This Town Hall and Civic Centre in Belgium sets a high standard in inexpensive yet highly imaginative and sustainable architecture. Making it look deceptively simple is just another plus for its architects.
Bruges in Belgium is a fascinating place. It has its cathedrals and cobblestone streets and its upscale industrial regions – its identity is a comfortable mesh of both these worlds. Naturally, the city hall and civic centre, which would combine the offices of the civic, administrative and social services, should stand in tribute to this unique aura.
In 2006, a 4-hectare patch housing an obsolete industrial structure was acquired by the city, and in 2 years, the idea to convert it into a centralised building for all the combined services germinated. There was an open call for ideas by the Flemish Government Architecture Agency (Vlaams Bouwmeester) for the most environmentally sustainable plan to turn this structure around. The stated intent was – “Ceci n’est pas … een Administratief centrum”, (This is not…an Administrative centre).
Thus, OostCampus was born and transformed into a beacon of modern design by Carlos Arroyo Arquitectos, Spain, winner of the open call, in collaboration with ELD Partnership, Belgium.
The OostCampus was conjured to scoop together the offices of Autonoom Gemeetebedrijf Oostkamp, Oostkamp City Hall (Gemeente Oostkamp) and Oostkamp Social Services (OCMW). Madrid-based Carlos Arroyo Arquitectos thus was acutely aware of the range of activities that were going transpire under the same roof. So, the ‘flow’ of the spaces was accorded critical status. But the interior scheme had to be enveloped by a highly sustainable shell, and had to espouse environment-friendliness at every step.
To achieve this delicate balance, the firm relied on what has since been coined ‘joyful recycling’- the idea that recycling is a happy opportunity to create something wonderful and entertaining.
“The phrase refers to the fact that the carbon footprint of this building is minimal, compared to a standard equivalent, while the cultural footprint is much larger,” says Carlos Arroyo.
OostCampus is the synergy between the Coca Cola factory that existed before and the uber sophosticated public department space it will be known as from now on. The project developers decided to reclaim and work with as many existing materials and structures as was possible, thereby minimising the profound environmental damage that is unleashed right at the first step of a re-design project.
Holding together the furturistic walls and divisions are the old floors of poli-concrete, with its white paint signage intact and proud.
Also put back to work are the insulation, the waterproofing, the power station, the heating plant, the water pipes, the fire hoses, the sewerage, the parking area, the fencing and the access.
The interiors though have shifted gears from industrial edginess to the dreaminess of a noir movie set. Bubble-shaped structures made of gypsum and fibre hover over the entire space. These unconventional, 7mm thick additions are not just for visual effect, they are the weather swingers of the building. This is where winds get converted into electricity to light up LED screens forming an ‘artificial sun’.
The temperament of the various open and closed, well-lit and shadowed corners of the space are well-regulated by this ‘white clouds’ layout. Even the acoustics of the building are regulated by noise-absorbing recycled paper celluloses.
The light here seems to cut through a soft-touch filter, illuminating the animated walls in turgid sweeps. The firms were so careful of the effect of the entire space, that even the ‘smell’ of the interiors is calibrated to be perennially pleasant.
The green credentials of the building are held together by dramatic cost-cutting through the use of simple materials. Carved CNC boards form cluster walls, while PET bottles form the felt on some furniture and soft walls.
The ‘thermal onion’ effect maintains the temperature dynamics of the place so well that the need for external heating is minimal, while cooling needs are entirely self-sufficient. The natural opacity of the concrete traps heat and cold in good measure, forming natural barriers against any energy losses due to changing weather conditions.
The resultant centre is effectively a place that is built on consensus as much as on solid sustainability principles, apart from the fact that it was built incurring a cost that was a mere one third of what would cost building the same structure following usual run-of-the-mill principles.
This project is designed to bring people within comfortable distance of the civil services. Evidence of the breaking down of the barriers is in all the careful detailing, including in the 3D info points of the city’s website within the centre.
Even the park area contributes to the overall green vision, as it supports water harvesting and sustains nitrogen-fixing trees.
An interesting jargon of design terms has also come out of this endeavour. Like ‘topogram’ – a consumer-friendly diagram of division of spaces within a building, and all that they contain, so that anyone with no technical training can understand it easily.
Text By Shruti Nambiar
Photographs Courtesy Miguel de Guzmán