Tetra architecten designed a highly flexible industrial building with an iconic roof structure for the Construction Village on Vergote Dock in Brussels. The striking architecture restores dignity, pride and prestige to an industry that was maligned just a few years ago. Industry is no longer hidden away but celebrated as an indispensable part of the city.
Many European cities have been redeveloping their old port areas for decades. These are being systematically transformed into trendy residential areas for a wealthy middle class. Industrial activity is disappearing from the city and making way for a service economy. In Brussels, this development started much later and moved at a slower pace than in other European cities. In retrospect, this turns out to be a blessing. Minds have matured in the meantime. A city needs not only a service economy but also a manufacturing economy.
Brussels is currently embracing its industry and calling a halt to the encroachment of residential urban development along the Canal. The Canal Plan is revaluing the public space in the industrial districts along the Canal and stimulates new housing developments, but also wants to preserve sufficient space for economic activities in the city.
This was not always the case. When in 2012 the construction companies M-Pro and Luypaert on Béco Dock had to make way for the future park along Havenlaan, the Port of Brussels launched an architectural competition for the construction of new sheds on Vergote Dock. This was by no means an obvious initiative. At the time, the port was caught between the devil and the deep blue sea. Many saw the potential for residential developments in a green public space on Vergote Dock. But gradually, a collective awareness grew: ‘A Good City has Industry.’
Tetra’s architects wondered what the best architectural response to the question of integrating logistics activities into the city could be. ‘If you want to retain or even strengthen industry in the city, you have to make sure above all that it can function properly and respond flexibly to the rapidly changing needs of companies. Rather than dressing up the industrial activities aesthetically, we were looking for the beauty of making the productive processes visible’, says architect Jan Terwecoren. That is why they primarily aimed for an architecture that fits in with the logic of logistical processing. They developed a flexible system of storage modules that bolt together like a Meccano set. Further extensions are always possible, and so is dismantling.
The plan shows that the architects handled the location and integration into the city in a subtle but deliberate manner. The central square, which extends from Dieudonné Lefèvrestraat to the bank of the Canal, can be opened up with minimal effort down to the water’s edge after closing time or at weekends for public events or leisure activities.
The architects make a clear distinction between the supporting structure and the contents. However, this sustainable building principle translates differently for a logistics building than for other programmes. An alternation of cold and warm sheds is combined with both open and covered storage areas. The layered structure of the building’s shell, from fully open to well-insulated, facilitates variable contents for both outdoor and indoor storage as well as retail space. In addition, the structure has been designed in such a way as to accommodate the possible addition of mezzanine boxes for offices or even a caretaker’s flat.
The large and iconic roof structure has enough room for solar panels and water collection. More energy is produced than is needed locally, creating an interesting offer for neighbouring energy communities in the surrounding areas, where the shared energy demand today is still greater than the production capacity. The controlled water collection can also give rise to local use, for example for the adjacent concrete plants. In this way, the building makes an important contribution to a sustainable city.
The Construction Village is a crucial link in the transition to a circular economy. It houses construction companies that, among other things, can process materials from the demolition of buildings in the city into new building materials for the city. In addition, the Construction Village is ideally suited for companies that benefit from being located along the canal. It reactivates inland shipping and thus contributes to the major logistical turnaround that must keep heavy lorry traffic out of the city centre.