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19 Dec 2018

Boitsfort in Brussels: a concrete icon

Words by  Photo by Jeroen Verrecht

A dramatic 1970s office building has been given a new lease of life by Belgian workspace provider Fosbury & Sons

Out in the not-too-distant north of the Sonian Forest and just a 10-minute drive from Brussels’ Avenue Louise – one of the most prestigious and expensive streets in the city – is the second workplace development by Fosbury & Sons.

This outpost – its first serviced office in the Belgian capital – follows the success of the workspace provider’s first co-working space at the Watt Tower in Antwerp.

The most striking thing about this project, however, is the building itself, with 7,000sq m of co-working occupation spread over seven of its nine floors.

Named Boitsfort, the workspace is housed in a former headquarters of the cement company CBR – an eye-catching, modernist 1970s construction designed by Belgian architect Constantin Brodzki, with a facade comprising 756 prefab oval concrete modules.

FOSBURY boitsfort jeroenverrecht 6806xThe oval concrete windows let light flood into the workspace. Photo: Jeroen Verrecht

Brodzki graduated from La Cambre, the renowned architecture and visual arts school founded by Henry van de Velde in Brussels, then went to work in the States, finding a placement at the United Nations headquarters, before moving back to Brussels to explore the possibilities of modern building techniques.

His sculptural and experimental style led to international recognition: he was the only Belgian architect in the Transformations in Modern Architecture 1960-1980 exposition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

Briefly put, Boitsfort is a remarkable piece of work. And when Fosbury & Sons visited the space, it was so much of a marvel that the team found it irresistible.

“From the moment we stepped into this building, we knew it was of huge value,” says Stijn Geeraets, who co-founded Fosbury & Sons alongside Maarten Van Gool and Serge Hannecart.

“We just knew that it was a masterpiece which had to be preserved – this building, which was undervalued for too long, deserves to be used, walked through and enjoyed. We want everybody to be able to come in and experience this building.”

FOSBURY boitsfort jeroenverrecht 6785xThe art on show is from a collaboration with local art galleries. Photo: Jeroen Verrecht

But how exactly does one go about respecting this identity, while complementing and modernising the existing structure? With design agency Going East as the architectural lead, the modernist masterpiece was renewed with care.

“Everything that was of a certain technical and aesthetical value was preserved. We also had a close dialogue with Monument Conservation about all the important aspects of the building,” says Geeraets.

“More importantly, we met the mastermind himself: Brodzki. He invited us to his house and, despite him being 93 years old, he passionately gave us his vision about the building and what aspects we should keep to our attention.”

He continues: “It’s a very technical building – everything is thought through, including the ventilation, heating, construction and acoustics. Every detail is also very well designed with a keen eye for simplicity; it all looks so logical, but that simplicity implies difficulty.”

In fate’s hands, the collaboration between both Fosbury & Sons and Going East came about coincidentally, and for all the right reasons. Over two years ago, the two founders of Going East – Michiel Mertens and Anaïs Torfs – were referred by a friend to design the interior of the first Fosbury & Sons venue in Antwerp.

FOSBURY boitsfort jeroenverrecht 6445x copyA desk by the window offers privacy and views over the landscape. Photo: Jeroen Verrecht

The duo’s passion, close relationship (they are in fact a couple), and shared ideas then led to further work in Brussels. “Our wish was very clear: we didn’t want to design an office, we wanted to create a home,” says Geeraets. “[Going East] came back with the drawings on A3 – raw sketches of the interior – and we instantly knew this was it.”

When discussing the importance of preserving the building’s character and history, Torfs comments how the project was a “curse and a blessing at the same time”.

She explains: “As an architect, you want to create your own blank space – with the first space [in Antwerp], we had a really blank paper to start from, making and building floors and spaces. Here [in Brussels], it was really a search to give our own interpretation of the building and at the same time respect the master’s work. So it was this duality that made it really interesting.”

The brief given to Going East was to design Boitsfort like a hotel or home, allowing a warm and luxurious feel to the interior. Members are provided with private offices, shared workspaces, areas for socialising, a bar and restaurant (with stunning views of the forest) – all of which were influenced by the existing space.

Washed concrete, wood, Inox and aluminium are revived as key reminders of its ancestry, with furniture that Torfs says had to be “bold, honest and solid”. Most of the furnishings were custom-made for Fosbury & Sons, alongside a variety of brands such as N11, Vitra and Thonet. “For this location we chose some classics like the Breuers, because an iconic building needs iconic chairs,” she says.

This combination of old and new is what drove the design. “As a studio we always try to connect the outside with the inside by looking at the environment and the space. So the new interior had to be very clear, avoiding dark wood and instead working with very light colours – this was something that was quite important in the process,” says Torfs.

“Otherwise it would have had a very vintage look and we really didn’t want that. It had to feel fresh and new. I think we achieved this by using all the materials in the building but mixing in our own stuff with it. It’s about interpretation by materialisation and not imitating the previous work – that would have been too easy.”

Six hundred people and 250 companies occupy Boitsfort, and coexist – not just work – harmoniously with an original piece of architecture. As well as being able to admire the construction, the members can also admire its art.

FOSBURY boitsfort jeroenverrecht 6502xWood and washed concrete give interiors a warm, home-like feel. Photo: Jeroen Verrecht

The office collaborates with Brussels galleries Rodolphe Janssen and Veerle Verbakel Gallery, as well as artists Perry Roberts, Florian Tomballe, plus the Private Art Support Foundation.

The inclusion of these visual elements alongside the framework for a new way of working highlights the Fosbury & Sons ethos.

Having introduced a more humane way of working in 2016, it provides members with the comforts of a professional office with the warmth of a home. The traditional grey office has had its day, and Boitsfort marks this shift to a more flexible, home-inspired way of working.

“We are here to make a difference in people’s work life,” says Geeraets. “Our focus is on the quality of life in general, and it’s all about wellbeing.

"We are on a mission to improve the perception of work into something more positive, far away from burnouts, traffic jams, bore-outs, absenteeism, presenteeism and diseases of this generation. Work can truly be a positive force in life – that is the point we want to bring to awareness.”

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