A colorful, striped carpet is the first thing you see on entering the Geelhandplaats estate in northern Antwerp. The architects and master minds behind this unusual, but nonetheless beautiful project, OMGEVING, won the contract and associated competition by the VMSW, the Flemish Association for Social Housing, with their bold and vibrant vision.
The buildings around Geelhandplaats were finished a few years before World War II to provide housing for around 170 low-income families. The estate’s courtyard is surrounded by six-floor blocks, now mainly home to immigrant families from Europe and beyond. This makes it a wonderfully diverse place, but also serves as a source of conflict where different cultures clash in this densely populated space.
Yet despite the variety of nationalities involved, OMGEVING’s proposed design immediately met with widespread approval among local residents. But why the unusual carpet approach? Karol Grygolec of OMGEVING highlights the scarcity of open space in old Flemish cities like Antwerp. With this in mind, the designers wanted to keep a maximum of public space and transform it into an ‘extension’ of the apartment – and a carpet made perfect sense. “In a room, a piece of fabric on the floor marks a space of social interaction. While kids love to play there with their toys, older siblings and adults like to sit around with their friends and chat – the surface is soft and warm, lending the space a cozy feel,” explains Karol. “And that’s exactly what was needed here.”
The carpet itself is made from several sheets of rubber, rolled out in a stripy pattern. And this unorthodox approach proved to be the right decision. “Actually, the new square has become so popular in the neighborhood that it attracts kids and youths from a much wider area,” adds Karol.
The new square has also paved the way for a new neighborhood identity and spirit. Architects call this phenomenon “deep rehabilitation” – where a brand new perception of the area accompanies obvious physical changes. When asked about the role of social housing today, Karol is convinced that it should be viewed and treated like any other type of housing. “Social housing schemes have just as much right to occupy prime locations as their upscale neighbors. If we continue to discriminate against social housing and, indirectly, its residents, we will only continue to cement the social divide between social classes.”
A project like Geelhandplaats also proves that you don’t necessarily need to build new houses, but could simply work with existing stock. A philosophy reflected in OMGEVING’s upcoming projects: The office recently won first prize for their proposed social housing complex design in the south of Antwerp, Groen Zuid, as part of an architectural competition. Furthermore, OMGEVING has launched an independent think tank called LABO RAND to focus on the potential and pressing issues of European suburbs.
Text: Alexandra Schade
All photos, incl. the header image, OMGEVING