Hundreds of men and women who helped run Antwerp’s port, the second busiest in Europe and the fifth largest in the world, once were scattered in offices across the Flemish city. Then, eight years ago, a decision was made to have everyone work under one roof. The thinking was that the move could make operations at the harbor more efficient, technologically advanced, and sustainably green—plus, if done well, it could garner some prestige. That’s exactly what happened a few weeks ago, when Port House, designed by the late architect Zaha Hadid, was inaugurated. It is, without a doubt, one of the most audacious and original small office buildings designed in modern times.
Hadid has imaginatively transformed the interior of an abandoned fire station, which was based on a 16th-century prototype that burned down long ago. She has introduced an impressive, sky high glass-ceilinged reception hall in the former courtyard through which the upper floors and awaiting adventure are visible; embedded a large green-colored map of Antwerp in the ground floor; and created facilities for conferences, smaller meeting rooms, a public library replete with computers, and a host of other amenities. The window-covered, stone-patterned facade, which Hadid left intact, is the sort of place that attracted Georges Braque to paint a number of fetching Fauve views of Antwerp harbor, which was bustling, even in 1905. Incorporating the old with the new, as Antwerp’s gorgeous, state-of-the-art main railway station does, was a principal requirement of the port project, and Hadid has met it, masterfully.
Because a tower where fire hoses would have hung to be dried had been planned—but never constructed during the building’s last incarnation—Hadid envisioned something multi-storied that could be balanced on top of the defunct firehouse. What she designed does not blend well with the existing structure. It’s a bit out of sorts, like a striped jacket worn with plaid pants. But the pieces make sense together if you picture them relating via time travel: a distant past of wooden galleons and treasure chests crossed with an eccentric, glass faceted futuristic shape. Some writers have suggested the four-story addition looks like a spaceship or a listing boat or even a meteor. I see it as a giant sci-fi Aladdin’s Lamp that could be held aloft by the Colossus of Rhodes.
Huge, angled, floor-to-ceiling columns in the entrance atrium serve as critical supports. They resemble 1960s Minimalist sculptures, and introduce the notion that old and new henceforth will be seen in dynamic juxtapositions. Though there are no fixed offices on the reconceived second floor of the former firehouse, the original centrifugal windows remain, and the small windows one floor above also remain, introducing fragments of light and an interesting rhythmic quality. As for the original roof, it was renovated and refitted to help support the new glass building.
An intermediate floor between old and new is both open and glass-enclosed. It can serve as a spectacular reception space as well as an area where someone might go to smoke a cigarette or grab lunch. Offering amazing views of the underbelly of the new structure and of the busy port, it serves as a bridge linking the past with the future.
In the addition, the faceted windows recall the importance diamonds have always played in Antwerp, and offer unobstructed 360-degree views of the port, as well as the much smaller compact Flemish city. With light streaming in, the open-plan offices create an extremely cheerful place to work. The colored walls further enhance this notion. And then, there are all sorts of details that remind you that a starchitect and her firm designed these spaces. One in particular is a grand staircase that, as it rises and narrows, evokes Bernini’s Scala Regia in the Vatican. It leads to a small lecture space that can be turned into a black box even though glass walls ordinarily surround it: curtains get drawn around it.
Light, space, color, angled shadows cast on floors and walls, being perched high up in the sky like a bird, views far into the distance: who wouldn’t want to work here? As for the exterior, it offers its own magical moments, especially the engaging tilt and thrust of the new glass structure. The concrete, reinforced steel column that stretches from the ground to the new addition is a critical supporting element (and critical housing for a fire escape) that is best appreciated in person. Once you measure yourself beside their gargantuan size and scale, you might have a better inkling of what the Colossus meant in ancient time.