Studio Libeskind/H2a Architecte & Associés
Once a medieval city on a hill in the French-speaking part of Belgium, Mons later became a center of heavy industry. Now it wants to reinvent itself as a visitor destination and business hub. The grandly named Mons International Congress Xperience (MICX) by Studio Libeskind and H2a Architecte & Associés is a visually striking statement of intent for the city's business community.
For Daniel Libeskind, this is a relatively low-budget, generic building type familiar in most cities: the conference center. It's the usual mix of auditoria, meeting rooms, large foyers and events space. But nobody hires Libeskind to produce a dumb box—certainly not a city wanting to draw attention to itself. The mayor of Mons, former Belgian Prime Minister Elio di Rupo, wanted a landmark to start the regeneration of the postindustrial land between the railway and the River Haine, overlooked by the old city. Libeskind duly tossed out some vigorous shapes. The form of the concrete-framed building is expressed as two interlocking spirals—one clad in widely spaced timber strakes over a black waterproof membrane, the other in pale bronze aluminium slats of the same dimensions. The curving forms swoosh past and through each other, the aluminium one culminating in a familiar Libeskind motif, the caged viewing platform.
At the MICX opening, Libeskind was at pains to point out the tight constraints of the project. He wasn't making excuses; on the contrary, he seemed proud of the fact that his kind of architecture can work on a municipal budget. “It's a public building–we had to be wise with the resources we had,” he said. “In a design-build project, you have to be very flexible.” Construction costs came to $25 million for a three-level building totaling 135,000 square feet, with a parking garage beneath. A green roof, 1,725 square feet of photovoltaic cells, a geothermal heating system, lots of insulation, and, when the time comes, a direct pedestrian link to Calatrava's rail station have helped the conference center achieve Belgium's B Valideo status, the equivalent of LEED Gold.
For Libeskind, creating promenade spaces—both indoors and out—was an important way of adding value to the project and making it more attractive for the people attending events there. “It's good to have people dominating the building, rather than the building dominating the people,” he remarked. Consequently, he brought plenty of daylight into the entrance lobby, made it huge, and complemented it with a showpiece stair, a piece of architecture in itself, with a spacious half-landing intended for hanging out. Breakout areas where people can socialize continue on the outside of the building—on timber-decked terraces with views across to Mons's historic baroque belfry building and an outdoor ramp up to the green roof and the viewing platform on the prow.
Metal-mesh grating underfoot on the viewing platform (or belvedere) means you can see right down to the ground outside the building, not that there is anything to see. Apart from picking up the various key views and acting as a hinge-point between the old city and the planned new urban extension beyond, there is no particular rationale to the shape. This prow—unlike the similar latticework prow of Libeskind's Military History Museum in Dresden—seems to point to nothing in particular. As the architect's practice principal Stefan Blach said, “People always expect from Daniel that everything must have a specific philosophical background. It does not have to be that way.”
Studio Libeskind spent money at key points in the building–for instance, on the excellent auditorium seating, designed by the firm with an Art Deco touch, and made with an orange fabric, and on the local bluestone, familiar from the street paving in many a Belgian city, used here on the main stairs and in the geometric cross-hatching of the polished concrete floors in common areas. In contrast, meeting rooms are very plain.
MICX is by no means a first-rank Libeskind building. If this were fashion, you might call it a bridge line. But that's okay, because there is a hierarchy to all buildings, and a good architect should work at all price points. The detailing may not be exquisite and the external form distinctly willful, but this is honest, not cynical architecture. In global terms, it's no Guggenheim Bilbao. But bookings for events are flooding in, and, for Mons, that may be enough.
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