New life for reused station

ARTICLE Once upon a time Gare Maritime train station in Brussels played an important role in goods transport. Now the building has a new claim to fame. Inside the rustic cast iron shell, Europe’s biggest CLT project has just been completed.

During the first half of the 20th century, Gare Maritime was a train station buzzing with activity, as goods were loaded and unloaded for onward delivery within Brussels by both sea and rail. The magnificent cast iron building was completed in 1907 in the Tour & Taxis industrial zone and was a vital cog in the logistical machine of the Belgian capital. But times change, and by the end of the 1980s the once so stylish building had been abandoned to its fate. When Neutelings Riedijk Architects entered the frame, the building was derelict, but now it has been brought back to life.
»We’ve transformed Gare Maritime and its seven halls into a little commercial centre, an extension of the urban district, where it never rains,« says architect Michiel Riedijk, who is CEO of Neutelings Riedijk Architects.

The whole area in central Brussels is being regenerated, with Gare Maritime as the crowning glory. The former station halls are all connected in a line – alternating between high and low ceilings, depending on whether they were once a track or a platform. One end opens onto a street, Picardstraat, and the other currently overlooks a small park. The neighbourhood feel continues inside the station, where existing service buildings have been renovated and whole new buildings with a CLT frame and oak façade details have been inserted. A timber frame was chosen in part for reasons of weight.
»The halls are made of cast iron and everything is sitting on slightly raised ground, so if we had used heavy panels or carried out heavy groundwork near the iron structure, that could have affected its whole load-bearing capacity. Instead, we went for a CLT frame since it is light and could be assembled as a prefabricated carcass.«
Measuring 280 metres in length and 140 metres in width, Gare Maritime is an enormous building, and the same inner structure that has now been completed in CLT would have weighed five times more in concrete.
Because the prefabricated CLT frame is so light, there was no need for any extensive foundation work or tall cranes, which in turn had several positive effects: the work progressed quickly and there was no need to open the roof, so everyone could work in the dry throughout the construction process. It also worked well to leave the CLT untreated, and everything can be disassembled later in a spirit of circularity. When the architects first began considering wood as a material, they were inspired by the old goods trains and cattle wagons – although the result is significantly more elegant.
»Working with wood on a project of this scale was new forus, so it was a challenge. With respect for the building and the look we wanted to achieve, we chose a modest design that primarily accentuates the qualities of the wood. The palette is made up of restored wood in the historical frame, the colour of the cast iron, plus the oak and CLT, which together create a homely and welcoming feel,« states Michiel Riedijk.
But Gare Maritime is more than just Europe’s biggest CLT project – the building is also fossil free and energy neutral and has more solar panels than anywhere else in Brussels. The panels are incorporated into the roof and the streetside façade, covering 17,000 square metres of the building in total. A commitment to sustainability immediately led the client, Extensa Group, to choose Neutelings Riedijk Architects’ proposal to create a little wooden community within the station’s walls.
»As soon as we heard the idea, building in wood felt completely natural and indeed inevitable. It links in with the sustainability issue, and the circular nature of the wooden structures illustrates that our focus on sustainability goes down to the tiniest detail,« explains Sandrine Jacobs, Head of Communications at Extensa Group.
Covering 35 hectares in central Brussels, this is an immense urban development project, and Extensa Group has a number of properties there, but Gare Maritime seems to have something special about it.
»It’s a building with soul that has been sympathetically renovated to retain elements from the past that, in a world beyond the pandemic, is ready to open up to the possibilitiesof the future. We believe Gare Maritime could become a flagship for the area, moving from a logistical hub to a hub for creativity,« says Sandrine Jacobs.
However, the pandemic is currently still with us and everything is moving at half speed. The building has not yet been officially opened, but soon there will be more shops and cultural events. One company to have recently moved in is Universal Music, which has vacated its offices outside the centre. The sustainability profile of their new base was a strong argument for the move.
»We don’t want to just echo our artists’ values regarding sustainability. We want to set an example and contribute to a greener and more sustainable way of conducting our work. That’s what makes Gare Maritime such a perfect fit for us,« says Pol Walraet, Finance Director at Universal Music.
Gare Maritime’s attractive features include a climate-neutral building, an interesting location close to the centre and public transport, and a cultural edge linked to the events and creative industries sited here. But Pol Walraet also highlights the architecture and the building’s history as contributing factors in the decision for businesses to relocate here.
»Absolutely. The decision to retain and accentuate the historical elements and then add wood into the mix has had a phenomenal effect. The site exudes energy and tranquillity at the same time, and that feeling is extremely motivating and overwhelming, in a good way. Working here gives a sense of exclusivity and puts a smile on your face every day.«
IWG is a company that specialises in offices and work environments, operating under different brands, one of which is Spaces – a concept for co-working that now has an address in Gare Maritime.
»The feel and look are incredibly important to us and to our clients, as part of creating their brand. Gare Maritime is a building people want to be associated with. I love going there myself. It feels like home,« says Will Willems, Regional Manager at IWG.

In addition to the environmental profile, he explains that there is a great deal of charm in a future where you can kick back with a coffee in one of the shops or take part in an event. Gare Maritime appears well on the way to establishing itself as the place to be, not least to stroll along the 60 metre-wide boulevards lined with mature trees, or to linger in one of the 10 different covered gardens. The architect himself has also visited the project since its completion, and although it has not yet reached its full potential, he is very pleased with the feeling within its walls.
»I found an open café and had a cappuccino. It felt wonderful! I like the relaxed feel, the fact that this is a playful project with a sense of urban cool. I really hope Gare Maritime will become an extension of the public space,« concludes Michiel Riedijk.

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