BBA 2022: The Harmony

The ‘De Harmonie’ project is a complex urban redevelopment project for the city of Antwerp. As a new public space and urban infrastructure, it takes on important tasks in the city center and tries to meet the needs of its citizens in the best possible way. The project consists of rebuilding the historic park De Harmonie, restoring the Peter Benoit fountain and activating the park. In return, the existing concert hall ‘De Harmonie’ will be transformed into a new town hall with a large number of offices for local administrators, a large service center for citizens and an event room for, among other things, smaller concerts. To make this possible, the concert hall is connected to an existing mansion and to the Orangery, also a historic building, and extended with a small meeting center.

Originally, the project was a response to Vlaams Bouwmeester’s Open Call in 2010 with the aim of transforming the concert hall into a ‘Silent Room’ – a non-denominational ballroom. In 2013, due to shifts within the local administration, it was decided to develop the building into a town hall.

Review of an eventful story

De Harmonie is the former summer concert hall of the music association Société Royale d’Harmonie, founded in 1814. The original project at its current location was the result of an architectural competition won in 1844 by the then 25-year-old Pieter Huler. In 1846, after only two years of planning and construction, the banquet hall with its large private landscaped garden was inaugurated. The neoclassical building had a fluid visual relationship between indoor and outdoor spaces and also served as a festive backdrop for outdoor concerts. In 1890, the building was thoroughly renovated, doubling the volume. The reconstruction was characterized by a very indecisive fine de siècle design and was rather poorly executed. From the beginning of the 20the century, the concert industry declined, which was further exacerbated by the outbreak of World War I. The garden and the building were handed over to the city in 1922. The landscaped garden was converted into a public park, and the concert hall was mainly used as a flexible exhibition hall. After an eventful history of more than 50 years, the house was transformed into a nightclub in 1977-1979. The remaining historic interior was covered with acoustic suspended ceilings and partially demolished, all facades were cordoned off and the strong relationship to the exterior space destroyed.

The Open Call of 2010 provided an opportunity for a fundamental revision of the more than 170-year-old ensemble De Harmonie. The existing building and outdoor space structures could be reinterpreted. On the one hand, it was to be determined how to proceed with the monumental ensemble, and to what extent the complex was to be restored. In return, a wealth of functional, social and ecological wishes had to be integrated into the design to adapt the existing structures to new needs. After a process of more than eleven years, the project was completed in 2021.

An English landscape park for the 21ste century

The starting point for the design was the restoration and renovation of the existing park based on the model of an English landscape garden. A number of large trees in the park were felled, shrubs and fences were removed to provide more open play and movement space and to strengthen the spatial lines of sight. At the same time, the edges of the park were planted more intensively to create security and intimacy. Also the surrounding streets, some of which are very busy, were visually hidden. The existing network of trails was completely removed to provide as much unpaved space as possible. A new, more winding figure of narrow paths was created in the park and underlined by long curved benches. At the same time, the desired play areas for young children were integrated into the path figure in a natural way. At the height of the former concert hall, the terrain profile was lowered to create an extra natural stone threshold between the park and the building. This visually anchors the house firmly in the landscape and enhances the monumental effect. At the same time, the house was opened towards the park to restore fluid relations between inside and outside. The orangery, with its impressive open roof structure, has been restored and transformed into a café, providing a pleasant revival. The park houses the Peter Benoit fountain by Henry van der Velde from 1934. The newly designed contemplative city park forms an intensively used green oasis and invites to various social activities.

Building logic: to connect and expand

To connect the various buildings in the project to a new organism, the first step was to find a meaningful overall organization for the new complex. On the north side of the concert hall, an access structure has been erected that effectively connects all functional areas and provides access for people with physical disabilities. This new west-east axis makes it possible to divide the historic complex into very different functional zones such as cafes, individual offices, open offices and meeting rooms. All necessary auxiliary spaces were also organized along this corridor to free the historic spaces as much as possible from new functional constraints. Architecturally, the connecting structure is only partially visible: between the Orangery and the Concert Hall as a new covered entrance and on the east side of the complex as a conference pavilion. The connecting building forms a small, green courtyard to the historic mansion. The new development enabled a meaningful reprogramming of the building complex and laid an important foundation for a high-quality restoration of the historic interior.

Classic character – the outer facade

The starting point for the project was to make visible the original classicist character of the concert hall as much as possible again. After consultation with the Monumentenzorgen and in order to lay a good foundation, it was decided to demolish a glass pergola from 1890, which was located right in front of the main facade. This freed up the building’s volume structure. The missing balustrades on the flat roof were reconstructed in a simplified form. The roofs were insulated and clad with zinc sheets and new skylights were integrated. The upper side walls of the hall were also insulated. The classic mass effect was streamlined by removing the historic slate facade and replacing it with a plastered facade. When the original windows were largely lost, the design team realized an abstract neoclassical reinterpretation of the facade by installing 4 meter high double glass doors. All busts were carefully cleaned, lost ornaments were reconstructed when it made sense within the overall concept. The color scheme was based on a classicist color spectrum. Light gray plaster and medium gray windows were combined with the existing dark gray limestone plinth of ‘Belgian granite’. In this way, the building does not create a dazzling effect in the park, but melts discreetly into the somewhat gray Flemish sky. The new glass entrance structure naturally fits into the new overall composition.

Continuity and timeliness – the interior

An attempt to further develop the original classicist idea was also made in the design of the interior. The nightclub’s suspended ceiling was removed and the remaining stucco ceiling was exposed and extensively renovated. Since all the stucco ornaments under the ceiling had crumbled in the 1970s and there was little information about the historic interior, it was decided not to reconstruct it. Instead, the historic ceiling is combined with a new terrazzo interior that clearly emphasizes the historical transformation processes. This is an attempt to realize a reinterpretation of a classicist hall using contemporary means. The floor, made of seamless terrazzo, forms a solid base. The existing wooden pillars were clad with handmade terrazzo elements. Their abstract cubic capitals appear traditional and modern at the same time. The hall is accessed through 4 meter high double terrazzo doors combined with terrazzo benches that also act as wall cladding. These elements create a solemn setting and visual reinforcement of the ends. The hall also needed an acoustic renovation. This was achieved by, on the one hand, integrating absorbent surfaces into the historic stucco ceiling. In return, a central sound screen was placed on the stage, both built in terrazzo. All technical elements, such as ventilation systems, smoke extraction, semi-lighting and theater technology, were integrated into the historical concept of space as carefully as possible. The result is a very robust and elegant interior that exudes both historical continuity and timeliness.

Tailor-made furniture and decor

A civic service center requires specific furniture. The interior was to be supplemented with service points, voice booths and counters for citizen meetings. Light oak furniture is designed to match the hall’s classic style. The workplaces can be closed off if necessary, eg during a concert. Some of these decorating elements and the extra benches needed can be easily moved. The other rooms in the complex are designed with oak floors and combined with furniture and curtains that are as restrained as possible to emphasize the spatial effect and the interaction with outdoor spaces.

Guiding principle and authenticity

The Harmonie project is an attempt to further develop the existing complex in a seemingly natural way. Through targeted cultural issues for the given structures at all levels, a meaningful reorganization and reinterpretation of the existing was sought. During this process, a new guiding principle for the whole ensemble was developed step by step. The result is a complex of buildings that reflect 19th – century bourgeois culturee century as an artifact, while adapting to the needs of the 21ste century. The appearance of the entire complex has been homogenized through the cleaning, reinterpretation and abstraction of existing building structures. It now presents itself as an almost idealistic architecture of an abstract classicism, as it has never existed in reality. In other words, the architecture follows a creative, timed and partly subjective model in the sense of Viollet-Le-Duc and explores the possibility of a quasi-authentic continuation of the existing buildings in the sense of the original idea.

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