Helen Parton is flabbergasted at the European ability to turn potential real estate caterpillars into butterflies.
Damn those Europeans on the Continent! I don’t know what it is, but they can make what seems the most undesirable location into somewhere quite aspirational, from the seediest pavement cafe in Paris to the draughtiest warehouse in Berlin. And it’s the same with Modular’s new building, designed by architects Coussée & Goris, which is slap bang next to a motorway – the E403 Brugge to Kortijk to be exact. Think cool Mitteleuropean road trips soundtracked by Kraftwerk rather than grim Little Chefs and traffic jams, though my host for the day from Modular, Tom Samyn, assures me that they do have plenty of the latter too.
The brief the architects responded to was “speed and dynamism”, explains Ralf Coussée. “The question was how to connect with people driving past at 120km per hour, so we decided to make one very long building. We really wanted to make a big gesture, and with a continuous window we keep the attention along the entire length of the building.”
Modular’s new HQ is divided into three zones: one for storage, one for production and processing, and one for the public area, administration and reception, with logistics residing at the back of the building. Before the move, employees were divided into three separate buildings, so there is an attempt to now provide a shared visual connection. Coussée adds: “There are clusters of people working together – sales, finance, marketing, and they never see each other. We had the idea of creating lateral facades, terraces and a long corridor with vertical columns so that people can see one another, creating a society.”
Modular being something of a pioneer in energy efficient products, it was only fitting that the lighting achieves a seamless lux level through strategic natural daylight combined with a system that measures it and delivers additional artificial light when necessary.
The materials used on the exterior are somewhat spartan: concrete with wooden beams plus either glazed facades or black steel plating, and this is continued in the reception area with the addition of some custom-built furniture and backlighting behind the reception desk. From there, I was immediately ushered into the Light Club lounge: a great big Quality Street box of a space compared to the strict dietary regime of the outside, with organically moulded walls, moody lighting, surround sound and a predominantly pink and red colour scheme, designed by architect Marnix Verstraeten. Along with the adjoining showroom, which is more sci-fi than hard sell in terms of appearance, the lounge is designed with entertaining architects, technicians and other visitors in mind. The Light Education centre, meanwhile, gets down to the nitty gritty science bit of installation, light control, use of colour and other wizardry.
One of the most striking elements of the building is the 40sq m video wall, consisting of 60 television screens. “Here we wanted to express something about the company,” says Coussée, “but we didn’t want it to be lost in a metaphor, nor include too much detail, so in the end we chose something quite simple.” There were a number of restrictions on what could be displayed here – certainly nothing that was too distracting for motorists. The space, also conceived as marking the entrance to Modular’s hometown of Roeselare, will now be given over to the work of emerging video artists over the next three years. The video wall is part of the light tower, at the top of the building: a concrete framework with a skin of polycarbonate plates, between which some 4,000 LEDs have been attached to form a constantly colour-changing surface. You certainly wouldn’t find anything similar next to the M6 or M25 and more’s the pity.