The Belgian coastline is the concrete result of the intention to give as many people as possible a view of a small stretch of sea. It is a long string of similar blocks of flats flanking the beach. One building takes a step forward from this row and settles down entirely alone with its feet in the sand. Because the contrast with its surroundings is so accentuated, this safety pavilion, designed by Compagnie-O in association with John Körmeling, takes on the role of an anomaly. The fresh, vivid yellow colour stands out against the grey blocks of flats on the promenade, like a plastic toy in the sand, while its circular shape turns the gaze away from the endless coastline. As such, the monotonous concrete massif on the promenade, which in most cases one can only penetrate through narrow streets, is used as a backdrop, a stage, for a puzzling yet accessible volume.
The way in which this building claims its position with such bravura is quite extraordinary. It now seems almost natural, but it was not initially intended for this location. The town council had imagined this building abutting the promenade in front of the Lichttorenplein. Like a service building that reconciles with its setting, as if it were a straightforward beach bar or a purely utilitarian construction. In that position, it would have had a different connotation. It would have felt like something obligatory, whereas it could also be much more. As a consequence of the ‘delocalisation’ that the designers proposed, the building assumes a sort of ‘freedom at sea’ and is able to excel. An acte de présence on the beach at Knokke that enhances the location and lends it a specific recognisability.
In spite of the visible contrasts, this building is also at the service of its context. It is deliberately kept low so as to retain the broad view of the sea from the promenade. The large ships in the distance look as if they are sailing over the building. The lifeguards’ crow’s nest above the lower section is even reminiscent of the bridge of a cargo ship. It represents movement in an otherwise extremely rigid setting, as if it could break loose at any moment and move forwards. This sense of movement continues in the organic yet extremely functional composition of the building. The curved lines look as if they derive from a number of practical movements: the passing of a car, ergonomic vertical circulation, observation from the round watchtower. This pared-back construction houses the lifeguards, the first aid post and the beach police, each in a place fit for their purposes.
‘Transparency’ and ‘low-threshold’ are fashionable terms that often result in glass façades and big reception halls. In contrast with these literal translations, this building identifies with these concepts in a more appropriate way. Passers-by are led into the core of the building and are able to see the complete operation and organisation of the security services. The physical and mental proximity of ‘safety’ they experience allows them to feel as though someone is watching over them. In this way, the architecture transcends the simple accommodation of functions or users. It not only makes a statement about the way in which these services manifest themselves, but also responds to how bystanders perceive their work. Grand ambitions for a small building that was originally intended to nestle up dutifully against the promenade.
- Isabelle Blancke
This project is published in Flanders Architectural Review N°14. When Attitudes Take Form