At the intersection of an old cobbled street and an arterial road leading to the centre of Antwerp lay an empty corner site. Thousands of people drove past it every day. The River Scheldt is nearby. In the past the petroleum harbour started here. Nowadays the streets are lined with stacked containers and long metal fences. The electricity supplier Elia wanted to build a new substation on this site. The city council intends to redevelop the area and set the express condition that this new building was to become a marker in the landscape.
A substation is usually an elongated shed, whereas landmarks are high. They have to be visible and striking. So in this case we stacked the technical installations to a height of 23 metres.
This was the first time we had had to work on a building that was not really intended for people to use and which also makes no demands regarding the relationship between inside and outside. These are disparate worlds that know nothing of one another and have nothing they need to share with each other. The spatial experience revolves entirely around the exterior.
The volume is made of concrete cast in situ. Unplaned formwork planks create a rough surface with unpronounced horizontal lines at the places where the concrete mixture was able to leak out; this traditional method of building counterbalances the high-tech content. This block is painted petroleum blue as a reference to the industrial past of its setting, but that is all the information the building offers. It was possible to persuade Elia not to display a logo.
An expressive depression in the front façade and a grid of small holes in the rear façade make for natural ventilation of the interior. Its closed appearance makes the volume seem enigmatic and monumental. On closer inspection one can see that it leans slightly, like a wartime bunker on the beach.