The space that comprises Astridplein, beside the central station in Antwerp, Belgium, is not without elements of interest. The imposing 19th-century railway building dominates its south side, while the Queen Elisabeth Concert Hall lends a touch of distinction to the east, alongside the singular elements marking the gateway to the zoo and introducing an exotic note, and the building earmarked to become the Diamond Museum. Even the less noble buildings in the square contribute to this sense of harmony that pervades most of its architecture.
Astridplein is also a landscaped plaza, with greenery at the centre and rows of established trees. It is a vital transport interchanger for the city near commercial streets such as Statiestraat and De Keyserlei, where a large number of Antwerp’s shops, offices, restaurants and hotels are situated.
Despite the presence of these elements, the north and east sides of Astridplein do not seem to share in the vitality of their setting or the values of their architecture, presenting a rather rundown, unattractive appearance that contrasts vividly with proceedings on the south and west sides.
Various factors contribute to this disparity between the two sides:
Too much of the square is taken up by private vehicles, which cross it from north to south, forming a barrier to pedestrians. Furthermore, despite its visual appeal, the central green space is not accessible and is therefore, in its current state, an interruption to the flow of pedestrians to Gemeentestraat. Consequently, and in view of the fact that the pavements are also very narrow, there is little space left for pedestrians.
In turn, the public transport that makes Astridplein an important communications hub is concentrated in such a way that it contributes further to keeping the public in the north and west of the square rather than drawing it into the rest of the space.
The opening up of the square to make way for the high-speed train is an opportunity for remodelling. To ensure that the new design satisfies the needs created by its role in the city, however, the new elements have to attract people to the north-east corner of the square and be equal to creating an impact on the urban fabric, beyond the qualities of the design itself. Specific attention to individual problems must not override the need for a global intervention that addresses the space as a whole and strikes the balance of importance to be accorded to each within an overall approach. The chosen solution must be clear, making Astridplein both a representative space and a mechanism that adapts to the changing conditions of the times.
To this end, the project diverts private traffic away from the square, retains the idea of a central green area, though making it accessible, and resituates public transport so that the activity it generates benefits the whole space.
As a result, the new Astridplein comprises two clearly differentiated parts.
The area immediately around the station is an entirely pedestrian paved surface that draws together flows from the station, the Queen Elisabeth Concert Hall, the zoo, De Keyserlei and Statiestraat. Its proportions are conceived to establish appropriate relations with the surrounding public buildings, within which the two symbolic masts are relocated. This space includes pedestrian access to the underground car park and entrance to the bicycle park.
The other part is a green area and communications hub. It has broad, symmetrical pavements in the east and west façades of the square, lined with trees and with sufficient space to differentiate the areas designated for people waiting for buses and trams, bicycle lanes, pedestrians and potential café terraces. The tram will stop on the east side of the square and the buses on the west.
The greenery at the centre of the square will be open to pedestrians and provide the base for entrances to the Metro and the new underground car park, easily accessible from any point in the square. These entrances, in the form of glazed bulkheads over the vegetation, will also serve as lanterns for the space at night.