Brendan Woods applauds Stephen Taylor Architects’ Cadix housing in Antwerp
A new housing project by Stephen Taylor occupies the south-west corner of the original footprint of an urban block in Antwerp’s old dock area, where residential buildings now sit cheek-by-jowl with former warehouses. His building forms part of continuous new frontages across the street from the variegated facades of new and old buildings, and yet by various strategems – the use of a dark brick, a broken skyline in a paler brick, projecting balconies at third-floor level on the west frontage, and a handsome corner seat – it evokes the presence of an earlier urbanism, appearing ambiguously old and new. Not in an unsettling or historicist way, but resolutely holding the corner by bringing together two differing elevations, woven together by the detailing of the brick and the civic corner – resonant perhaps of Berlage’s Amsterdam South plan of 1915, as well as of Florentine urbanity.
Taylor describes the seat as somewhere for teenagers to gather in the evening, but I suspect, given its aspect, it will find enjoyable use throughout the day. This celebration of the corner fully engages the building with its need to talk to the street, or streets. It becomes an active participant in civic life, taking its place in the necessary gradation from what is public, via the semi-public, to the privacy of the interiors. And it introduces the visitor to a world where, via carefully crafted, precast concrete ‘porches’ set into tough brick walls, an architectural language is created establishing the transition from public to private.
This is a language which was thoroughly understood in nineteenth-century England, where projecting bays talked about a major architectural order, establishing a rhythm to the street, where a natural place for each front door was palpable, was intrinsic to the form, and which was largely lost in the planar abstraction of the modern movement, where ‘row’ houses eschewed that rhetoric in its thrall to serial production.
Taylor’s building plays a game with the elements where the projecting balcony bays form, in effect, giant porches to the three-storey dwellings below, which are directly entered off the street. The dwellings contain dramatic double-height living rooms, protected from the scrutiny of the street and giving onto the private open space in the courtyard behind, where we will discover another grand architectural game of projecting bays forming a major order. A major order, however, which summons up more baroque origins.
On entering the courtyard via the large ornamental gates, the bike store is off to the left, ventilated by perforated brick walls, and the interior is slowly revealed. The main access stairs are in precast concrete with simple galvanised railings adjusted at the bottom with a flourish to help dispel notions of sachlichkeit, and the balustrades enjoy sensually-shaped fixing plates which bring a lightness of touch to what might otherwise be fairly dour on a wet winter’s evening. As indeed does the sweeping curve to the access gallery at first-floor level, which introduces the main character of the internal court, with its scalloped access gallery at third-floor level. This series of interconnecting curved bays forms an extended threshold to the upper dwellings – somewhere to sit out in good weather or park the children’s bikes – and, of course, contain the three-storey dwellings below.
In a sense the arrangement creates a series of hollow pilasters, or engaged columns, providing a frame to the composition of minor and major openings below, where the doors leading from the dramatic double-height living rooms are arranged in an intriguing composition with a slightly wider giant clerestorey window floating above two doors either side of a precast column, both doors opening back against the internal walls and creating a bifurcated portal to the small garden in the courtyard. It is an arrangement I was a little uneasy about, due to the central column, but Taylor was determined to avoid the ubiquitous sliding patio doors.
The dwellings accessed at third-floor level again have carefully considered precast porch hoods opposite the curved access gallery bays. Their door openings are elaborated by alternating projecting courses of bricks set at 45 degrees. A small detail, but once again indicative of this architect’s determination to find a way to celebrate the threshold through the medium of the ‘brickness’ of the enclosing wall. Adjacent to this front door is a full-height window giving onto the kitchen, allowing for social interaction with the outside space. The curved bays are in beautifully formed precast concrete, shaped to falls with a shallow gutter at the edge to take rainwater away. Again the detailing engages the eye where the curved balustrades meet, creating a conversation between galvanised steel and precast concrete.
The building calls up the world of Arts & Crafts (but avoids being too sweet). The pink brick chosen for the top floor is mixed with the mass of the brown brick, avoiding the use of the material becoming too ‘moral’, but not undermining its seriousness. It is a very carefully considered corner to an urban block in a ‘foreign’ city, and while I was reminded of IBA housing experiments of the 1980s, where a number of internationally-known architects proposed their individual solutions to the Berlin block, here I sensed a building that seemed to belong to the place. One that had a sense of rootedness both in the actual place but also in the culture of urban housing. Perhaps that is due to its sophisticated but apparently straightforward construction (tough enough for the docks), the varied use of differing brick surfaces and the subtle modulation of the precast elements. But it is also due to a refined architectural sensibility. Its presence on that corner is compelling, creating a palpable sense of place, a rare achievement for an architect from a different country. It is perhaps comparable to Àlvaro Siza’s 1980s housing in The Hague. And that is quite an achievement.
Stephen Taylor Architects