Europa building in Brussels by Philippe Samyn

The lantern itself is clad with trapezoids of glass spanning 56 full-height mullions. They are marked by diagonal white bands that alternate in slope from panel to panel, and vary in width to achieve different transparencies — more at the top and bottom, less in the middle.

The lantern bulges at mid-height and cleaning equipment rails encircle its top. Image Credit: Marie-Françoise PlissartThe lantern bulges at mid-height and cleaning equipment rails encircle its top. Image Credit: Marie-Françoise Plissart

The lantern is all about meetings and power, but they happen within the bounds of elliptical corridors running behind its facade. The neutral peripheral spaces host slanting columns and suspended staircases, which start at patches of floor studded for the visually impaired. They cut down a level between thin circle-perforated sheets of steel that have 56 percent transparency. They are one of Europa’ many examples of Samyn’s ‘endlessly searching for the lightest structure. Saving material is a cardinal virtue’.

Inside the 2.7m-wide gap between the window-frames facade and structural envelope frame. Image Credit: Marie-Françoise PlissartInside the 2.7m-wide gap between the window-frames facade and structural envelope frame. Image Credit: Marie-Françoise Plissart

Starting with the doors, the most joyful feature that pervades the Europa building’s interior is patchworks of colours, as bright and bold as David McKee’s Elmer the Elephant but more subtly mixed and with different-sized rectangles. These rectangular patterns resonate with the window-frame facades, but with flat colours and no frames.

The lantern rises in an atrium bounded by the window frames facades and wood-fronted internal office facades. Image Credit: Marie-Françoise PlissartThe lantern rises in an atrium bounded by the window frames facades and wood-fronted internal office facades. Image Credit: Marie-Françoise Plissart

They are the work of Belgian artist Georges Meurant, and he’s been making such patterns since 1988, and collaborating with Samyn since 2010. Inside AGC Glass Europe, Louvain-la-Neuve, a near-zero-energy floating glass headquarters building (2014), there are Meurant frescos, and hopefully, another Samlyn design under construction in Zhoushan, China will have a Meurant-patterned tower (local progress reports have not emerged). Entering into the Europa’s rooms and chambers, Meurant is everywhere — even on the sides of liftshafts.

The lantern rises in an atrium bounded by the window frames facades and wood-fronted internal office facades. Image Credit: European UnionThe lantern rises in an atrium bounded by the window frames facades and wood-fronted internal office facades. Image Credit: European Union

In the lantern are three central, major meeting rooms. The elliptical, double-height chambers surrounded by interpreters’ booths are on levels 3, 5 (the largest with a capacity of 330, hosting international summits) and 7. Meurant patterns radiate across carpets woven in Turkey and propagate in grids on acoustic felt across the ceilings. Mounted on the ceilings are elliptical sculptural lattice installations that suggest Michelangelo’s intersecting paving patterns laid in the 1540s at the Piazza del Campodoglio in Rome.

The lantern rises in an atrium bounded by the window frames facades and wood-fronted internal office facades. Image Credit: European Union The lantern rises in an atrium bounded by the window frames facades and wood-fronted internal office facades. Image Credit: Marie-Françoise Plissart

On the first floor is a 120-capacity press room, which happens to be Samyn’s favourite — ‘it’s my baby’ he says. It has Meurant ceilings but is subdued with grey carpet, and the underside of the folding seats have wooden acoustic panels. It’s conveniently near where people of power from the EU or VIP visitors arrive by car in the gap between the Justus Lipsius building and Europa.

A door in the lantern has one of 13 door patterns designed by Georges Meurant. Image Credit: European UnionA door in the lantern has one of 13 door patterns designed by Georges Meurant. Image Credit: European Union

Above the great conference rooms are reception rooms and dining rooms. Translation is such a big thing in the EU that even diners have microphones and again, the ubiquitous interpreters are accommodated peripherally. The highest dining room at level 11, where leaders eat, is another central ellipse, and its Meurant ceiling is punctuated by a central skylight rising to the roof. Through it, another extraordinary structure is glimpsed.

Ground floor

Ground floor

Fifth floorFifth floor

Above the whole building floats a vast 5,424 sq m steel-frame canopy, square but for one corner. It seems like a dramatic gesture — hovering, its flatness slicing the air — but it is functional, carrying a photovoltaic array which should supply eight percent of Europa’s power. It is just one of many sustainable features.

The level 7 conference room, surrounded by interpreters’ booths, sandwiched between Georges Meurant patchworks, and with one of three ceiling frame installations. Image Credit: Marie-Françoise PlissartThe level 7 conference room, surrounded by interpreters’ booths, sandwiched between Georges Meurant patchworks, and with one of three ceiling frame installations. Image Credit: Marie-Françoise Plissart

About forty per cent of Europa is in the Résidence Palace. The facades were restored, along with the original 1926 outward-facing rooms, three staircases and a lift, and a magnificent internal ground-floor arcade lined with vitrines that once would have displayed fancy products. They are empty now, the lift is immobilised. The banisters, too low for current regulations, have had to be supplemented by parallel cable grids rising up the stairwell.

Power dining: the 11th floor dining room hosts meals for people like heads of state, below a skylight at the ‘lantern’s apex. Image Credit: Marie-Françoise PlissartPower dining: the 11th floor dining room hosts meals for people like heads of state, below a skylight at the ‘lantern’s apex. Image Credit: Marie-Françoise Plissart

Nevertheless, an air of elegance is restored. Behind the peripheral heritage, three new cores service 12 storeys of new rooms on the atrium side. Some feature mirrored ledges that reflect daylight from the outside from upper windows right up against the ceiling. There are large double-height ‘listening rooms’ strangely devoid of Meurant surfaces, but in tranquil shades of grey. The newbuild, including a top servicing level, rises up discreetly behind the nine-storey Résidence Palace facade on Rue de la Loi, but on the opposite, southern side, the old building is up to 11 storeys and makes up virtually the whole facade.

In the smaller conference room at level 3, support columns can be seen. Image Credit: Marie-Françoise PlissartIn the smaller conference room at level 3, support columns can be seen. Image Credit: Marie-Françoise Plissart

There is an extraordinary level of detail to Samlyn’s work at Europa, often shaped by his interest in mathematical ratios. His restless drive to design is evident everywhere, from signage to window-cleaning machines. But the pervading crisp, cheering aesthetic owes much to Meurant’s colour patchworks. Like the trendy, eclectic aesthetic of co-working spaces elsewhere, only time will tell if Europa’s happy experiment in colour interventions remains fresh as tastes change.

The vast steel canopy mounted above the Europa building carries. 636 solar panels. Image Credit: Marie-Françoise Plissart The vast steel canopy mounted above the Europa building carries. 636 solar panels. Image Credit: Marie-Françoise Plissart

Lift shafts are lined with Georges Meurant patchwork patterns. Image Credit: Quentin OlbrechtsLift shafts are lined with Georges Meurant patchwork patterns. Image Credit: Quentin Olbrechts

The big architecture feels more permanent. The 1920s stone and (in a way) the wooden frames have already stood a test of time. Rectilinear steel and glass are familiarly contemporary, but then there’s the lantern. If curvy volumes within vast voids are coming into vogue, so far they’ve been striking and wildly different. At the new Coop-Himmelb(l)au-designed MOCAPE in Shenzhen, everything is shiny and metallic. A closer comparison to make is between Europa and the Fuksas-designed Centro Congress in Rome (Blueprint 350 Jan/Feb).

Lift shafts are lined with Georges Meurant patchwork patterns. Image Credit: Quentin OlbrechtsLift shafts are lined with Georges Meurant patchwork patterns. Image Credit: Quentin Olbrechts

Both have an organic curving volume within a glass box, poetically enhanced when glowing. Fuksas’ inner form, la Nuvola, spreads out asymmetrically into a wider space, and conceals its interior inside a translucent textile envelope. Samyn has built fabric structures, for example with the elegant stretched arcs of the M&G Research Laboratories in Venefro, Italy (1991), but the Europa lantern is glass. Its form is more disciplined than la Nuvola and more connected to the box. But behind the wooden window-frame screen, the lantern, too, has mystery.

The Résidence Palace’s elegant internal arcade has been restored. Image Credit: Marie-Françoise Plissart The Résidence Palace’s elegant internal arcade has been restored. Image Credit: Marie-Françoise Plissart

With Brexit looking unstoppable, it’s a shame the British won’t enjoy the Europa building for long. The UK helped make the building — structural engineer Buro Happold are London based.

Wire grids rise through the stairwell within the 1926 stairs so that people will not fall over the banisters. Image Credit: Marie-Françoise Plissart Wire grids rise through the stairwell within the 1926 stairs so that people will not fall over the banisters. Image Credit: Marie-Françoise Plissart

In austerity-mired 2011, PM David Cameron thundered against the costs of this ‘gilded cage’, but the eastern expansion of the EU (an initiative led by the UK) meant new space just had to be found, and renting commercial offices and adapting old venues costs money too. Now, when you consider that the Foster-designed Apple HQ in Cupertino looks like costing $5bn, and Google is spending £1bn on its Bjarke Ingels and Heatherwick-designed London HQ, €300m for a building to guide the one of the world’s largest economic entities, seems like small change.

A listening room between the old facades and atrium awaits the arrival of its chairs. Image Credit: Marie-Françoise PlissartA listening room between the old facades and atrium awaits the arrival of its chairs. Image Credit: Marie-Françoise Plissart

The Europa building should improve the perception of the EU, but will have scant effect on the rising tides of nationalism. At least, though, it will bring a new magic to Brussels. With its dash of art deco elegance exquisitely integrated into its high-tech structure and its photovoltaic canopy floating above, it would be notable. But there is also the effect of the fantastic veil revealing the strange inner form — as enchanting as a distant moon.

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