De Fierens, Antwerp
Standing opposite the Colonial Institute half way down Antwerp’s Nationalestraat is the Fierens Building, a historic housing complex built in yellow-bricks with a 2 storey commercial plinth cladded with purple-brown tiles. Known to locals as De Fierens, it was named after Gustave Fierens, the architect who was commissioned to build it by the housing corporation “Onze Woning” in 1938. The once proud modernist style complex with its central courtyard stands empty and neglected in 2016. It stood nominated to be demolished but after closer inspection the building was decided to be preserved.
In September 2016, after a European tender, Molenaar & C o architecten and Happel Cornelisse Verhoeven architects were jointly awarded the contract to renovate and redevelop this exceptional building. The plan is to transform the building while retaining its former glory, this time as a modern and comfortable apartment complex. The restoration and renovation started immediately. December 2017 the building permit has been applied for. The decisive factor in awarding the contract was the prior restoration of the Justus van Effencomplex in Rotterdam by Molenaar & C o architecten which won several national and international prizes.
The Fierens complex consists of two parts: an imposing eight-storey rectangular block with gateways leading into the inner courtyard including an older building on the corner of the block, and separated by the street Craesbeeckstraat, is a second corresponding seven-storey residential block. Both building blocks have a concrete frame construction, continuous bands of windows along the street facades, vertical glazed stairwells and concrete balconies. The complex is an impressive entity due to the prevailing repetitions and the combination of various materials.
The interior is well preserved, and is striking for its rich use of materials and Art Deco style ornamentation. A dedicated visitor made remarks on the interior in 2015, when the building was still threatened with demolition: "I walked up the stairs, and all the doors were open. There were terrazzo floors everywhere. And grandeur too: priceless tiles, Art Deco ironwork, but especially hundreds of small well-conceived details. Light and air are so important to human beings. Public housing should never be banal, bleak or hopeless."
The rich variation of materials will be cherished and integrated into the new situation. The original 250 standard apartments of 65 m2 will become larger through horizontally and/or vertically connecting the units, resulting in 125 modern and comfortable apartments ranging from 65-130 m2.
Another important intervention will consist of replacing the low-rise corner block building with a new high-rise building, a beacon in contrasting red-purple brick that will house a two storey commercial space at the street level. To strengthen the unity of the two Fierens blocks, the street Craesbeeckstraat will be re-developed using the model of the large inner residential courtyard: Traffic will be restricted and public gardens will be integrated with patio furnishings and play facilities. Antwerp awaits the renovation with anticipation: soon De Fierens will stand proud once more!