Designing contemporary architecture for a UNESCO World Heritage Site
By Cory Sekine-Pettite
Editor’s note: Recently, a representative of software developer Nemetschek Vectorworks clued me in to this amazing new structure in the heart of Bruges, Belgium. So with her help, I got in touch with architect/engineer Olivier Salens to find about the Rijksarchief.
Salens Architecten negotiated a lot of red tape to design a modern building in a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
|A glass-enclosed bridge connects the new archives to the restored convent that now serves as office space.|
In the center of Bruges, among the medieval churches, old-world homes, and Brick Gothic structures, sits a modern, new building that wouldn’t look out of place in any major European or American metropolis. Yet this building – known as the Rijksarchief – blends beautifully with its surroundings and is changing attitudes toward new construction in Bruges.
Officials and residents are quite protective of the infrastructure in this northwestern Belgium town, which is the capital of the West Flanders province and is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site – the entire town. One would not be out of line in calling Bruges a fairy-tale town. Thus, it can be quite difficult to erect modern structures, but that was the challenge laid out a few years ago by the local government, which wanted a new building for the state’s archives. The Design, Build, Finance, and Maintain (DBFM) competition attracted many bids, despite the task of placing the Rijksarchief directly between a former Dominican convent and a row of historic homes.
“One of the things the government asked when they started the competition, they wanted to have a new identity for the archive building. …And they wanted to have a 200-car underground parking [lot],” said Olivier Salens, 37, whose firm, Salens Architecten, won the bid. But perhaps the most difficult aspect of the design competition, the proposals had to completed in just three months!
The $17-million project consists of a newly built public library with a reading room at street level, as well as the restored convent, which is being used as office space. Both structures are connected via a glass-enclosed bridge that provides breathtaking views of a new courtyard (public space), the canal that flows past the Rijksarchief, and the nearby, famed towers of Bruges.
Salens’ winning design for the project is a translation of the idea of an archive as a pack of stacked, old paper. In the architecture, the layering of papers has been marked in the use of very long brick (50 cm) that sticks out in a pattern of lines resembling wrinkles. As Olivier explains it, an archive essentially is a collection of old papers. And when you look at a collection or stack of old papers, what you normally see is uneven edges and wrinkles. The copper roof reflects this idea of wrinkled paper lying loose in a stack, and the brick façade has a pattern of long lines in the walls that appear to give the building a “wrinkled” appearance.
In total, the Rijksarchief consists of 54,000 bricks – all 50 cm long.
The copper, the glass, and the brick for the archives all were produced locally. In total, the Rijksarchief consists of 54,000 bricks – all 50 cm long, produced by Wienerberger AG in its Belgium facility. Olivier said it was “one hell of a job for the masons!” The hard work paid off in many ways. Not only is there a beautiful, new building protecting the state’s important archives, but also the design community is recognizing the Rijksarchief for it’s unique ability to blend a contemporary aesthetic within a historic, protected site. For example, in 2013 Salens Architecten won the Wienerberger Prize at the Royal Federation of Architects’ Associations of Belgium (FAB) Awards for its “innovative and striking building project with ceramic materials.” According to the judges, “Salens Architecten managed to design contemporary architecture with a strong identity value that also integrates harmoniously into the historic surroundings of a World Heritage city.”
In Bruges, there is a saying that buildings do not have four sides; they have five. The roof is the fifth wall. In this town of medieval buildings and monuments, there are several towers from which one can view Bruges from above, so yes, roofs are an important element in the culture and identity of the city.
The copper “wrinkled” roof of the archives
Additionally, flat roofs are prohibited. So Salens’ “wrinkled” roof design is essentially a series of gables formed together, which when viewed from a distance perfectly align with the rooflines of the buildings surrounding the Rijksarchief – the old convent on one side, and the row houses on the other. “It perfectly integrates because it becomes essentially a pattern of small roofs,” Olivier said. “And also the specific use of copper integrates perfectly with the surrounding landscape.”
“Even that bridge had to have a gabled roof,” Olivier continued. Initially, he was taken aback by this government mandate, but in the end, the tilted roof of the bridge became “a cool thing,” Olivier said, and an interesting visual element for pedestrians.
Further, keen observers will notice that there are no visible electrical or mechanical elements in the roof design – it is all hidden from view. “It looks so simple [to accomplish], but it was a hard job,” Olivier said of hiding the mechanical elements of the building. Incidentally, the building itself is not lit up at night, but one line of LED lights traces the archives’ roofline, providing a definitive identity for the building along the canal – a popular gathering spot for locals and tourists alike.
Speaking of pedestrians, Salens’ winning design for the Rijksarchief included a new public plaza. On one end, the plaza leads to one of the many canals that define the city of Bruges. And on the other, it leads to a major thoroughfare within the city. This new public space gives something back to the citizens of Bruges, Olivier said. They can park their cars beneath the new archives building, and easily reach other destinations within the city by walking through this new public space. “The new plaza was not specifically demanded in the competition, but was something extra we could give,” Olivier said.
The courtyard is a combination of concrete and brick pavers with wide horizontal grout lines that mimic the “wrinkles” in the building’s façade. And the rectangular sections of greenery harken back to the old herb gardens of the former convent.
The courtyard is a combination of concrete and brick pavers with wide horizontal grout lines that mimic the “wrinkles” in the building’s facade.
About the Firm
|Salens Architecten is a medium-sized firm of about 15 people. Olivier’s father started it 37 years ago; Olivier joined the firm seven years ago. The firm works on a wide range of projects, from residential to public buildings and offices. And though Salens works largely in Belgium, it has worked in France and other countries. “We like to work with clients with an open view, and open mind,” Olivier said.|
The building’s “logo”
On one side of the building, facing the courtyard, hangs a copper sculpture, which is a miniature version of the Rijksarchief’s roof. Olivier is both thrilled and proud that this sculpture made it into the final design. Initially, it wasn’t going to be part of the firm’s proposal, but he pushed for it – as well as the LED lighting – as a means of conveying the building’s identity to the city. “We succeeded in finding good compromises between the architecture, the budget, and the technical parts [of the design], so of that I am very glad,” Olivier said.
Thanks in part to this project, Olivier said the people’s attitude toward new construction in Bruges is changing. “Now they see that it is possible to have contemporary architecture fit in to UNESCO World Heritage surroundings.”
|The historic town of Bruges (or Brugge) is a remarkable example of a medieval European settlement with an architectural history that speaks to many influences. In addition to its buildings, Bruges’ many public squares and canals define the city. The entire town of Bruges was added to the UNESCO World Heritage List in 2000, and today remains one of Europe’s most popular tourism destinations with an estimated 4 million visitors annually.