Inside Kanaal

After eighteen years of planning and renovation, in 2017, in Wijnegem, just outside Antwerp (Belgium) and a few kilometers from Liège, Kanaal, a project by Belgian interior designer and art dealer Axel Vervoordt, was finally opened to the public, with permanent art installations and several galleries for temporary exhibitions.

© Jan Liégeois

A long-planned project

In a former redbrick malt distillery, built in 1857, next to a grain silo and not far from the mighty Albert Canal, with a breadth of almost a hundred meters at its widest point, Belgian architectural studios Stéphane Beel Architects, Coussée & Goris and Bogdan & Van Broeck, together with Japanese architect Tatsuro Miki, have designed a multipurpose building to house the head offices of the Axel Vervoordt Company. In addition, there are thirty more private office spaces, a hundred or so apartments, several organic food shops, a restaurant, an auditorium, showrooms and, most importantly, Kanaal’s workshops and exhibition spaces, which occupy 13 100 square meters.

Almost two decades have passed since Axel Vervoordt bought his first plot of land, where he located British-Indian sculptor Anish Kapoor’s At the Edge of the World installation, a dome-shaped hanging structure measuring a dozen square meters that resembles a giant red hat. Following this, the art dealer decided to expand his property and therefore acquired the old distillery with a massive 32-meter high silo, the equivalent of a dozen floors.

Preserving the original charm

The malt factory has remained practically intact, both in structure and interior. Among its many rooms are the Escher gallery (in honor of the Dutch graphic artist) which is ten meters high and features nested staircases and circular cuts in the ceiling, and the Karnak space, dedicated to the permanent exhibitions of the Axel and May Vervoordt Foundation.

The magic of black

Vervoordt and Tatsuro Miki designed the interior of the main building, the old distillery, with dark colors —blacks and greys— unlike the vast majority of art galleries and museums, where white prevails because, in Vervoordt’s opinion, the white walls steal the limelight of the artwork, while black walls, according to his belief, achieve the opposite: the art piece itself stands out thanks to its own light and becomes the real protagonist. The creators, Vervoordt and Miki, also redesigned the old chapel, which they christened Beyond, to establish rooms in the manner of “dark cubes”, where visitors can meditate.

© Axel Vervoordt Company

Attached to the main building are the eight former grain silos, circular in shape and of colossal magnitude due to their great height, now converted into residential buildings. Six of the silos have remained unaltered externally, the only modification being the opening of small hollows for the windows, placed unevenly on the earth-coloured façade to allow sunlight into the interior of the homes. The other two silos were demolished, and, in their place, two slender square-shaped buildings were constructed, connected to the round silos by glass walkways.

© Axel Vervoordt Company

Glass as a unifying element

These new buildings have a glass façade that contrasts with the surface of the silos, which appear to be almost hermetic, except for the small openings for the skylights. The bedrooms are accommodated in the old silos, while common areas, such as kitchens, bathrooms and living rooms, are housed along with the elevators in the new buildings. By placing new transparent silos on opposite sides, in between the existing silos, the contours and solidity of the complex are preserved, while the vertical circulation is combined with the roundness of the adjacent white silos, connected by the same type of walkway. In turn, two more buildings have been built to extend the surroundings, both with exposed brick and dissimilar terraces at the corners, each designed differently from the rest and resembling one of Escher’s best-known drawings.

© Jan Liégeois

In total, the buildings cover an area of 55 000 square meters, and form a kind of city in the countryside, just over twenty minutes from the center of Antwerp. They create a space where art, architecture and nature combine to highlight the particularity of the place, a site of stunning beauty on the edge of a canal that flows into the Scheldt River, which in turn empties its waters into the North Sea.

© Jan Liégeois

Avant-garde art

The permanent collection of Kanaal includes sculptures by Anish Kapoor —with his previous mentioned monumental work At the Edge of the World—, art installations by James Turrell, works by Lucio Fontana, Otto Boll, Gutai and Zero, as well as three incredible paintings by the Japanese abstract artist Kazuo Shiraga, and a sculpture of a Luohan monk from 13th century A.D. Temporary activities, which change four times a year, include, for example, performances by the Yugoslavian artist Marina Abramović.

© Jan Liégeois

A natural environment with wonder as an object

The surrounding gardens are the work of landscape designer and architect Michel Desvigne and are brimming with lush vegetation, meandering paths in the manner of small forest tracks, and open courtyards surrounded by trees and plants, where the clarity and play of light provided by the open space of the great Albert Canal. A visit to Kanaal is an incredible experience. It is a space born of the genius of this Belgian antique dealer that makes a visit to the city of Antwerp more than worthwhile.

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