A mixed-use building by Caruso St John renegotiates divisions between public and private in Antwerp, finds Tom Avermaete
Falconhoven, a mixed-use project by Caruso St John Architects in the historic city centre of Antwerp, Belgium, is part of a larger urban redevelopment site that has been designed together with Flemish architects Bovenbouw and ONO Architectuur, and Dutch architect Rapp & Rapp. This part of the city has always been strong ly connected to harbour activities and typically combines housing with shops and warehouses.
The urban tissue is mainly composed of nineteenth-century row houses, which are directly aligned to the street and form large perimeter blocks, whose interior is usually composed of private gardens. The result is an urbanity of continuous narrow streets, incidentally punctuated by small squares. In this dense fabric, the street is disconnected from the individual gardens. Public and private are strictly separated spheres.
The L-shaped building is constructed within a larger perimeter block, and separates a series of publicly- accessible courtyards
Into this rather dull context, Caruso St John has inserted a mixed-use building that redefines the urbanity of the Falconplein area, by partially opening up the perimeter block. Comprising 51 apartments, as well as workspace and community facilities, the L-shaped building bisects a large urban block, folding, as it were, the urbanity of the street into its interior. It also divides the middle of the block into smaller courtyard spaces, all of which are publicly accessible.
In two places, the L-shaped building is punctured to create large passageways between the various courtyards. The ensuing urban porosity implies that the public domain now enters the very core of the urban block. As a result, the relationships between public and private realms –which are typically regulated by differentiating between front and back facades, as well as between street and courtyard spaces — has had to be redefined in the architecture.
Residents’ entrance and entrances to commercial units. Facade details include tapering precast concrete posts and cornices
The architect’s first move to deal with this new urban condition is to introduce a certain distance between the private realm of the apartments and the public realm of the city. Caruso St John has provided the entire building with an urban plinth of studio spaces, offices and shops, as well as a community room, a kindergarten and a cafe. This two-storey plinth not only sets the privacy of the housing apart from the public domain of the courtyards, but also establishes a collective realm in between the city and the individual dwelling.
In front of the kindergarten, an extra element is added: a peristyle canopy that not only provides a covered outdoor space to the children, but also mediates – like a stoa – between the sheltered collectivity of the kindergarten and the intimate publicness of the courtyard.
The entrances to the apartments are located at various instances in the urban plinth, both within the courtyards as well as within the passageways between them. As a result, entering the apartments is never anonymous, but always with a clear address and experience of a specific face or corner of the building.
Balcony and tiled residents’ entrance lobby
Three levels of apartments are located on top of the collective plinth. The majority of them are dual aspect, spanning the full width of the L-shaped building, and thus offer inhabitants the luxury of experiencing the atmospheres of two courtyards at the same time.
In the design of the apartments, the challenge of how to relate the private realm of the dwelling to the public realm of the urban courtyards reappears. This becomes particularly visible in the private outdoor dwelling spaces that the architect has conceived along the entire length of the south and west facades. These balconies are designed as very deep loggias held up by columns of white precast concrete, and provide a sheltered private space that allows for a measured confrontation with the courtyard. Inhabitants can move gradually from their dwelling’s privacy into the public domain of the urban block.
The architectural expression of Falconhoven introduces a new idiom to the city centre. While the Falconplein neighbourhood is mainly characterised by solid nineteenth- century facades in brick or plaster, with narrow window openings, the Falconhoven project introduces an open architectural language with a structural clarity that recalls post-war modern architecture as it appears, for instance, in the most elegant of Dutch 1950s reconstruction projects. However, the building’s specific detailing and materialisation takes it far beyond this historical reference and counters the overly systematic approach that often characterises housing at this scale.
Materiality plays a key role. The plinth is articulated in hard and dark brown glazed brick, combined with white window frames and cobalt blue doors and windows. Its materiality speaks about the intensity of public life in the courtyards, the passages and the entrances.
In the higher parts of the building, a lighter grey-coloured and more porous brick is used, which seems to resonate with the apartments’ more private and intimate character. The brick parts of the facade are larded, at the level of each floor, with white prefabricated concrete beams that have a serrated profile and appear as a cornice. This offers the upper parts of the building
a horizontality which is quite unusual in this neighbourhood.
This outstanding feature is immediately balanced by repetitive structural elements – beams and posts – in the plinth, which seem to echo the intense rhythm of nearby house facades. Above, the most distinctive aspect of the building is without doubt the loggias held up by figure-like columns of precast concrete. They not only introduce an unknown element of outside living in the middle of the historic city centre but also offer an unusual ornamental feature to the facades.
Falconhoven provides a convincing prospect of how the typical nineteenth-century urban fabric in cities like Antwerp can be recalibrated. While staying faithful to the traditional figure of the urban perimeter block, the project suggests a new experience, in which the interior courtyard is no longer a privileged domain but rather a fully accessible public sphere. As Caruso St John demonstrates, how to achieve such an inversion of the old definitions of urban publicness and privacy is not self-evident. Quite to the contrary, it necessitates that the architecture of the city itself is rethought, not only in terms of urban form but also in its materiality, detailing and references. It requires an in-depth revision of the tenets of urban architecture.