Harbour masterpiece: stunning new port HQ opens in Antwerp

Summary

The bold design is courtesy of Zaha Hadid: a giant glass hub perched on a replica heritage building, setting the seal on the Eilandje district’s reinvention

Style and ambition

It could be the coolest office in the world: rising from the water’s edge like a crystal galleon, the new headquarters of the Antwerp Port Authority are already a spectacular sight. But what makes the building even more stunning is its improbable location: atop a replica 16th-century warehouse.

Designed by the late Zaha Hadid, the bold neo-futurist architect known for her elegant curves and sweeping scale, the new Port House opened to fanfare on 23 September. Dubbed the “diamond ship” – a nod to Antwerp’s history as a hub for the diamond trade – the giant glass block sits proudly on its classical base, like an alien spaceship that has found a comfortable nest.

Together, the two form an impressive new landmark as the Port Authority headquarters, overlooking the city and port, and symbolising Antwerp’s global importance.

At the opening ceremony, Flemish public works minister Ben Weyts said Hadid’s building would be a calling card for Antwerp, a global landmark for the city. “A great creative power has shaped this Port House,” he said, speaking on the newly named Zaha Hadid Square in front of the building. “The new Port House will help associate Antwerp with concepts like stylishness, ambition, quality and modernism.”

As a choir sang, a symbolic key was lowered by rope to Weyts and Antwerp mayor Bart De Wever, who carried it to the gates of new offices. 

Stunning juxtaposition

The Port House perches precariously like a vast iceberg, balancing on a massive concrete buttress – a few of which are drilled through the covered courtyard of the warehouse – and cantilevering beyond the southern edge of the building. It’s a stunning juxtaposition, reminiscent of the glass pyramid in the centre of the Louvre courtyard in Paris.

The new Port House caps almost a decade of work by the Port Authority to move from its cramped offices on the Bonaparte Dock

The design takes its guiding cues from the building’s historical narrative, repurposing, renovating and extending the base into a new headquarters. Shaped like the bow of a ship, the new structure points towards the Scheldt river. Its facade of tessellated panels ripples like waves and reflects the changing tones and colours of the city’s sky.

The old building’s central courtyard is now enclosed with a glass roof and is transformed into the main reception area for the new Port House. From this central atrium, visitors can enter the historic public reading room and library. Panoramic lifts provide direct access to the new extension with an external bridge between the existing building and extension giving views of the city and port. The building has cost €55 million so far; officials admit that contractors are demanding a further €20 million.

The new Port House caps almost a decade of work by the Port Authority to move from its cramped offices on the Bonaparte Dock. It was in 2007 that the port announced plans for a sustainable and future-proof workplace for its employees, in an ever-expanding local and international arena.

At the threshold between the city and its immense port, Mexico Island in Antwerp’s Kattendijk dock was selected as the site for the new head office. The waterside site also offered significant sustainable construction benefits, allowing materials and building components to be transported by water, an important requirement in meeting the port’s ecological targets.

Sheer dynamism

The building on the base has its own story to tell. It was once a fire station, as well as a listed replica of a 16th-century residence and warehouse of the Hanseatic League, a northern European commerce and defence confederation. The original warehouse burnt down in 1893 and was rebuilt in 1922, on the north side of the port.

Marc Van Peel, president of Antwerp Port Authority, said that while the former Hansa House recalled the 16th century, Antwerp’s golden era, “this new contemporary structure in shining glass represents a new golden century for Antwerp”. 

What charmed the jury was the sheer dynamism of it. This is 500 years of fantastic history

- Marc Van Peel

He said the original brief for the new Port House had been for an iconic building, that symbolised Antwerp as a world port, preserved the Hansa House, and was built according to the principles of sustainability. All the five entries for the eventual competition put the new building on top of the old, but Hadid’s design won out.

“What charmed the jury was the sheer dynamism of it. This is 500 years of fantastic history. You can entertain rhetoric with this building,” he said. “There is controversy. People ask how you can combine old and new, but that is exactly what we want to do.”

The Port House is opening four months after the completion of the largest sea lock in the world, the Kieldrecht lock, which connects the left bank harbour with the Scheldt. The Port Authority says it is just one step in its ambitious programme of transformation. 

Indeed, the Port House will contribute to further development and upgrading of the part of the city known as Het Eilandje. Until 2014, Het Eilandje was still part of the port area, but it has now been reclaimed by the City of Antwerp, with the new dividing line now passing just above, through the Straatsburg dock, which connects to the Albert canal.

Previously bustling docks are empty of activity as shipping has spread to the vast docks to the north, now covering an area about 10 times the size of the city. Het Eilandje, like the London Docklands, is being turned from an abandoned industrial site into a trendy residential area. The Port House is expected to help establish Het Eilandje as one of the most coveted corners of Flanders.

‘She loved Antwerp’

Baghdad-born Hadid, who became a British citizen, died in March this year. A Pritzker Prize winner and double Stirling Prize winner, she featured in the Forbes list of The World’s 100 Most Powerful Women, and Time magazine’s 100 most influential people, and became a Dame in 2012. Among her famed works are the London Aquatic Centre for the Olympic Games, the Opera House in Guangzhou, the MAXXI in Rome and the Contemporary Arts Center in Cincinnati.

By the time she died, her Zaha Hadid Architects (ZHA) practice had 53 projects in 26 countries under way. “Zaha Hadid loved Antwerp and she loved its designers, whose clothes she often wore,” Alison Rose, the British ambassador to Belgium, said during the opening ceremony.

Patrik Schumacher, the new director of ZHA, admitted that the project was controversial. “We have a thick skin. A lot of our sketches are criticised as crazy. But as the projects materialise, they start to make sense,” he said. “Architecture is communication as much as function.”

Photo courtesy Port of Antwerp

Port of Antwerp

The port of Antwerp is Europe’s second-largest port and one of the world’s most important ports for container traffic.
Going green - The port’s first-ever sustainability report won it the Award for Best Belgian Sustainability Report.
Size - The port takes up more space than the actual city of Antwerp.
Roots - Historians have found evidence for the port’s existence dating back to the 12th century.
154

barges entering the port daily

900

companies in the greater port area

184

tonnes of freight handled in 2012