With the pressing issues that arise from a society driven and measured by flow of capital and wealth, the future of the National Bank of Belgium and its role to society is questioned as most of its functions are becoming digital or being relocated. A monumental building, representing an institution in an extremely relevant capital, presents itself as a great case study towards establishing and strengthening social relations, communities and identity in a city. Thus the project of redeveloping the National Bank of Belgium has taken a much wider scale. It is not only concerned about the working spaces and architectural quality within the bank building but most importantly, it focuses on what the National Bank of Belgium brings to the citizens of Brussels, opening up as an institution that welcomes the city.
After investigating the city of Brussels from its urban aspect, demographics and turbulent history, the location of the National Bank of Belgium appears as a void when compared to its surrounding areas: it is not inhabited by its citizens (in fact it was taken from them) but by empty buildings and offices.
The project thus deals not only with the brief of the office and the renovation of the bank, but with the meaning a National Bank can have towards the city it resides in, changing the urban fabric by welcoming a new public in a rather segregated block, contaminating it and allowing for inhabitation to take place.
However, before dwellings can be built and the neighbourhood inhabited, there has to be infrastructure.
In addition to the urban investigation that pointed at the relevance of educational and cultural buildings in residential areas, the case studies of the Kanal Pompidou and the sportshall Amal Amjahid, both in the city of Brussels, strengthen the argument of how those specific public functions can be used to contaminate areas that have become a void in the city. It is by framing and supporting social interaction among a diverse mix of users and programs, the buildings with cultural and educational functions act as a beginning of urban change.
Nevertheless, it is not only a matter of programmatic change. Introducing public life in a building that was made to intimidate and keep outsiders away requires a constant switch between all the scales and alternating between design and research.
Thus the main point of the project was to change the message of the National Bank of Belgium towards its citizens, becoming a provider of knowledge through education and culture, and most importantly, playing a main role as the beginning of urban change where the block would transition from being a void in the city to an inhabited neighbourhood.
This transition was done by taking into consideration three instruments: social, organizational and representational.
The social instrument: Before inhabitation can take place, publicness has to be perceived, therefore it was important to add porosity and vulnerability to the bank building, opening up for new users. Although each part of the building has a very specific use, the way that people are distributed and oriented through the building has no hierarchy, with all the different target groups circulating in the same way, through a periphery that goes through the building.
The organizational instrument: The idea of periphery comes from the German architect Fritz Neumeyer who argues that every public space should have a center and a periphery, thus allowing for passive public life to take place, where people are allowed to simply observe.
The representational instrument: Nevertheless, this was done by respecting the current language of the bank and not diminishing the building. Although completely new functions are added, the main architecture approach is to destroy as little as possible, reusing most of the building and simply direct the users, changing the current circulation and adding a periphery zone to the building.Finally, all those ideas culminate at the end of the building, where a new exhibition hall is added, showcasing to the city not only what the new National Bank of Belgium is capable of, but who the new groups of people that are inhabiting it are.
All those points were taken into consideration in every scale, ranging from programmatic decisions to changes to the façade, reinterpreting objects and following the language of the tiling material found in the building.
The framework of the studio where the conciliation between research and design, urban to interior could not be more appropriate to such a complex project, adding a sense of reality that is usually absent in other academic projects. Nevertheless, perhaps it was exactly this complexity and lack of time that proved to be extremely overwhelming at some points. It is not only a tremendously large building but actually three different characters that are put together in one block and now have to change completely. This made me wonder many times whether this project would have been better if done in groups of 3 students, perhaps this way it would have been possible to think through all of its complexity.