A vote for design

New political buildings are popping up in Brussels and London despite the UK voting to quit the EU and having just gone through another vote, in the general election. Stephen Hitchins takes a look at the new Europa building and NATO’s HQ, and Portcullis House in London

Architect, Architectural theorist and urban planner Leon Krier once wrote that architecture ‘is not political but an instrument of politics’ – a truism that applies as much to design as to architecture. The tale of the EU’s new Europa building appears on the face of it to the British press to be a desperate attempt to change its image. With Brexit being a hot topic in the UK, criticism has rained down on its cost, its design, its timing, its everything.

Now, as the UK prepares to leave the EU, to deny the Brexiteers anything appears to only inflame their desire for more, but the EU will not go tamely into oblivion. Europa – elegant, understated, and practical as it is – arrived just at the time when those campaigning to leave saw any dissent from their views as treasonable.

They come across as possessing more anger than acumen. As journalist Nick Cohen put it: ‘The only thing worse than sore losers are sore winners’. This building, necessary as it is, just gets in their way. It is symbolic of all they detest. It is particularly sad for them that it will be a success.

It was decided at the Nice Summit in 2001 that all sessions of the European Council (heads of state or government) were to be held in Brussels. In 2004, the largest single expansion of the EU took place when 10 more countries became members. Two more joined in 2007.

Surfaces throughout the building feature the brightly coloured block patterns of artist Georges Meurant

Since then, the number of Council and Eurozone meetings and summits between the EU and other countries has increased. There were other requirements for the new HQ building for member-state delegations, the President of the Council, the secretariat, interpreters, catering and receptions, car parking, and the press.

As a consequence the Justus Lipsius building – in use since it was designed in the late Eighties, when the EU had just 12 members – had become too small.

The Belgian state then offered a part of the Résidence Palace for redevelopment.

An impressive building, the Palace is a part-listed art-deco apartment complex designed by the Swiss architect Michel Polak in 1922.

Surfaces throughout the building feature the brightly coloured block patterns of artist Georges Meurant

The project involved renovating, reorganising, and refurbishing this together with the creation of a striking new extension.

The total area of what is now called the Europa building is 53,815 sq m. This includes 27,163 sq m of offices (around 250 in number) and 9,271sq m of conference rooms, three of which have at least 32 booths for interpreters.

Thermal and photovoltaic panels are imbedded into the roof.Thermal and photovoltaic panels are imbedded into the roof.

The brief also specified that from all points of view the project should be as far as possible a model of sustainability, with the use of ground-source coupling for heating and cooling, rainwater recycling and thermal and photovoltaic panels embedded into the facade and roof. An umbrella of 636 solar panels covers the entire top of the building. The morphology of the structure of the facade was optimised, allowing the amount of steel to be reduced by 30 per cent compared to traditional solutions.

The original facades, entrances and the central ground-floor corridor are protected by a heritage listing and were therefore preserved, with as many parts of the old building renovated to keep intact the urban fabric of the city. The transparent walls that wrap around the new north-east corner of the building comprise a patchwork of 3,750 recycled oak window frames procured from demolition sites across Europe. The bulding’s architects Philippe Samyn and Partners saw this new facade as ‘both a practical and philosophical statement about the reuse of traditional construction elements through recycling, and a testament to European artisanship and cultural diversity’. The old windows have been sanded down, cleaned, restored, varnished, and placed in stainless-steel frames.

An elliptical hub inside the Europa houses meeting roomsAn elliptical hub inside the Europa houses meeting rooms

The building has been extended on this north-eastern side by two new facades transforming the original L-shaped plan into a cube. What was an outer area has been converted into an atrium enclosed by a glazed curtain wall. It covers the principal entrance as well as a new bulging lantern-shaped orb incorporating the conference rooms. A further internal layer of glazing creates an insulating buffer to improve the building’s thermal performance and reduce the impact of noise from the adjacent road. At dawn and dusk, low-energy LED lighting illuminates the form of that curved inner structure, creating a beacon visible from the surrounding neighbourhood.

An elliptical hub inside the Europa houses meeting roomsAn elliptical hub inside the Europa houses meeting rooms

The Europa is linked to the Justus Lipsius building by two footbridges, and the two buildings are now managed as one entity.

Taken with the overall security requirements, it was a complex project. It is functional, it is compact, it answers the brief, and it works. Despite a significant number of changes to the project since its inception, from evolution of the institution itself, changes in its organisational methods, and technological innovation, the design solution has remained remarkably robust. It has been enlivened by floors, ceilings, doors and lift shafts throughout the building featuring friezes and carpets displaying dazzling, brightly coloured, block patterns by Belgian artist Georges Meurant.

Designed by Hopkins Associates, Portcullis House was planned to meet requirements not dissimilar to the Europa in BrusselsDesigned by Hopkins Associates, Portcullis House was planned to meet requirements not dissimilar to the Europa in Brussels

At its heart, that beacon is the elliptical hub dubbed the ‘space egg’ by some, but as a symbol of splendour and power it might be more akin to a Fabergé egg set within the glazed cube holding an unexpected world inside.

With the opacity of a Fabergé egg, the design heightens the sense of secrets inside, contributing to the feeling of a building with a higher purpose.

Designed by Hopkins Associates, Portcullis House was planned to meet requirements not dissimilar to the Europa in BrusselsDesigned by Hopkins Associates, Portcullis House was planned to meet requirements not dissimilar to the Europa in Brussels

Its form comes from the range of meeting spaces that were required on different floors and the fact that it was not possible to install structural support across the whole site due to a railway tunnel beneath the site.

When the Florey Building by James Stirling was completed, Lord Blake, provost Queen’s College, Oxford, had become so disenchanted that he wrote ‘the definition of an architect is someone you employ only once’. That is not the case with Samyn and Partners, a 70-strong firm of architects, designers and engineers, based on the southern outskirts of Brussels on the road to Waterloo. Philippe Samyn’s team, experienced in the ways of government projects, led a consortium made up of Studio Valle Progettazioni in Rome and a team from BuroHappold in Bath led by Nick Greenwood.

For the NATO building, by SOM, sustainable design was employed throughout including green roofs, chilled slabs and natural ventilationFor the NATO building, by SOM, sustainable design was employed throughout including green roofs, chilled slabs and natural ventilation

Following an architectural competition announced in August 2004, 25 teams were selected in January 2005 to develop their ideas, with a short list of six firms announced that summer, and the Samyn-led consortium was awarded the contract in September 2005.

The preliminary design was approved in March 2007 and site demolitions of various extensions to the original building that had been made during the Sixties were completed by October 2008, along with the removal of asbestos and oil pollution of the ground. The infrastructure then took more than two years, due primarily to the position of the site above a network of road and rail tunnels. At the same time as the Europa building was being built the Schuman Metro and railway station was renovated and new tracks laid for connections to both the Regional Expressnet and the airport, now just a 15-minute ride away.

Construction of the actual building did not, therefore, begin until September 2011. It was completed at the end of 2016 and most of the moves were completed in January this year. Ambitious, visually ambiguous, Europa looks like a work in progress, which is what the EU is and always will be. This is certainly not a case of the emperor’s new clothes, nor is it expensive rubbish as some comments have suggested. The Europa building cost rose from €240m in 2004 to €321m in 2016 after all the changes to the brief and complications of the site were taken into account. These things are easy to criticise. It came as no surprise in 2011 when referring to it as a ’gilded cage’ then UK PM David Cameron said: ‘You do wonder whether these institutions actually get what every country, what every member of the public, is having to go through as we cut budgets and try to make our finances add up’, perhaps choosing to forget that the UK had signed up to this in 2004, and that a very similar government project in London tells a similar story over costs and timing.

A new parliamentary building opposite the Houses of Parliament in London had been under discussion since the Sixties. Spence & Webster won an open competition in 1972 for a building on the site. After endless prevarication this later became Portcullis House, designed by Hopkins Associates in 1993, and only completed in 2000. The requirements were not dissimilar to the Europa building in Brussels. At 20,000 sq m, it provides office accommodation for 213 MPs, meeting and committee rooms, and incorporates an Underground station beneath.

For the NATO building, by SOM, sustainable design was employed throughout including green roofs, chilled slabs and natural ventilationFor the NATO building, by SOM, sustainable design was employed throughout including green roofs, chilled slabs and natural ventilation
Budgeted at £165m it cost £235m. But 7,500 defects were reported in its first year of operations. The parliamentary enquiry into its overspend has never been published. It already needs a new roof that has been cost at £100m. The refurbishment of Parliament itself may cost upwards of £7bn. These things do not come cheap, do not come without complications, and result in delays. Overdue and over-budget is the norm.

On the north-eastern periphery of Brussels, the new headquarters for NATO – due for completion later this year and designed by SOM, also responsible for the structural and civil engineering – arose from a similar need to that for the Europa building. Having occupied a temporary home since 1967 the number of NATO allies has almost doubled to 28, and a large number of partner organisations, currently 19, now have diplomatic representation and require space. An international competition was held in 2004, construction commenced in 2010, the sustainable and environmentally friendly building will be completed at a total cost of around €1.1bn, a considerable increase on the €670m original budget.

In the words of SOM the design ‘evokes fingers interlaced in a symbolic clasp of unity — an apt symbol given NATO’s changing mission from opposition and prevention to unification and integration’. The 41ha campus includes a highly secure data centre and 245,000 sq m of office, conference and recreational space. Sustainable design is employed throughout, with a number of innovative solutions such as photovoltaic cells, green roofs, chilled slabs, and natural ventilation.

Leon Krier has long been critical of EU buildings calling them ‘illiterate, deaf and dumb’, so much so that he has proposals for Eupolis in order that Europe might have a ‘credible and lovable symbolic centre’ designed on classical lines. ‘A new capital of Europe, Eupolis, based on a millennial culture of human-scaled cities and architecture, should be founded to serve as model for the rebirth of the European city,’ he said. An intellectual godfather of ‘New Urbanism’, his campaign to rescue the landscape, townscape and civic life ‘from the failed experiment of a drive-in utopia’ has never been universally accepted.

For an example of Krier’s latest thinking one needs to look no further than London. One of the more boldly dissenting voices of our time, Krier’s latest idea is to ‘orchestrate a renaissance’ for the capital. Having poured scorn on the design mistakes of major post-war concert halls in general, the current planned site for the London Symphony Orchestra’s new home next to the Barbican, on the site of Powell & Moya’s Museum of London, particularly attracted his ire. (The scheme, estimated at £278m, appeared derailed in November when the Government unexpectedly announced it was withdrawing money it had pledged, but in January the City of London Corporation undertook to plug the funding gap.) Krier drew more than just criticism. In 2016, he unveiled proposals to site the new concert hall beside Regent’s Park, at the start of the so-called Nash Ramblas processional route to Trafalgar Square. We shall see!

Right now, there is an air of resignation that epitomises an EU in retreat. Battered, bothered and bewildered on all sides by a succession of crises – Brexit, the euro, refugees, enlargement – the EU appears short of ideas. Jeroen Dijsselbloem, the Dutch finance minister, captured the sentiment when he said one of the reasons behind Europe’s vulnerability was a failure to complete ambitious changes: ‘We start projects, but never really seem to finish them.’ Its new building was necessary; however, it was a good idea, and it is now finished.

The Europa building is certainly a joy to visit, colourful and friendly. It may not be iconic, but it is certainly jazzy. It was not conceived in a desperate attempt to change the image of the organisation. As a symbol of the EU its transparency may not be everyone’s idea, but it was certainly not designed like some corporate headquarters for a suburban office park that many view the EU Quarter of the city. Grey and unwelcoming this is not.

It is not nondescript. That radiating lantern is both practical and idealistic. All those different-sized windows are just like Europe: ‘united from afar, but showing their diversity up close’. If only they could have created some decent public spaces around the Europa and its EU neighbours, the ambition to build a new identity might just have stood a better chance of success.

As a district, it remains charmless, a city apart. Yet, as hopes for European unity dim, the new EU headquarters will be glowing.

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