I was eager to explore a new city and broaden my global experience; an opportunity I shared with SimpsonHaugh’s first completed building in a foreign country, Queen Elisabeth Hall in Antwerp. What better way of being embraced as a new team member than to be invited to a behind-the-scenes tour of the practice’s first concert hall and to appreciate the auditorium’s world-class acoustics by watching violinist Stefan Jackiw perform?
Arrival in Antwerp by train was as familiar as into any UK city, and I felt welcome. Antwerp’s Central Station is breath-taking in itself and we all found ourselves admiring it before setting foot into the city. The city felt interconnected as we journeyed between the old town and the modern metropolis. Cycling around the centre amplified this experience. I kept pinching myself at the beauty of the architecture whilst my colleagues shouted ‘stay on the right, Hettie!’
We admired ZHA’s Antwerp Port Authority House and Neutelings Riedijk Architects’s Museum aan de Stroom (MAS) – their eclectic styles create a striking contrast, yet respond to the urban fabric through their fusion to the city scape. In the old town, the Cathedral lighting up the velvet night sky provided a stunning backdrop to our first meal: mussels. I was told that Belgium’s mussels are some of the best, and I was not disappointed. I also took the opportunity to try as many different Belgian chocolates as I could, having researched the city’s best chocolatiers prior to the excursion.
A brief visit into Antwerp Zoo provided a beautiful view of the new concert hall, elegantly perched atop the historic 19th century structure, displaying a modern and simplistic connection to the existing façade.
Sitting between the new Hall and the existing building, the atrium substantiates this connection. As our tour guide explained, revealing the previously hidden Art Nouveau murals strengthens the connection from the concert hall to the zoo and the wider city. This simple and effective solution is a determining factor of the design success of the reinvigorated site.
Our all-access tour gave us unique perspectives of the Hall: we tiptoed above the stage on a rig, admired the mysterious world of backstage and were taken centre stage to experience the view of the performer. These perspectives allowed me to appreciate the significance of architectural design in response to music. From the stage, I was in awe at the magnitude of the grand Hall, while the warm and intimate ambience created by the materials, textures and colours of the Hall's interiors helped draw me into the performance.
Although I visited as much as I could possibly manage in two days, there are many more memories to be made in this exceptional city. One final glimpse of the station and I boarded our homeward train.