Text by Edward Keegan, AIA
With a population of just over 200,000, Charleroi is the fifth largest city in Belgium, but not a place of memorable skylines. The UNESCO-listed belfry of the Charleroi City Hall punctuates the center of the low-slung town. The surrounding landscape, long dominated by industry, remains lush and speckled with small green hills. Into this relatively tranquil setting, Paris-based Ateliers Jean Nouvel, with Brussels-based MDW Architecture, set a 75-meter-tall (246-foot-tall) ovoid blue tower whose gently curved form seems to mimic the natural landscape—while its scale is a bit out of place, if not out of time.
The 19,392-square-meter (208,734-square-foot) tower forms the most obvious talisman for an unusual, three-part program that opened in November 2014. The project revitalizes five 19th-century buildings with a police headquarters, expanded facilities for the dance company Charleroi Danses, and a brasserie—all configured within a V-shaped public square.
The police headquarters spans the new tower and two old cavalry barracks, attached at the ground level. Certain functions receive specialized spaces—three levels of parking, a detention area, and storage are below grade; a public auditorium and debriefing room are on the ground level; and 24-hour staffed technical services is on the third level. But most of the tower’s 20 floors are arranged to be flexible, so that departments can shift according to changing needs.
The tower’s egg-shaped floors, rising around an almost circular core, evolve towards a more circular form as the building rises. Generally free spans allow the most flexible accommodations on each level. Jean Nouvel, Hon. FAIA, employs a highly varied fenestration system—not unlike some of his previous studies in tall buildings—with a wider, double-height expression at the lower openings evolving into smaller ones above, and the top level is marked again by tall windows that express the floor’s additional height.
The red brick plaza, accessed from the Boulevard Pierre Mayence on the west side of the site, mimics the materials of the existing buildings, while the area adjacent to the tower continues the tower’s blue brick. The Charleroi Danses facilities are housed in existing buildings on the site’s south side, with the new pavilion for the brasserie on the north end.