Her name is familiar – too familiar for many, if architectural forums around the web are anything to go by – but Zaha Hadid has conjured up a surprisingly unfamiliar answer to the brief for the reinvention of Antwerp’s Port Authority Headquarters, enveloping and expanding the city’s disused fire station at the edge of the harbour. The project broke ground in October 2012, and the construction phase is now in full swing – the estimated completion date is June 2015.
As of 2014, Antwerp’s Port is midway through an 18-year development plan, currently overseen by city architect Kristiaan Borret. Other projects in the vicinity, intended to transform the dockside region through ‘slow urbanism’, have been guided by the scale and massing of local waterfront warehouses, with a modern twist on traditional Flemish architectural styles. Neutelings Riedijk’s MAS (Museum aan de Stroom) and towers by Diener & Diener have indicated how radical urbanism can be crafted with subtle and astute nods to cultural context. It is highly unlikely that the word ‘subtlety’ and the acronym ‘ZHA’ have been used in the same sentence for at least a decade…
Zaha has been in the news an awful lot recently, for her shoes as much as her buildings. She has now combined the two, as Antwerp is treated to an enormous, crystalline stiletto, crashing through the roof of the old fire station: despite the lack of Hadid’s much-maligned parametric curves and swathes of white concrete, this effort is no less ostentatious than any of her other recent attention-grabbers.
Looking at the looming, diamond shaped form above the classical aesthetic of the original station building, one wonders if Zaha may have scribbled her concept for this structure on a napkin whilst at dinner with a certain Mr Libeskind. The unapologetic juxtaposition of old and new here echoes Libeskind’s approach to the Royal Ontario Museum extension in Toronto, and his violent intervention to Dresden’s Museum of Military History. She may also have been taking notes on his questionable design rationale, which frequently revolves around the very literal interpretation of a contrived metaphor: Zaha has chosen to pay homage to Antwerp’s diamond industry by designing an enormous… diamond. Profound!
The building’s precarious composition also has a hint of Will Alsop’s OCAD, which hovers above Toronto’s Grange Park like a cheerful alien spacecraft. Indeed, Zaha has flirted with Alsop’s colourful palette on the interior, where sunshine yellow conference rooms form a welcome moment of contrast within a sea of relentlessly monochromatic office spaces. Speaking of which, those in charge at the Port Authority had better set an extortionate budget for their computing equipment, because only Macs will comply with these unadorned internal landscapes.
While the gratuitous, curvaceous forms – ‘Hadidisms’, if you will – have been given a well-earned break, certain factors synonymous with Zaha are still very much evident here: sleek, corporate interiors abound, and the flamboyant boat-like form is very much in keeping with ZHA’s reputation as the world’s premier Icon Vendor. Whether the locals will warm to this particular icon remains to be seen…
The Angry Architect