A Tale Told in Cherry-Red

Emphasizing the importance of color and façade: With the recently completed fire station in Wilrijk, Antwerp, Happel Cornelisse Verhoeven, a firm of Rotterdam-based architects, has succeeded in producing a charming version of “architecture parlante”.
by Jeanette Kunsmann | 3/10/2020

The façade of the new fire station in Antwerp’s Wilrijk district changes as the clouds drift by. The architects have achieved this effect by means of the station’s bricks, which with their cherry-red glaze reflect the natural light in different weather conditions – sometimes the stones glow in the sun and sometimes they glare gloomily. Because the area around the Gaston Fabrélaan transport hub is not particularly elegant the three architects wanted to make a strong statement. On this typically Belgian main street, one brick building lines up next to one the other – with the new neighbor fitting self-confidently into its surroundings. “A fire station is a very functional building but, at the same time, the emotional and social aspects should not be neglected,” comments project architect Floris Cornelisse. Normally, HCVA prefers to design quiet, modest, reserved buildings. Here, the situation was different.

HCVA’s portfolio had not previously included fire stations of any kind. The three partners, Ninke Happel, Floris Cornelisse and Paul Verhoeven, consciously reject the idea of focusing on one type of building. This explains how not only the Brandweerpost but also a museum and a bridge by the architects are being inaugurated in 2020. The element linking these extremely different typologies is neither their materials, nor their functions but their basic approach to architecture. These young Dutch architects see each building as a tale being told. Claude-Nicolas Ledoux (1736–1806) called this “architecture parlante” – the kind of eloquent architecture in which shape and appearance make the function easy to grasp, something of which the three young architects also approve. As the post-SuperDutch generation their designs have a different feel to them than those of firms such as heavyweights like OMA, MVRDV and Mecanoo. “It’s not that we materialize the concept – we conceptualize the material.”

Antwerp is not far away for this Rotterdam-based firm, and four and a half years ago it succeeded in winning the invited competition the city held. A compact set of criteria for a small site. Antwerp wants to offer young firms an opportunity, as Cornelisse sees it. With this monochrome standalone, HCVA’s design combines two typologies in a hybrid structure. A kind of residential building made of a light CLP wooden frame is stuck on top of the (concrete) garage. This upper level accommodates not only the office, the kitchen and the common areas but also bedrooms with some 15 beds. “Each of the 56 employees has his or her own mattress, the staff work in shifts, each with eight firefighters,” explains the architect. A total of 932 m² of usable area needed to be factored in on the 1,400-m² parcel of land.

The striking tower creates the necessary space for the machine room. The word “Brandweer” or fire station adorns the rooftop in capital letters – a Belgian building regulation. The architects made use of the scope available with such requirements and commissioned Reynoud Homan, a graphic designer and a friend, to handle the sign and he relied on Adrian Frutiger “Univers” font, as he felt it best reflects the all-encompassing nature of a fire station.

The bricks were made to order by St. Joris, a Dutch family business. They consisted of a special kind of clay and were fired once, together with the glaze. HCVA found their inspiration for the color in London, when they discovered a centuries-old wall there with a dark red sheen to it. Whether it was still possible to manufacture bricks like that today was something that had to be explored, together with the brickyard – before having them produced in Holland in two different formats.

Inside the building the architects have created a conscious contrast to the cherry-red façade. With their strict distinction between the inside and outside Happel Cornelisse and Verhoeven are referencing Gottfried Semper’s theory of “dressing”. It is only the red lockers that once again touch upon the subject of the building’s expressive envelope; otherwise, the aim behind the light wooden surfaces is to create a homelike atmosphere.

After initially reacting skeptically, local residents are now very enthusiastic about this freestanding red edifice. The firefighters, by contrast, were full of pride right from the outset. “The building now belongs to them,” comments Cornelisse. Even if HCVA has no intention of specializing, perhaps they might be persuaded to consider another fire station? The architect considers the prospect and answers cautiously. “If we do, then it couldn’t be a red one.”