Hadid Architects in Antwerp

Talking Keel


Architecture parlante was an invention of French architects of the Enlightenment by which buildings explained their functions through their forms, tying up the rational with the expressive. From this arose projects of Étienne-Louis Boullée and Claude Nicolas Ledoux that alluded to the celestial sphere or the erect phallus, depending on the program housed. Postmodernity tried to resuscitate such literal expressivity (Robert Venturi’s ‘I am a Monument’ yielding restaurants shaped like doughnuts), but the endeavor soon faded with the return of modernity – albeit in a mannerist version. In consequence, Chinese excesses aside, architecture parlante nowadays is rare, and buildings like the recently opened port authority headquarters in Antwerp, a work of Zaha Hadid Architects, are sure to draw attention. Indeed it is a piece of ‘speaking architecture’ that expresses its maritime purpose by evoking the keel of a ship, or even that of a ship disturbingly stranded on a preexisting construction, an old fire station long in disuse. Patrik Schumacher – who has taken over the reins of the firm in the wake of Zaha Hadid’s sudden death in March this year – will surely be capable of justifying the keel form of the new Port House of the Belgian city that is Europe’s second-largest shipping port, as the most rational parametric answer to the program. But the innocent spectator is likely to keep seeing the building as what it looks like: a hundred-meter-long glass keel resting on onerous concrete supports.

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