Zwin Visitor Centre, Knokke-Heist, Belgium

The Zwin plain is a border-crossing natural reserve located at the North Sea Coast. Robbrecht en Daem architecten were invited for an Open Competition to provide this natural reserve with new visitors’ facilities. The proposed visitor center comprised of a ticket office, museum shop, auditorium, restaurant, exhibition pavilion and observation pavilions, alongside viewing platforms, vehicle parking and a farm for the maintenance of the estate. 
In the past, in order to protect and maintain the integrity of the different natural spheres, hedgerows were planted, dykes were erected and canals excavated. Traces of these gentle caretaking activities provide the starting point for the office’s architectural intervention. Instead of locating the new building on the appointed site alongside the main road leading to the estate, we decided to position a chain of low pavilions along the existing artificial dykes. The localisation of the pavilions reinforces the natural border between the park and its surroundings, without disrupting the existing topography. The humble wooden architecture subscribes to the geological history of the site without becoming itself a landscape. 
The experience of walking is a motive force behind the proposal. Intersecting pathways structure the architectural outcome. The trajectories, which tie inside and outside together, are elaborated intensively, since they are an indicator for the way people use and occupy the space. These pathways organise a field of vision, and accompany the experience of the park. The pavilions make a gentle spatial transition from the exterior to the interior; or vice versa. The architecture stages an outdoor experience, even when the visitors are inside. The mutual relationship between inside and outside is expressed in the omnipresence of the roof, in the pavilion’s overhangs and cantilevers, in its terraces and porches, courtyards and patios. 
The pavilions are mediators; they articulate the relationship between architecture, weather, time, and behavioral regimes. The French philosopher Michel Serres frequently pointed at the close relationship between time and weather, since in the French language “temps” means both “time” and “weather”.1 Obviously the etymological similarity is not coincidental. Especially when we consider it from an architectural point of view, the built envelope protects against the weather and thus instigates certain forms of behaviour and temporal regimes. Especially in the context of the Zwin landscape which is shaped by the cyclic movement of the sea, it becomes evident that the architecture is never self-reliant. The built form is animated by the movement of the sun, the rain, by the people dwelling in this man-controlled environment. 
1. Michel Serres, Eclairicissements. Entretiens avec Bruno Latour (Paris, 1994), pp. 89–90. 
Text by Maarten Van Den Driessche – Original Publication: Maarten Van Den Driessche, ‘Het Zwin, Knokke-Heist’, in Maarten Van Den Driessche, ed., ‘Robbrecht en Daem An Architectural Anthology’ (Ghent, 2017), pp. 655-656.
Client
Province of West Flanders and the Agency for Nature and Forests (ANB)
Architects
Robbrecht en Daem architecten
Program
New nature centre with visitor centre and viewing platforms
Location
Knokke-Heist, Belgium
Date
2010–2011
Status
Competition
Floor Surface
9.090 m2
Team
Paul Robbrecht, Hilde Daem, Johannes Robbrecht, Trice Hofkens – Aslı Çiçek, Veronique Clarebout, Florence Daem, Barbara Deceuninck, Arne Deruyter, Linde Everaerd, Thomas Hick, Kobe Van Praet
Structural Engineering
VK Engineering
Services Engineering
VK Engineering
Landscape
Vogt Landscape Architects