Katoen Natie Headquarters Antwerp, Belgium, 2000

© Kristien Daem

© Kristien Daem

© Kristien Daem

© Kristien Daem

© Kristien Daem

Transformation of former harbour warehouses into offices and museum

Katoen Natie

Van Aerdtstraat 33, 2060 Antwerp

1992 - 2000


Floor surface
4.700 sqm

Robbrecht en Daem architecten

Frank De Baere
Caroline Vanbiervliet
Asli Çiçek
Johannes Robbrecht

Artists' Intervention
Cristina Iglesias

Structural Engineering
Arcade – Herman Mortelmans

Services Engineering
Jan d'Hondt

The brief was to spatially redesign a building complex and give it a new function: harbour warehouses had to be turned into offices. With this type of project the designer has to find a balance between the factuality – experienced as a sort of found space - and the zeal to renew and re-interpret everything.
The design takes buildings and groups of buildings and harnesses them as primary matter; they are first approached as functional, then recast in a new function. This type of approach requires a certain harshness because the original purpose of the building has to be repudiated - a denial of everything that once took place in the building. In my opinion, redesigns of this sort vividly illustrate the virulent nature of architectonic action.

Cities are transformed, landscapes altered, while we remain oblivious to the fact that in this way we are not only restructuring contexts and local history but, in the final analysis, creating a drastic intervention in daily life, because gentle transitions are scarcely the stuff of architecture. Decisiveness is a hallmark of the medium. In order to interconnect the various building volumes in the Katoen Natie, shared walls and floors were broken through. In addition, perforations were made in the roof to allow the light to stream in. These piercements brought different building structures into confrontation with one another: timber frame construction with cast-iron structures and concrete constructions. - A theme that is akin to the architectural intrusions in Piranesi's Carceri. Transformational interventions pose specific problems. Which architectural means shall be applied to transform a building? And how visible or invisible should these means be? At the end of the day the changes will be barely perceptible in the final result, however radical the building process has been. Once again we are confronted with the paradigm of the muteness of architecture, or of architecture as the pre-eminently wordless medium. Offsetting the building’s muteness is the vibrant presence of people at work. In addition there is the warm materiality: brick, timber, trusses, rough concrete and several singularities in the architectonic space. It is precisely this combination of muteness and palpable material that engenders the enormous satisfaction which is architecture's true aim.

In this context - a place where people spend the day working - the term satisfaction takes on an exceptional meaning. Cristina Iglesias' copula sculptures, for example, arrest the gaze. We walk under them, alongside them and, finally, we also see them from above. Particularly in the currently realized phase, they form a kind of interlude round which the entire spatial sequence unfolds. During the very first design phase we asked the artist to create a sequence of sculptures that would let in the zenital light. She designed fragile light domes of alabaster and stained glass. When the second building stage is completed these sculptures will take their place in a complex and multifaceted whole. But for the moment they are a prominent and constant presence. The introduction of sculpture is bound up with the feeling that architectural means alone cannot give meaning to a space. It is our firm belief that architecture itself does not convey meaning, except for a few references to itself or to the framework in which it functions.

The meanings that it reveals are simply self-reflection, a relationship more characterized by confrontation than integration. In this project, too, Cristina Iglesias' extremely fragile lightsculptures contrast sharply with the building's rudimentary character. Set against the previously mentioned harshness of the architectural interventions, the works of art form a critical presence. Their luminous and colourful resonance presents an intrusion, a kind of elegant subversion.

Because the sculptures have been so totally incorporated, the presence of these works points-up the ambiguity of both the image in space and decoration. The ambiguity is also due to the fact that the sculptures serve an actual purpose: they distribute the light over the space - a light that is further diffused throughout the complex by perforations in the floors and walls. And that light - diffused and synthetic - envelops the people occupying the space. Moreover, the very form of the cupolas attracts that enveloping, empathy-inducing character. This tells us something about art and architecture as critical vehicles of expression. Architecture is not in fact a form of expression. Nevertheless it is an activity that is unmistakably translated into material reality, into something that is inevitably life defining. Indeed, it is precisely architecture's direct connection with reality - everyday reality - that holds the key to virtual impossibility of its critically manifesting itself. Building lends expression to social and individual factuality.

The Katoen Natie project in Antwerp simultaneously reveals multifacetedness and inclusivity. The individual buildings remain differentiated, and this is underscored by a different roof design: light domes and slatted roof. These different roof formations each introduce a distinctive light, highlighting diverse locations. They reflect, as it were, a contemplation of the architectonic effect in John Soane's Bank of England. In contrast to this the distinctly divergent buildings where the stairs and lifts interlink the various different levels.

That new building, in conjunction with the interior courtyard, acts as a sort of intermediary and serves to distribute the space within the building complex, without there being any sense of a real centre. The area around Sint -Jansplein in Antwerp is a nineteenth-century development beyond the city walls with a broad architectural mix of warehouses, middle-class residences and workers' houses, all cheek by jowl. The Katoen Natie is a hidden microcosm. The office building affords the city no more than an inkling of its interior - in fact only three massive brick facades and a new building - but inside it accommodates a number of functions: offices, a restaurant, conference halls and also a private museum housing archaeological textiles. From the outside the manifest appearance of the warehouses reveals virtually nothing of either the dense conglomeration of areas inside or the interrelationship of these spaces to the image, the work of art. This secrecy is intended to elicit in the individual an emotional response vis-à-vis the building. Hidden within the city, the project is an architectonic organism which is distinguished from all other locations by its simultaneously autonomous yet confrontational conjunction of image and space. The purpose of this singularity is to engender an intense experience of the location, precisely where people come to carry out their daily work.

The English title of the publication is 'Works in Architecture', after the book written by the eighteenth-century Scottish architect, Robert Adam, about his own architecture. Interventions, refurbishments and a decorative style that could hardly be called elegant are typical of Adam's oeuvre. The Adam style is contaminated by Piranesi's inverse utopia behind a semblance of elegance, architectural interventions conceal an often barefaced assault. And this is also how we perceive much of our own work.