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site: Antwerpen, Paleisstraat
status: competition (2nd)
year: 2021
client: AG Vespa/ City of Antwerp
conservation architect: Callebaut Architecten
images: KSA, with special thanks to Nicky Brockhoff and Joppe Douma
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Sectional view of the courtyard highlighting the unusual roof shapes and different storey heights. The distinctive tower that was used for drying fire hoses will be given the function of a lift shaft after its repurposing.

Typological richness- special section

We are also impressed by the typological richness of the existing building. Emiel van Averbeke designed a living community in which he had designed individual spaces with specific dimensions and character for each activity. The stacking and interweaving of spatial differences celebrated the microcosm of the daily life of the fire brigade. This microcosm is especially visible in the unique cross-section that shows how each space within the building was given its specific spatial proportions. The complexity of this stacked variety is reminiscent of 19th-century social and cultural buildings such as, for example, Felixi Meritis in Amsterdam or, within architectural history, legendary buildings such as the New York Athletic Club. Our design builds on the existing spatial richness, which remains experienceable as a spatial sequence in all scenarios for all occupants and users of the building.

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The beautiful cross-section shows the typological richness of a compact, inner-city and differentiated living community, with workspaces, workshops, unusual attics and high corridors: an inspiring starting point for a repurposing as a contemporary family living community.

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The preserved bath and laundry rooms are charming and unusual at the same time and lend themselves to reuse.

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The high corridors are among the most beautiful spaces in the ensemble; they are almost completely preserved. Our redevelopment proposal also preserves these corridors.

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The interior elements to be preserved include representative civic elements such as fireplaces, door frames, and more practical elements such as sinks, mirrors and coat hooks.

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Our proposal also integrates the more specific interior elements as much as possible.

Architectural quality

We are impressed by the architectural quality and complexity of the existing architecture and the flawlessness in which the building and many interior details have been preserved. With our design proposals, we want to ensure that we preserve these qualities for the future. In doing so, we want to make full use of the typological, spatial and architectural qualities of the monumental building and give it new meaning.

Conservation exterior shell- exterior blinds as ornaments

We treat the facades with respect, leaving the current patina intact. The facades are gently cleaned, the joinery reconstructed in accordance with the original model and fitted with sunproof, double colourless monument glass. Elements such as railings and cornices are also reconstructed. The exterior blinds we consider necessary for the comfort of the new houses on the south and west facades are an aesthetic reinstatement of the original subdivision of the joinery. We do not see the exterior blinds as a necessary evil but as an opportunity to show the rezoning as a residential building to the outside world in a friendly and natural way.

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Archive image frontage on Paleisstraat.

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The façade facing the Paleisstraat, the most representative elevation of the building complex.

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The large hall once designed for fire trucks will be repurposed as restaurant. The characteristic steel structure and the vaulted ceilings remain visible.

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The original 'carriage house' for fire engines.

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Not a museum

Given the intended function as (among other things) a residential environment, we do not believe in a museum future in which some spaces and materials are preserved just for the sake of preservation. A communal dining kitchen will therefore remain a living space even after the refurbishment, the gym a movement space, the studio a workshop, the warehouse a bicycle shed. Functional zoning, internal structures and finishes are also preserved as much as possible within the existing houses. The dormitories and flats therefore lend themselves well as living and sleeping spaces. We take the same approach for all three scenarios that were investigated for the competition study.

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Varied living environment then and now

Our own design proposal also aspires to shape a rich living environment. As part of the competition, several scenarios were developed, from family and group homes with communal facilities to specific group accommodation such as a luxury hostel with restaurant.

In all scenarios, we consider the upgraded courtyard as the building's main new 'living room'. Our reversible interventions make the courtyard habitable. Thanks to the proposed routing and added terraces, the internal complex spatial relationships become experienceable for residents while the original barracks remain virtually unchanged from the public space.

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Photo from the Antwerp City Archives, showing the wood-paved courtyard and drying tower.

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