Herzog & de Meuron

The master plan for Droogdokkenisland places points of high density at the edges of a park. The new building for the Royal Flemish Ballet and the Antwerp Philharmonic Orchestra is one of these centres of activity. The new Cultural Centre is placed on a strategic point for the whole city of Antwerp. Located at the river Schelde’s knee, it literally links the city to the North Sea. There are precedents for placing a cultural facility in a prime location on the waterfront such as the Sydney Opera House or the Bilbao Guggenheim Museum.

Unlike the Guggenheim though, this project is not about importing a cultural (and commercial) venue in order to put a rather provincial town on the map. The building for Antwerp’s new Cultural Centre is the logical consequence of many years of outstanding work and international success of two Antwerp-based institutions, and it is a long anticipated destination for the local artistic community.

Two large size live performance venues of very different natures are joined in one building. Ballet is a visual and a physical experience, it is about fiction and interaction, about body and mind. Music is “only“ one of its dimensions.
A concert is a relatively minimalist experience, compared to ballet. It is pure concentration on one sense, hearing. The fiction that is created by the music is individual and imaginative, it happens it in each visitor’s own head.

The very different characters of ballets and concerts ask for distinct spatial conditions. A dance performance needs a stage where sets can be flown up and down, an orchestra pit, excellent lighting possibilities, and it wants an immediate relation between performer and public. We chose a horseshoe typology with balconies wrapping all around the house, making the public become the walls. Historical references for this typology are Shakespeare’s Globe in London or the Scala in Milan.

For the concert hall we propose a much quieter space, a shoebox type with softly kinked walls and ceilings designed to spread the sound evenly. Musicians and listeners are in the very same space that is never entirely darkened, and musicians prefer spaces with no visual distraction. Herzog & de Meuron created such a venue in 2001: a temporary concert hall for the Europäische Musikmonat in Basel. There the only architectural features in the hall were backlit textile walls. Of course, there are historical precedents for these “simple“ interiors as well, such as the Musikverein in Vienna, built in 1869 by Theophil von Hansen.

Two halls with their very specific three-dimensional shapes are stacked on top of each other, creating a gestural whole and a dramatic overhang towards the River, pointing out to the North Sea. We did not invent the stacking strategy: In 1872, the architect of the Bayreuth Festspielhaus applied it already, yet with another purpose: he made the opera house appear like a pile of “ordinary“ buildings.

The two dark, mysterious bodies of the Cultural Centre are wrapped in a thick, translucent and vivid skin. Fully glazed foyers make Droogdokkenpark, the harbour area and the Schelde River a spectacular part of one’s visit to the Centre: upon leaving the ballet hall at intermission, one will be immersed in the beautifully designed and softly lit landscape outside. The ride up to the concert hall is a cinematographic experience, not unlike the rise to the top floors at the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris. On the way up, you’ll find a lounge and bar with a terrace overlooking the park and the harbour. At the final destination of the journey, a panoramic view over the river and Antwerp’s historical centre awaits you. At a Sunday Matinée of the Royal Philharmonic, for example, after which lunch is served in the restaurant on the ground floor.

The figurative, gestural character of this building is created by close observation of its two primary functions and the wish to synergize them. The complex is a poetic, sculptural performing and viewing machine. From this point of view, the new cultural centre relates directly to the big silos in the harbor. Like them, the Cultural Centre reveals the beauty of its inner life.
Herzog & de Meuron 2002



Project Team


In Collaboration With
Master plan: Diener & Diener, Basel, Switzerland
Project2, Antwerp, Belgium
Landscape Architect: Michel Desvigne, Paris, France