International architect selection for transformation and expansion of the NMBS headquarters in Brussels

Commissioned by IRET, AG Real Estate and IMMO BAM, for an international architect selection, Mei designed a plan for the transformation of the headquarters of the NMBS (Nationale Maatschappij der Belgische Spoorwegen; the main Belgian rail company, SNCB), in which the historical values and appearance of the buildings are enhanced by the addition of a significant and new volume. The concept embraces the New Way of Working-mentality and can be adapted to future generations of users, thanks to a high degree of flexibility. The concept is therefore not limited to various workplace types on the office floors but will function as a dynamic system that inspires employees, visitors, and passers-by. The architect selection consisted of several rounds, in which Mei (together with ArtBuild) competed with OMA, Foster + Partners and David Chipperfield Architects until the final round. The tender was ultimately won by OMA.

The NMBS is a landmark in Brussels and due to the renovation and expansion will become a special meeting and workplace for employees and visitors of NMBS. Its location at Brussels’ main train station makes this building, the new working environment for the NMBS, an anchor point in the network of essential national and international connections. Transport brings people together and offers them the opportunity to create new things together. The renovated building will play a central role in this.

Embracing core values
The starting point of the design is to preserve and embrace the core values ​​of the existing ensemble, designed around 1950 by architects Petit and Blomme. This includes looking at the composition of the main volumes, facade, relief, use of materials, innovative techniques, and integration of art. The same values ​​also serve as the basis for the new construction in the plan.

In the concept, Mei proposes to preserve and strengthen the ensemble of the historic buildings (47, 48, and 49) by adding a new time layer in the form of a new building volume on top of the existing structure. The paradox between the heritage and the increase in scale of the RPA (Target Plan of Construction, proposed the city) is thereby emphasized. At the same time, the RPA offers space for the desired expansion of the S program by adding high volumes that match the scale of the South Tower. By adding new construction to the authentic Brussels urban layer, the metropolitan layer of the Brussels skyline and further developments at the station on this scale are anticipated.

Matching and connecting
The authentic NMBS building, building 47, has been designed in such a way that the facade, square, and Hollandstraat form one urban whole. By adapting this existing scale and size at the Fonsnylaan side, a fully-fledged street facade is created that connects to the opposite urban façade in a friendly way. The station plaza will be better connected to the city by making larger and better passageways. At the same time, this square will be in direct relationship with the new, spacious reception area of ​​the NMBS.

New green, illuminated atriums are introduced in the existing buildings, increasing the visibility of the entrances to the various buildings, and providing a connection with the existing World Streets. In addition, the atria subtly break the long facades of the existing buildings, adding a human dimension to the whole.

Identity through city windows
In the entire ensemble, the scale and size of the existing facade elements are used as a reference for the new building. So-called ‘city windows’ – characteristic meeting spaces for NMBS employees – are an important part of the facades in the new section. The windows offer a view at the railway and the city, and at the same time the themed period rooms behind the windows ensure the visibility of the NMBS and recognizability for the inhabitants of Brussels. As a result, the building does not become an anonymous office building, but it acquires its own identity.

A lively plinth
Light, air, and space are essential in the new plan to increase visibility and encourage a good reception for visitors and passers-by. This is achieved, among other things, by placing a large skylight on the existing access area of ​​the metro zone, and by widening the entrance. Balanced and good lighting of the various atria is provided, which is also conducive to social safety. This idea is also applied to the closed walls along the track, which are opened up and fitted with showcases of contemporary ‘green’ art and lighting.

The plinth at the visitor’s entrance will be an excellent place to display the story of the NMBS. The past is made visible by giving historical elements from the existing buildings a place, and the future of NMBS can be shown through an exhibition. The plinth also contains the entrances to parking garages for bicycles and cars and various commercial functions with extended opening hours, to provide local residents and NMBS staff with convenience.

The Green Zone
Brussels is one of the greenest cities in Belgium, but the greenery at this location certainly deserves some attention. Biodiversity is improved by adding a nature-inclusive zone, the so-called ‘Green Zone’. This zone also contributes to the buffering of rainwater, noise diffusion and wind reduction, and the prevention of heat stress.

The Green Zone connects to the existing green elements in Fonsnylaan. This zone will be built up step by step from the tree-lined square at the Zuidmarkt, where the Sunday market takes place, continuing over the rooftops of the existing buildings to Veeartsenstraat, with fresh plants in the slope. Between the new and existing buildings, this is supplemented with balconies and winter gardens. By making green roofs on all buildings, healthy outdoor spaces are always located a short distance away.

The New Way of Working
Today, work no longer takes place in one fixed place within fixed times of the day. Millennials and Generation Y want to fit their work flexibly into their daily schedule. To meet the wishes of the new generations, the heritage is carefully transformed into a contemporary and modern environment where the New Way of Working is implemented in its own special way; healthy, comfortable and future-oriented.

The plan does more than facilitate The New Way of Working, it is an enabler that creates opportunities. Clear routes and compact building volumes provide overview and transparency. The workspaces are pleasant spaces with a warm atmosphere. The high-quality working environment is flexible, and the furniture is comfortable, adaptable, and inviting to work. The floors are characterized by these workplaces, informal meeting areas, closed meeting rooms, multifunctional spaces, and concentration workplaces.

NMBS-plaza
Healthy living and working are optimally expressed on the NMBS plaza; a square between the old and new layers. Facilities placed here (such as a nursery, judo room and fitness) can take full advantage of the outdoors. Space is made for picnic areas, relaxation, and outdoor events. A public restaurant with its own entrance will also be located here, so that all residents of Brussels and visitors to the city can enjoy the view over the railway and the city.