Antwerp Museum

Species: American white oak

American white oak dresses up Antwerp’s riverfront museum

The Port of Antwerp remains the second largest maritime gateway into Europe with 117 million tons of freight passing through in the first 9 months of 2009. Maritime trade from all over the world has shaped this city and the wider area of North West Europe.

The city of Antwerp has undertaken an ambitious urban regeneration programme to change its historic dockland area close to the city centre into offices, housing and cultural facilities. At the heart of this urban renewal scheme, on the relics of the old Hanse warehouse, stands a new 63 metre tall building: the Museum aan de Stroom (Museum on the River) which has become a major new landmark that represents the city's collective memory of its maritime heritage. “We wanted to create the atmosphere of an old treasure box where visitors will discover thousands of exhibits from Antwerp's rich maritime past” explains Mark Sette, one of the architects in charge of the project. The building’s cubic design is a reference to the old refurbished warehouses which are a familiar sight on the Bonaparte dock which is one of Antwerp’s oldest quayside. The structure of this tower building rests on a central concrete core of 13 x13m. Huge metal frames were then fixed onto this central core to extend the floors to 38.7m x 38.7m. The different floor levels have been staggered like interlocking cubes which create large overhangs. This design had a direct bearing on the way the American white oak flooring was designed and installed.

The treasure box style

Antwerp MuseumThe building rises on 10 levels with a floor surface of 1,500m² each. The outside walls are faced with sandstone from India in four different hues ranging from brick orange to medium brown which have been carefully assembled.

In the open parts of the building, between the different overhanging floors, huge 5m glass columns have been installed to offer panoramic views of Antwerp’s skyline. In certain corners of the building the glass columns are actually stacked on two levels to run 11m high giving spectacular views of the city and the quayside. The wave shape of the glass columns (custom made in Italy) provides high mechanical resistance to wind whilst using a minimum amount of joists, to offer the widest possible views of the historic city. A succession of escalators allows the pedestrian to go up and around the different levels even when the museum is shut. At the top of each escalator large glazed openings allow the visitor to discover Antwerp’s skyline. A sky roof restaurant and a panoramic reception hall are located on the top floor. In stark contrast some of the exhibition rooms in the Museum have no windows to avoid damaging exhibits with natural lighting. Here the architects have moulded a wood grain finish on the concrete walls to enhance the old treasure box feel.

Antwerp – ‘the hand thrown away’

Some 3,000 aluminium hands are fixed at regular intervals on the Museum walls: these refer to an old legend which explains the name of the city: Antwerpen - ‘the hand thrown away’. Legend has it that the entrance to the river Schelde was guarded by a giant who would claim a levy from every ship that entered the river. That was until Brabo, Antwerp’s local hero, cut the giant’s hand off and threw it into the river. Today a statue of Brabo stands in front of Antwerp’s city hall on the old main market square.

Balancing quality and strength

“When we cast the concrete floors we knew the load would make our floor level sink slightly” explains Wim Arits, one of the senior project managers on site. “This is why we set the angle of our steel frame 15cm above the finished floor level.” Originally the architects wanted oak flooring to be as traditional as possible.

They wanted to lay the flooring on double solid joists to support bearing loads of up to 500kg. Furthermore they had strong requirements about the quality of the oak flooring: they wanted flooring strips with a uniform length of 3,500mm x 150mm wide x 35mm thick in prime quality oak.

Oak flooring on a calcium sulphate slabs

Antwerp MuseumAfter several weeks of discussion the team chose to install a sub base of calcium sulphate slabs under the floor. This flooring solution offers several advantages: firstly it provides extra mechanical resistance to oak flooring and with this sub-base the architects could be sure the oak flooring would not start creaking after a few years. Secondly this solution provides more flexibility for installing museum showcases because it leaves a passage below the calcium sulphate slabs for cabling. Thirdly whereas a solid wood joist system would have increased the moisture content of the floors, the slabs are perfectly dry. This helped to reduce the number of expansion joints on each floor level. The slabs rest on small adjustable jack studs and were set once the concrete floors had stabilized to their finished floor level. In view of the large surface area of flooring to install (7000m²)and the high standards of quality required, Rudy de Keyser, the flooring contractor suggested using American white oak. The shorter strips were used along the wall edges to stagger correctly the flooring joints whereas in the middle of the floor the average strips are between 3000mm and 4000mm long, in keeping with the scale of the large exhibition rooms. The floor strips are put together with a classic tongue and groove system and then glued and nailed onto the calcium sulphate slabs. The wearing course on each floor strip is 8mm thick and has been treated with an oil finish plus a salt-based fire retardant, particularly in the fire exit routes. “Despite these different coatings, the American white oak colouring has remained very consistent throughout the building” comments Mark Sette. “And we are very happy with the end result”.

On the ground level four pavilions of 12m x 2m run along one side of the entrance square to the Museum. They will house the Museum reception as well as a café and shop. While the building is expected to be completed early in 2010, it will not be open to visitors before the autumn. Museum teams will move in to organise the display of some 460,000 different exhibits. Together with the collections from the national maritime museum this Museum on the River will incorporate many other sources of heritage, including antiquities as well as ethnographic and ethnological collections from countries all over the world, living up to its ‘treasure box’ design style.


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