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In this former freight station, Neutelings Riedijk Architects designed a new city where it will never rain. The impressive Art Nouveau steel structure that covers the whole was renovated by Jan De Moffarts and Bureau Bouwtechniek.
When it built the largest freight station in Europe in 1902, Belgium was not only raising its economic game but also demonstrating its engineering prowess. This impressive building was designed by railway engineer Frédéric Bruneel, who would later play a key role in establishing the North-South link in Brussels. The Gare Maritime is 280 metres long and 140 metres wide and comprises three large halls (with a span of 26 metres) and four small halls (with breadths ranging from 12 to 16 metres). On Picardstraat, the Gare Maritime is connected to the Hôtel de la Poste and the Dépôt des Colis. The load-bearing structure of the halls consists of a series of three-hinged arches. Comprising trusses with hinges at each rib and at the base, these absorb the movements of the steel structure. The structure was executed with ornaments in the then newly emergent art-nouveau style. Typical for the time is the engineer’s approach to the decoration. Each ornament has a function. For example, the slanting connectors at the level of the gutters actually serve to absorb the transverse force.
Together with the Central Station in Antwerp, the Gare Maritime is the last example of railway architecture from this period to retain its original canopy. On the other hand, the structure and composition of its main and side walls, and the majority of the ornaments, were destroyed through the renovation works carried out by the national railway company, the NMBS, which managed the building for just under a century.
When Extensa purchased the Tour & Taxis site, the building was in a terrible state. The first challenge, therefore, was to restore this industrial ruin to its former glory. Architect Jan De Moffarts and Bureau Bouwtechniek were commissioned to renovate the building’s steel structure, façades and roofs, and to develop a vision for the internal organization of the seven halls.
Together with Professor Inge Bertels (VUB), they immersed themselves in the extensive archive that had been passed down by the NMBS. They found hundreds of plans with meticulous renditions of the construction details, all of which underscored the immense historical value of this exceptional station building. On the basis of this archival research, and in collaboration with the engineering firm Ney & Partners, it was decided to restore the original structure and composition but without reproducing all of the original ornaments. To ensure that the halls meet today’s standards for ventilation and smoke evacuation, Studiebureau Boydens asked for 400 m2 of mechanically controlled windows to be integrated into the façades and 1,200 m2 into the roof. For Jan De Moffarts, the integration of these contemporary elements turned out to be an interesting instrument within the restoration process: ‘We used the new elements to reconstruct the original composition – both in the end walls, in which we combined three windows from the original composition without disturbing the verticality of the façade, and in the side walls. Because the new components need to comply with EPB legislation and also need to be insulated, we had new bricks made in the same ornamental shape as the old ones, which we could then use as parament stones. We could use the Belgian bluestone elements, which were demolished in some places, to renovate the end wall.’ De Moffarts and Bureau Bouwtechniek have also redrawn the axes within the halls and linked them to the site’s principal trajectories.
The second phase of the project was commissioned from Neutelings Riedijk Architects. This office turned the former goods station into a ‘city in a city’. By accommodating the requested programme of 45,000 m2 of offices and commercial spaces within 12 compact buildings on the periphery of the outer halls, they succeeded in keeping the three middle halls completely open. Not only does this preserve the majestic spaciousness of these halls, but it also creates a central boulevard surrounded by trees and plants. The 12 buildings dovetail naturally with this boulevard, and the arrangement enables the organization of a wide range of events. Five side streets and squares complete the urban structure and transform the Gare Maritime into a fully fledged (covered) district. As Willem Jan Neutelings claims: ‘We’ve designed a new part of the city, a city where it never rains, but with a pleasant, temperature-controlled climate that follows the seasons.’
The new volumes consist of three storeys and are built entirely in wood (CLT). Thanks to a 1.20 metre modular grid they fit into the existing 12 metre column rhythm of the halls with integrity. Measuring three bays long (36 metres) and 38 metres deep, these are separated by the side streets (one bay wide) and coincide with the arched windows in the side wall. The pavilions are entirely independent of the steel-column structure, the latter of which remains clearly visible, and they connect with the side walls while also running up to the ridge of the halls. ‘It was a technical challenge, resulting in complex construction details as wood and steel will expand in completely different ways’, says Willem Jan Neutelings. The lower two storeys are equipped with oak window frames and balconies with parapets made of oak slats. On the two upper floors, façades with slender metal window frames make the connection to the roof.
The new interpretation of the Gare Maritime breathes fresh life into an industrial monument. Not only through the respectful handling and intelligent reinterpretation of the existing structure, but also – and remarkably – through the creation of unprecedented perspectives. The new boulevard celebrates the monumentality of the building. The terraces and balconies offer unexpected close-ups of the structural details. Both the public and private open spaces bring, quite literally, a new dimension to the Gare Maritime.
Architect Neutelings Riedijk Architects
Official project name Gare Maritime
Location Tour & Taxis, Brussels
Execution architect Bureau Bouwtechniek
Restoration architect Jan de Moffarts
Programme Offices, retail, leisure, eating & drinking, public events
Procedure Direct commission
Client Extensa Group
Lead contractor MBG
Landscape architect Omgeving
Public realm Neutelings Riedijk Architecten
Structural engineering Ney & Partners
Services engineering Boydens Engineering
Building physics Boydens Engineering
Sustainability Boydens Engineering – Bopro
Total floor area 75,000 m2
Supplier Halio (glass)