Giant pebbles in Brussels – Docks Bruxsel, Brussels

Marking a bold new entrance for Brussels, Docks Bruxsel is a mixed-use project with a difference, creating an urban mini-district which also turned out to be a test bed for a new zinc panel. James Parker visited the project.

Built on the site of former warehouses alongside the main Willebroeck canal in Brussels is a group of buildings which form a fascinating new landmark for the city. As well as being a new take on a major retail and leisure development, far from the traditional covered ‘mall’ approach, the €214m Docks Bruxsel is also a curvaceous showcase of various cladding materials and metal craftsmanship allied to high-tech design.

According to Brussels-based architectural practice Art & Build, the new commercial development sitting at the north-east gateway to the country’s capital is “by no means a conventional commercial centre.”

Looking around the finished scheme, the key aims of creating a strong new entry point to the city, offering a varied array of attractive buildings and routes in a new urban quarter, and blurring the lines between exterior and interior, have been fully realised.

A strong heritage

As is typical, the ability to create something of this magnitude (61,000 m2 in total above ground, over up to five stories), has occurred in an area which as project architect Lilia Poptcheva describes it, was previously a “no-man’s land”. Despite a tram line and a major road catering for connectivity, the neighbourhood had a fairly bleak urban quality, which the new development helps to resolve by creating a great new destination.

What the area does have is a rich industrial heritage, which the development also harnesses to its benefit. Late 19th century ‘utopian’ industrialist Jean-Baptiste Andre Godin had his manufacturing base casting innovative iron stoves here, but he also paid attention to workers’ needs, creating community-oriented housing on the site.

The Belgian client for the Docks project is the Equilis Group, real estate subsidiary of Belgian food company Mestdagh Group, which had a strong desire to achieve resource sustainability on the site.

The architects also managed to preserve two of the pre-existing buildings Godin created, the ‘Familistere’ housing building with its sociable internal gallery decks, now turned into a museum. In addition the listed ‘Cathedral’ building, a timber-framed, brick clad four-storey textile factory, now houses restaurants and a function suite.

Architect at Art & Build Luc Deleuze comments that the ‘Cathedral’ building “sets the direction for the plans, and is a really important part of the composition.” The mix of old and new buildings is a key part of what gives the project its architectural interest, further enhanced by the mix of materials, such as timber planks cladding ground floor forms, and zinc and steel to internal and external cladding.

David Roulin, CEO of Art & Build, says the client’s ambition was to “revitalise” this brownfield site, although he admits it was “an improbable location from the start.” However, the architects “created a debate around the urban restructuring of this location, with the additional wish expressed by the client to exploit the natural resources of the site.”

This BREEAM Excellent development includes a pipeline linking the nearby incinerator to the retail area of Docks, which supplies recovered heat that was previously cooled and dumped into the canal. This means that all of the area’s heating is provided by recovered heat, which is impressive. There is also a substantial array of PV panels mounted on green roofs and rainwater harvesting, plus avoidance of air conditioning in favour of natural ventilation.

A new neighbourhood

According to Roulin, the overriding aim of the design response was to avoid a traditional shopping centre and instead create a “neighbourhood, with squares and streets.” Lilia Poptcheva explains further:

“It resembles a town, we have created unobstructed views from the mall to the canal. You are not just surrounded by buildings, you can see the town, the tram as it goes past, and the trees changing over the seasons.” She adds: “It’s a living place, much more about the quality of perception and contact with the exterior, light and shadows, the sun changing over the course of the day.”

The public walkways through the site have been carefully planned to resolve level changes across the development, and reinforce the continuity of access through this new urban quarter. As Roulin explains,

“The entire project revolved around solving the seven metre height difference between the level of the quay and that of the road – we created a towpath.” Two routes have been created, one from the quay and one from the main road, and each connecting to one of the two floors of retail. These run between a varied mix of buildings, some curved and organic and some more linear around the pedestrian walkways. This mix was key to the architects’ wish to create a “piece of the city, not a shopping centre,” as Poptcheva puts it.

Marco Da Col, concept designer at the practice, describes the materials mix:

“There are very contemporary metal-clad buildings, and there are more monolithic, calm buildings clad with terracotta. We wanted to recreate the effect you have when you walk through a town, so we designed different buildings, each with its own architecture.”

Pebbles & an ‘exterior interior’

The first of three zinc-clad ovoid ‘pebbles’ forms the left flank of the glorious main entrance, housing shops and eateries.

Here, the enormous 10,000 m2 undulating glazed roof that covers the spacious walkways between shops cantilevers spectacularly out over the entrance and a terrace cafe, reaching fair distance over what is a decent-sized public square. Through the main entrance doors, the rich and unexpected variety of materials continues, echoing the industrial past by continuing the clay brick paving from the square into the building, forming an attractive and robust floor.

This blending of interior and exterior is most apparent in the internal walkways, which feel ‘outside’, to the extent that it’s not immediately obvious you have entered an enclosed space at all. They are light and airy, helped by a smart natural ventilation system which operates skylights in response to temperature changes. Materials such as cladding are continued from outside to inside to increase the feeling of separate, distinct buildings for distinct functions, all however still connected and protected by the glass roof floating above. The lightness of this unifying white-framed structure is enhanced by the minimal amount of columns, Art & Build having maximised the spans so that only three tree-shaped columns are needed for a walkway running the length of the site.

The second ‘pebble’ houses an eight-screen cinema complex sitting at the centre of the building, which offers a completely “atypical” level of projection quality for such a site, according to Roulin. The final zinc pebble is the main attention-grabber in the whole development, sitting at the corner of the site next to the canal, main road and tram line, and forming the new ‘entrance’ to the city. Housing a 2500-capacity events venue it sits side-saddle on top of a larger second curvy form clad in orange-red openwork Lauder PAREA timber panels, and containing major retail brand outlets. This unusual but characterful composition, playing off the contrast between timber and zinc, is the new focal point for the north east of the city.

A testing installation

The installers of the zinc, which is a new panel by VMZinc tested for the first time on the project, were really put through their paces to make the cladding fit the pebbles’ curved design, such as where it curves in towards the base of the events venue.

Each panel had to be carefully attached to the next using fixing clips, and nailed to a timber framework, but many also had to be cut to size to fit the curved geometry. This meant that many panels near the
more extreme curved sections had to be precisely cut once on site to smaller sizes by the roofing contractor Jacobs & Sohn as they went, to match the architects’ 3D modelled design.

This hand-finished aspect helps to add a certain organic quality to the otherwise fairly plain although attractive light grey, gently reflective zinc forms. The four kilogram shingles appear like scales, due to being arranged diagonally, and their surface grain is only apparent when you inspect from fairly close range, but they are subtly effective. Given there are 19,360 zinc shingles on the three buildings, their malleable, easy-to-fold nature was crucial. However while it’s   a fairly time-consuming process, zinc is claimed to be a cost-effective way to achieve complex roof designs such as this.

Thanks to the efficient working of the installers to a predefined schedule, and the flexibility of VMZinc’s Bratislava factory, the whole zinc envelope was installed in 10 months, with 30 installers working on the buildings at the project’s peak.

The fact that architect, manufacturer and client were willing to go ahead with the new panel months before its official launch speaks volumes for the close collaboration and trust between the parties involved on the project.

“We had to work closely together,” says Phillipe Gustin, area sales manager, Benelux and UK at VMZinc, “the product’s materiality was right for the designers, but it was difficult to convince the developer it was the right product for them.” Poptcheva adds:

“It’s not very easy for someone investing so much into such a big project to just say “we’re with you.” She adds: “We had to convince the client to go with something that did not yet exist.”

A subtler shine

The flat lock panels are made from natural zinc that has undergone a physical and chemical treatment to provide a slightly engraved look, softening some of the shine that untreated zinc has (as seen on some of the downpipes on buildings on the development). The original choice of the architects was aluminium however, with the idea being to reuse recycled aluminium from aeroplanes, but this proved too costly in the event according to Poptcheva.

In addition, she says,

“we wanted something that was brilliant, but not too much, something that was natural, and something that would reflect light.” The architect says the client also had to be persuaded a more subtle variant was a good idea: “They wanted something much shinier because it’s a commercial development, but architecture makes people love the place because of the light, form and materials; you don’t have to have light and music everywhere.” Another thing in zinc’s favour was that it is fully recyclable, and with roughly around 20 per cent recycled content typically.

The choice of the new VMZinc panel largely came down to aesthetics in the end, says Poptcheva:

“We were looking for a texture that was matte, heterogeneous
and luminous. The bright and naturally pre-weathered aspect of this product is reminiscent of Parisian roofs.”

There is 7000 m² of office space within the development, including the Belgian headquarters of French food brand Danone occupying the contrasting square building at the corner of the site, bookending the main pedestrian thoroughfare.

This is another showcase for the aesthetic possibilities of metal, being clad in an filigree white steel brise soleil structure which like the zinc extends inside to connect inside and out.

The new development has transformed what was a downtrodden and neglected part of the city and given it a new life and entrance point, its contrasting building forms central to this vitality.

However, the former buildings on the site have not been forgotten. The ghosts of Godin’s warehouses are present, with engraved metal strips running, often at unexpected angles, across the new external and internal paving, marking their original perimeters. Docks Bruxsel looks both back and forwards, with time-honoured cladding materials married to cutting-edge design.


  • Client: Equilis
  • Architect: Art & Build
  • Zinc installation: Jacobs & Sohn Surface area (entire project): 61,000 m2
  • Opened: October 2016
  • Surface area of zinc installed: 6,650 m²
  • Engineer: TPF
  • Contractors: BPC, BESIX
  • Project manager: ABSSIS