Herzog & de Meuron

Boerentoren . Antwerp

Herzog & de Meuron

Upon its completion in 1932, the Boerentoren was the first skyscraper in Belgium and the highest tower in all of Europe. Located within the historic city center of Antwerp, the Boerentoren still holds a prominent place in the city’s skyline. Our proposal for the revitalisation of this icon of the city of Antwerp is based on a sensitive historic restoration with an alternative approach to marking the changes that have occurred over the last century. The design is conceived with great respect for the existing building and is informed by a careful study of its history through original plans and photographic documentation. The aim of the project is to open up the building for art and people, making it a focal point of public life in the city.

Fernand Huts acquired the Boerentoren in 2020 with the ambition to provide a framework for a dynamic architectural reprogramming and revitalisation of the building, with a diverse mix of new and old functions: a place for art and culture, retail, restaurants and bars, offices, and a significant amount of public space. The aspiration is to echo the diverse and interwoven relationships found in the urban city fabric of Antwerp. The building’s historic and cultural significance and its role as a connector within its immediate urban context are key to the success of the project. A new museum housing The Phoebus Foundation’s growing collection of Flemish art has the potential to become a cultural anchor.

The original mixed-use tower was commissioned by the Algemeene Bankvereeniging, and was designed in the Art Déco style of the 1920’s by Belgian architects Jan Van Hoenacker, Jos Smolderen and Emiel Van Averbeke. The banking association occupied the ground and first floor levels. Within the atrium at the heart of the building was a double height polygonal space for the tellers, covered with a glazed roof providing natural daylight; Surrounding this structure were offices for the bank employees. The bank vaults and safe deposit boxes were in the basement below. The remainder of the ground floor space was dedicated to shops and a café-restaurant. The public program also included a billiard hall and bowling lanes underground, a tearoom at the first and second floors, a restaurant with terraces and pergola on the roof of the western podium, and a hall at the top of the tower offering panoramic views. The greater part of the tower and podium were occupied by residential apartments and office suites.
In the mid-1960s the building became the headquarters of the Kredietbank and was substantially renovated and extended to occupy a full city block. The architects Léon Stynen and Paul De Meyer were responsible for drastic transformations to the original interiors of the Boerentoren, and for the integration of a Structuralism-styled extension. The central atrium was redesigned and an auditorium was placed above. At the top of the tower, a new crown was installed complete with an enlarged panoramic hall and floating signage above, raising the height of the Boerentoren to its current 97.75m.

At the heart of the project, the concept creates new connections at street level through the city block and restores the central atrium space above, re-introducing natural daylight and transforming the atrium into an urban garden. A large triangular courtyard, surrounded by cascading vertical green walls and protected from rain by a filigreed, floating glass roof, defines a new center from which all programs and activities within the building are accessible. This ‘oasis’ offers respite from the often-hectic pace of everyday city life, allowing for encounters with nature, art and culture.
The Phoebus Foundation’s museum occupies the podium floors surrounding this green atrium. The structural grids of the existing building are revealed and form flexible spaces for galleries; A diverse range of scale and proportions mirror the diversity of the collection. Adjacent balconies and bay windows to the atrium make it possible to step outside the galleries on each level, allowing visitors to orient themselves within the building and providing ease of wayfinding through all exhibition levels. A sculpture garden on the podium roof top is overlooked by a panorama café one level above.
Above a number of floors dedicated to office spaces within the tower, a triple-height art space with an exceptionally tall ceiling is proposed, ensuring the entire building is infiltrated by art. Elevators carefully inserted into the historic tower bring visitors to a panoramic bar at the top of the tower, offering views over the entire city of Antwerp. The legacy of modifying the crown of the building is continued by enhancing the cruciform shape of the panorama bar and introducing an external art space above – which, in turn, is sheltered within a four-sided media screen. The display of specifically created content on these four screens allows art to be visible beyond the site, strengthening the cultural and architectural importance of the tower as a beacon for the city of Antwerp.
In the underground levels, the original bank vaults become galleries, and the adjacent parking levels provide ample, structurally adequate space for the exhibition of large-scale artworks and collections. The existing spiral vehicle ramp is used to playfully connect and circulate between the basement galleries.

On Sustainability
In parallel to paying close attention to the historic architectural legacy of the Boerentoren, sustainability is a key driver of our concept and design and is led by the opportunity to work with an existing building. Our goal is to achieve operational and embedded carbon neutrality through design and technical strategies. Net zero operational energy is achieved through a circular concept of reductions, utilising natural and passive ventilation for the spaces in the tower, energy reuse with the latest heat pump technology and grey water systems, seasonal energy storage with ice conversion, and energy production with both on-site and off-site photovoltaics. Regarding the embedded carbon, the proposal is to achieve substantial carbon reductions through retention of existing structures, recycling of removed material, optimised building services using decentralised systems to reduce the amount of required ducting, considered material selection for fitout, and timber floor structures with a circular lifecycle. All spaces are highly flexible and adaptable to reduce future need for major renovations. Carbon negative / climate positive schemes such as off-site tree planting support on-site capabilities. The “green lung” of the atrium not only provides oxygen from the plants but also circulates clean air into the museum. A combination of hanging and climbing plants generate a diverse and lush green habitat. A wide variety of species ensures seasonal attractiveness.

Herzog & de Meuron, November 2022