quite literally a phoenix rising from the ashes – for a third time.”