More than a pretty façade

The Buenos Aires Sand Terminals murals have turned 15 buildings into very visible works of art. Credit: Buenos Aires Port
The Buenos Aires Sand Terminals murals have turned 15 buildings into very visible works of art. Credit: Buenos Aires Port
Leuvehaven port retained much of the original steelwork for its re-development. Credit: Moederscheim Moonen
Leuvehaven port retained much of the original steelwork for its re-development. Credit: Moederscheim Moonen
Southampton docks is home to this aesthetically pleasing waste-treatment facility. Credit: DJM Leighpark [CC BY-SA 4.0]
Southampton docks is home to this aesthetically pleasing waste-treatment facility. Credit: DJM Leighpark [CC BY-SA 4.0]
Industry Database

What’s in it for ports when they choose to optimise the design of their buildings, askes Stevie Knight

It's a truism, however unfair, that urban communities often shut out the 'ugly' port that supplies them, turning their backs on it both figuratively and literally. This is eroding some of the interest and pride that should rightly bind the two together.

While a new coat of paint probably won’t make enough of a difference, there are some design facets that are worth considering.

Reminding people what the port represents isn't a new idea. Olivier Lemaire of The worldwide network of port cities (AIVP) points out that port buildings in the 19th century especially “used ostentatious architecture to testify the power of the maritime economy”. It was, he says, “emblematic of an economic prosperity based on global trade”.

Some ports do recognise the need to reclaim their place in the public consciousness. Famed architect Zaha Hadid's imposing Antwerp Port House, which balances a large ship-like structure on top of the old, rather stately building, is nothing if not a grand spectacle.

However, the total cost can rise as high as the architecture and unsurprisingly those 'big statement' projects can entail extra investment and so easily go over budget: the massive structure on top of Antwerp's Port House, for example, meant the older, renovated building below needed hefty augmentation. According to local media, several disputes around the additional works resulted in costs rising by 27% above the initial estimation, to an eventual outlay of €64m.

Reuse and reimagine

However, there are imaginative solutions that don't cost anywhere near as much: take the Leuvehaven port development in Rotterdam. The new building was circumscribed in its footprint – although 116 metres long, it had to sit on the same narrow site as its predecessor. So architects Moederscheim Moonen took an interesting approach: “The basic steel structure was well engineered, so we said we'll retain as much of the original construction as we can, as well as reusing 'donor' steel from other pavilions – under demolition – for the building,” says Erik Moederscheim.

Keeping the 'ribs' of the original meant that 25% to 30% of the structure has been reused, along with steel from the other pavilions under demolition.

Mr Moederscheim adds: “Of course, the choice was made for sustainability but on the other hand, it definitely helped the cost and logistics issues – especially as the site is in the city centre, a small but difficult location.”

Paint can also have transformative effects. Take, for example, Buenos Aires' Sand Terminals which provide around half the material used in the city's construction efforts.

Huge murals by well-known artists Bernado Ezcurra and Alfredo Segatori completely cover no less than 15 buildings, transforming them from dilapidated structures into gigantic, very visible works of art evoking the old industry, colours and nature of the area. A number carry an ecological message, focusing on threatened indigenous flora and fauna. Imaginatively, the themes don't stop at the buildings as the colours are also picked out by the breakwater blocks.

While the total price came to around $200,000, a little clever negotiation “meant it didn't cost us anything”, says the port's Ramiro Lopez Saubidet, himself an architect with an eye for design. He explains the terminals' permits used to come up for yearly renewal, but the port offered to extend this to an initial six years, allowing the operators time to develop a business case, if they agreed to paint, renovate and modernise, with the port holding the strings on visual specifications. The operators’ costs were also alleviated by a sponsorship deal with a paint manufacturer.

How long will these murals last? This is an important point, given the harsh, wet, salt and sand environment: Mr Saubidet explains that the surface will make it through at least five years, but after that, it will need restoration or repainting.

A coal solution

Occasionally, the requirements of air pollution mitigation and rising eco-awareness push ports into a corner, so a few have made a virtue out of a necessity. Mr Lemaire explains that the coal terminal at La Coruña in Spain has moved from being a practical way to reduce coal dust pollution and noise, to being “an iconic building now called La Medusa by the citizens”. It's so much part of the city's identity that while its use might be coming to an end, no-one wants to let go of it and ideas to repurpose it as a concert hall or leisure centre have been put forward.

The Marchwood Energy Recovery Facility has also proved that imagination doesn't have to come with a big price tag. This waste-treatment facility on the edge of Southampton docks in the UK is an elegant dome with coloured lights around the bottom: viewed from the water it seems to hover like a flying saucer. While it could have been conventionally built with 1,000 tons of hot-rolled steel, the Geometrica prefab dome used galvanized structural tubing joined with high-strength aluminium hubs and weighed in at less than 300 tons. Interestingly, assembly took place concurrently with the incinerator inside, the shelter allowing the construction schedule to catch up: apparently it had been stretched during the search for an economical solution.

However, a lot of ports will identify with Brussels: regulation means that the port's activities can't relocate but have to remain inside the city boundaries, explains Sylvain Godfroid, the port's communication co-ordinator.

Despite this impediment, the industry has to adapt to the rather well off, aesthetically-conscious neighbourhood that's grown up around it. One of the concrete plants has therefore decorated its tower using street art. Interestingly, while this might appear to be a straightforward welcome for often-marginalised airbrush artists, controversy in the street-art community followed, “as it was an official commission”, says Mr Godfroid. In short, paid work may not appear anti-establishment or clandestine enough for some.

Redefining attractiveness

Some of Brussels' industrial businesses are taking it a step further: Inter-Béton, which handles 170,000 m3 of concrete a year, has been stung by the residential community's criticism and was frankly worried about being pushed out of its location. Therefore, it's driving ahead with a competition-winning project to bring the concrete plant and its 200-a-day truck visits under a broad, stylish, noise-reducing canopy, which also incorporates offices above. It's not a cheap option, but it's hoped it will help the company to remain in the city.

It's not just about prettying up or even making buildings environmentally acceptable: it's also about redefining what is attractive. According to Olivier Lemaire the best of these new construction projects “seek to give an aesthetic vision to an activity often considered industrial”. Or, as one engineer put it, while staring at the imposing remains of a large pump being cleared from a redesigned waterfront: “Why is this not art?”

In fact, that is what is now under consideration. Leuvehaven, for example, is housing a metals and  wood workshop used for the maintenance of the historic boats lying in the water outside, but rather than hiding them away, they're making these old industrial processes part of the focus. The project also incorporates the original gantry crane which will continue to be used “and they've even got a smithy”, says Mr Moederscheim. There will be some minor noise, but he predicts that rather than simply being a nuisance “it will be appreciated as part of the environment”.

Fascination street

However, these developments don't need the patina of age – and 'old' doesn't instantly recommend an edifice. For example, Dublin is demolishing sections of a 19th century stone wall that isolated the port centre from the city, replacing it with a far more open structure of rusty steel beams, an impressive gateway and a plaza that features a relocated 1950s Stothert & Pitt crane. Again, it's looking at fascination rather than the regular definition of beauty.

And fascination is something that ports have a-plenty. Mr Lemaire says it's possible to use the port to showcase landmarks and port-city scenery which “offer a rich spectacle”. He points out that a facility's outskirts often lend themselves to viewing platforms – these opportunities shouldn't be overlooked but helped along by deliberate planning as they “help create unity between the active port and the city”. In fact, part of the canopy over Inter-Béton's concrete facility will be open to the public, giving panoramic views along the urban canal.

As Mr Lemaire concludes: “It is a question of changing the citizen’s perception of the industrial building and allowing him to see it ‘like’ a work of art.”

So, maybe ports should stop hiding their floodlights under a bushel and start to show the world at their gates that they are magnificent.

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