by Zohra KhanJan 23, 2021
Dutch architectural firm OMA, founded by architect Rem Koolhaas, has won a competition to design the office headquarters of the National Railway Company of Belgium (SNCB/NMBS). The proposal involves the renovation of three monumental but derelict buildings on the Fonsny Avenue, and a new block facing the railway tracks in Brussels. It is the company’s first large-scale project in the country and will be executed with local studio Jaspers-Eyers.
The old buildings’ inception goes back to the 1958 World’s Fair in Brussels. The ensemble was part of the Brussels South Station, marking the time when postal services were well connected with the rail network. Its conflicting grid patterns and uneven floor heights render a disjointed appearance and a much-needed overhaul.
“Contemporary Brussels is both historic and modern, national and European, regional and cosmopolitan. That is its essence – in the mediation between presumed opposites. It is this reality that our project intends to express. It is borne out of the creative tension between an expectation for the future, and a respect for future’s past,”says Reinder de Graff, partner at OMA.
The firm has combined the former industrial buildings with a cliff-like eleven storey glass block. The entire development will add up to an area of 75,000 sqm, resulting in distinct spaces for the employees of SNCB.
The proposed layout is segregated in three formal zones – front, mid and back. The front office includes a three-storey entrance lobby and retail spaces in the new block which can be seen from the street as well as the tracks. The circular glazed windows on the façade dissipate at the lower levels to reveal this zone.
The mid office section is given space in the former Tri Postal building, a disused mail sorting office. It includes conference and training rooms, a 200-capacity auditorium, a fitness centre and a restaurant. The other two buildings from the 1950s and the proposed new block will occupy the back office. Rooftop gardens will also be woven through the three original buildings, bringing nature close to the working spaces.
The office block rising above the three brick-clad buildings is conceived to bring a new impressionistic landmark in the neighbourhood. This building has no “back” in conventional terms. Its two faces poised in opposite directions – one overlooking the street and other, the tracks – reference a ‘serviceable analogy’ of the Janus-headed character of modern Brussels.
“In its openness to the tracks, the building offers a playful disclosure of its inner workings – a move to convey the transparency of the organisation to the public it serves,” says a statement from the firm.
“The project embraces the Belgian Brussels, with its early, and often courageous expressions of modern architecture, and the European Brussels, for which the European railway and the Brussels-South stand as symbols,” sums up Graaf.