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Antwerp Law Courts

Richard Rogers Partnership (now Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners) designed this project with shimmering peaks forming the dramatic roof structure, perhaps with reference to the sailboats on the river Schelde or, if one knew that these were law courts, the fins of circling sharks. The hyperbolic paraboloid shell structure was the result of two years development. Each roof was totally prefabricated in four steel-framed sections at a nearby shipyard and floated to site on barges. The pale interior is a lattice of glued and screwed spruce lamellas produced by Finnforest Merk. The resulting internal visual aspects are just as dramatic as the shape of the roof from the outside.

Antwerp-Law-Courts-By-Rogers-Stirk-Harbour-Partners-03-ArcelorMittal-759x504 Antwerp Law Courts / Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners

© ArcelorMittal

The site for the Law Courts is the Bolivarplaats, on the southern edge of Antwerp’s central area, where the urban fabric is broken by a massive motorway interchange, cutting off the boulevard that leads into the city. The building, designed in conjunction with VK Studios, was conceived both as a gateway to the city and as a link across the motorway between the city centre and the Schelde River. It houses eight distinct civil and criminal courts and includes 36 courtrooms plus offices, chambers for judges and lawyers, library and cafeteria, with a great public hall (the space traditionally known as the “Salle des Pas Perdus”) linking six radiating wings of accommodation. This space is capped by a striking roof structure, crystalline in form, linking the paraboloid roofs that cover the courtrooms.

Antwerp-Law-Courts-By-Rogers-Stirk-Harbour-Partners-04-Grant-Smith Antwerp Law Courts / Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners

© Grant Smith

Unlike traditional Law Courts, the new scheme creates courts, hearing rooms and public space, all filled with natural light, as well as providing spectacular views across the city. Highly transparent clear-glazed atria, lifts and stairwells provide instant legibility and respond to the initial brief to make the workings of justice more transparent.

Coloured steel work also acts as an orientating device that is legible both in the broader context of the city and from within the building. The building, straddling a major highway, looks out to a large area of open land. The design creates ‘fingers’ of landscaped parkland which extend right into the heart of the building.

When designing the new Law Courts building, RRP also focused a great deal of attention on the environmental aspects of this project and on the effective use of energy. Natural light is used to optimum effect, natural ventilation is supplemented by low-velocity ventilation for the hearing rooms and rainwater is recycled. The environmental strategy is based on utilising the thermal mass of the pre-cast concrete frame, the reduction of solar gain by high performance glazing and the use of external glazed louvres.

Antwerp-Law-Courts-By-Rogers-Stirk-Harbour-Partners-08-Katsuhisa-Kida-759x599 Antwerp Law Courts / Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners

© Katsuhisa Kida

A team consisting of Richard Rogers Partnership, Bureau Van Kerckhove and Arup, was selected in 1998 as the finalist of an international open competition to design new law courts for the southern edge of the city of Antwerp. The new building, which was to be located directly over the entrance to the Amam Road tunnel, facing onto Bolivarplaats, forms part of the long term masterplan for the ‘new south’ of Antwerp which was also developed by RRP.

The brief for the new building included housing 7 courts (including civil, criminal, police, family, commercial, juvenile, employment), the provision of 32 hearing rooms of various size, living and dead archive spaces, efficient and flexible office space, public spaces and facilities. The building was to embrace the possibility of future expansion, be sustainable and environmentally efficient, and respond to the demands of the complex security arrangements required by the Justice Department.

As well as the functional and technical requirements, wider objectives of the project included rendering the workings of Justice more ‘transparent’, giving dignity to the process. In addition, the building was to be the catalyst for the masterplan; to restore ‘Bolivarplaats’ as an important civic space, to celebrate the prominent site on the axis of ‘Amerikalei’ at a major entrance into the city, to bring life to the large area of open space surrounding the site, and to repair a damaged part of the urban fabric in this quarter of Antwerp.

Antwerp-Law-Courts-By-Rogers-Stirk-Harbour-Partners-10-759x506 Antwerp Law Courts / Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners

© public domain

Design features:

  • The dramatic roof line resembles a series of sails.
  • Six wings extend from the main hall in a star-like form under a crystalline, parabolic roof.
  • Distinguished by a sail-like timber roof, Antwerp Law Court gives new and dramatic expression to the southern edge of the city skyline.
  • Intended to be a new landmark on Antwerp’s horizon, the new law courts were to bridge an existing motorway. This created a major challenge, not just in structural engineering, but also in keeping traffic disruption to a minimum during the construction.
  • Each of the courtroom ‘sail’ roofs is formed by four interconnecting timber hyperbolic paraboloids. Each of these is supported by an elevated courtroom deck, formed from concrete pre-cast units bonded together. Connecting the roof ‘sails’ to these units was a crucial step.
  • In order to minimise energy use, the courtrooms were designed with northlight high performance glazing, while the offices used both high performance glazing and solar shading louvres.
  • A low-energy services strategy is fundamental to this project – natural light is used to optimum effect, natural ventilation is supplemented by low-velocity ventilation for the hearing rooms and rainwater is recycled.
  • The building, straddling a major highway, looks out to a large area of parkland – the design creates ‘fingers’ of landscaped that extend right into the heart of the building. The landscape is configured and planted to shield the building from the noise and pollution of the motorway.
Antwerp-Law-Courts-By-Rogers-Stirk-Harbour-Partners-14-Grant-Smith-759x542 Antwerp Law Courts / Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners

© Grant Smith


The pre-cast concrete frame of the superstructure, each courtroom roof is composed of four geometric hyperbolic paraboloid forms. The hyperbolic paraboloid is a double curved surface which on plan consists of a simple rectangular grid with the cornes pulled up or down to create a paraboloid curve. In the courtroom roofs, two hyperbolic paraboloids are pulled upwards and cantilevered over the two lower ones creating an aperture in between, which in turn is glazed to maximise natural light in the courtrooms. These rooflights face north, with the overhangs providing solar shading against the high altitude sun. The four roof sections are designed as individual components and are further separated by strip rooflights between each of the higher and lower roof elements.

Antwerp-Law-Courts-By-Rogers-Stirk-Harbour-Partners-16-Grant-Smith-759x503 Antwerp Law Courts / Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners

© Grant Smith

The structural solution for the roofs consists of grid beams laminated in full lengths with each layer. This arrangement was progressively built up by screwing together long lengths of timber and connecting them to the perimeter steelwork, allowing the long timber strips to accurately follow the geometry of the hyperbolic paraboloid.

The whole of the roof structure was assembled in a large shipyard located several kilometres up river from the site. The shipyard was configured into a production line of separate work areas to deal with welding, painting, timber grid-shell assembly and roofing. Partially prepared materials were delivered to the shipyard then assembled under cover in an efficient and organised manner to ensure a very high quality end product. Once assembled, each of the four roof sections were lifted onto barges and transported along the river, completing the journey on a wide load truck across the fields to the site where they were craned and fixed into position.

Antwerp-Law-Courts-By-Rogers-Stirk-Harbour-Partners-19-Grant-Smith-759x619 Antwerp Law Courts / Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners

© Grant Smith

Garden design:

The garden design comprises four rooms between the wings of the building, of the area around the building and the Bolivarplaats in front of (entry to) the court. The four gardens between the different wings have a flowing structure with hanging beeches (Fagus sylvatica) that open up the landscape themselves. Different sorts of trees support the architecture of the building and ensure an interesting confrontation between nature and architecture.

The exterior edges of the building project are designed as a strict limit, inspired by the form of a Vauban fort. The Bolivarplaats is a large new public place where people can meet. A screen of 98 lime trees (Platanus acerifolia) offers the building aesthetic support. When exiting the courthouse and standing high up on the steps, there is a roof of leaves to be seen below, underneath which taxis and public transport pass.

Antwerp-Law-Courts-By-Rogers-Stirk-Harbour-Partners-20-Christian-Richters-759x542 Antwerp Law Courts / Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners

© Christian Richters

Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners

Despite the building’s mass, we created a structure that was sympathetic to the scale of the city. The result is a long, low building with a roofscape animated by the hearing rooms.


The concept is a gateway response without monumentality, but with a roof form generated from perspective lines and Flemish paintings of barges passing through the countryside. The scheme inverts the traditional arrangement of a law courts by placing daylight to hearing rooms and public space on the top of the building, allowing views across the city. The private spaces below face onto courtyards, which will provide quiet and daylit spaces contributing to a calming environment. It will extend to incorporate connections to parks, bridges and road, allowing clear views from the street and developing the city skyline. This building is a key inspiration to the masterplan for the ‘Nieuw Zuid’ (New South) which the team have developed with the City of Antwerp.

Antwerp-Law-Courts-By-Rogers-Stirk-Harbour-Partners-Environmental-sectional-diagram Antwerp Law Courts / Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners

Environmental sectional diagram – © Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners

The eight law courts within six linear wings are arranged around a central public area known as the Salle des Pas Perdus. The hearing rooms are the formal interface between the judiciary and the public. These spaces are placed above the office fingers and are accessed centrally from the Salle des Pas Perdus so that the hearing rooms and the public space flow over the top of the building. The principal hearing rooms are grouped around the Salle des Pas Perdus and frame the public space with the tallest of the roof structures.

Antwerp-Law-Courts-By-Rogers-Stirk-Harbour-Partners-Roof-structure-study-models-Eamonn-OMahony-759x380 Antwerp Law Courts / Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners

Roof structure study models – © Eamonn O’Mahony

The smaller hearing rooms are arranged along the fingers under an undulating series of stainless steel roofs oriented to take advantage of north light. Service space for the hearing rooms is sandwiched between the hearing rooms and the offices below responding to a functional need to provide decentralised plant, while architecturally it separates the spaces above and below so that the hearing rooms appear to float over the building. The office wings overlook landscaped courtyards allowing a natural link between the exterior and interior spaces. Public connections consider integrating the building with Konijnenwei Park (to the east) and Bolivarplaats (to the north). These connections will be furthered through the masterplan to reintegrate the city by providing east/west feeder roads linking the southern fringes.

Antwerp-Law-Courts-By-Rogers-Stirk-Harbour-Partners-model-photo-02-Eamonn-OMahony-759x583 Antwerp Law Courts / Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners

model photo – © Eamonn O’Mahony


The relationship of the new law courts with Bolivarplaats is a key factor in the design of the building. The relocation of the feeder road and restoration of the area as an important civic space includes proposals for landscaping with plane trees, to provide an informal meeting place. A background of vertical trees will form a backdrop to the approach to the courts from Leien where pedestrians, rather than traffic, will have priority and be improved by a new tram, bus and cyclist infrastructure serving the plaats and connecting it to the existing city transport systems. A simple clarity between public and private space will enable way-finding, natural security and the signalling of a gateway into Antwerp from the south. To this end, the Salle des Pas Perdus is an extension of the Bolivarplaats and a physical continuation of the Amerikalei axis. The placement of the civil and criminal courts to either side of this central space, crowned by a striking crystalline roof structure will create a visual beacon for the city, the plaats and the public space of the Salle des Pas Perdus.

Antwerp-Law-Courts-By-Rogers-Stirk-Harbour-Partners-36-ArcelorMittal-759x493 Antwerp Law Courts / Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners

© ArcelorMittal

The Salle des Pas Perdus is located at the intersection of all the fingers, at the heart of the building, and architecturally forms the glue that joins the distinct fingers. The ascent from Bolivarplaats to the main level on the second floor provides an appropriate entrance to the courts. This impressive glazed space is naturally lit and ventilated from the courtyards. Access to the courtrooms is via gently rising staircases from the central space. At the hearing room level, the Salle des Pas Perdus becomes a series of waiting areas relating to the hearing rooms themselves. The roofs of the hearing rooms are orientated to face north west, designed to admit daylight without solar glare. These changes give a more organically driven form to the gateway.

Antwerp-Law-Courts-By-Rogers-Stirk-Harbour-Partners-45-flickr-Klaas-Vermaas-759x509 Antwerp Law Courts / Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners

© flickr-Klaas Vermaas

The offices form the working heart of the building. They are naturally lit and ventilated with a high degree of flexibility for reconfiguration as required over the life span of the building. The offices comprise three of the six levels and occupy all six fingers. This arrangement maximises connectivity between and within departments, and ensures that the most public functions adjoin the Salle des Pas Perdus, while those that are most private are furthest away. Support functions are located at the lowest levels of the building below the public, judicial and office spaces. The central Living Archive is located below the Salle des Pas Perdus and connected to the offices fingers. Communal staff areas such as the central library and restaurant are located at ground level between the office’s fingers with direct access to the landscaped courtyards.

In the Antwerp law courts, the simplicity of the segregated circulation routes aids orientation and benefits from views across the courtyards as well as providing the necessary vertical and horizontal security. The built form will define a series of natural boundaries that significantly simplify the management of the building and create a flexible system that can easily adjust to cater for future growth and change.

  • The Law Courts for the City of Antwerp were formally opened on 28 March 2006 by King Albert II of Belgium.
Antwerp-Law-Courts-By-Rogers-Stirk-Harbour-Partners-58-construction-process-10-Marijke-Anne-759x569 Antwerp Law Courts / Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners

construction process 10 – © Marijke Anne

Project Data:

Project name: Antwerp Law Courts
Location: Antwerp, Belgium
Coordinates: 51.203939, 4.387511
Type: Court House
Materials: Steel and wood frame, Concrete floors
Gross Internal Area: 77,000 sqm
Project Year: 1998—2005
Openig date: 28 March 2006
Status: Completed
Cost: £86 million – Cost/m² £1,115
Completion Year: 2006


  • 2008 – Chicago Athenaeum International Architecture Award – The best new global design
  • 2007 – Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) Awards – RIBA European Awards – Winner
  • 2007 – RICS Awards – Category: Regeneration – Commended
  • 2006 – Staalbouwprijs Awards

The people:

Client / Owner / Developer: Regie der Gebouwen
Architects: Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners – Thames Wharf, Rainville Road London, W6 9HA, United Kingdom
Project Team:

  • David Ardill, Stuart Blower, Ed Burgess, Yoon Choi, Martin Cook, Benjamin Darras, Hilde Depuydt, Mike Fairbrass, Rowena Fuller, Angela Gates, Kevin Gray, Sera Grubb, Sean Han, Ivan Harbour, Dennis Ho, Amo Kalsi, Steven Leung, Avtar Lotay, John Lowe, Tim Mason, Annie Miller, Andrew Morris, Tamiko Onozawa, Sabien Rietjens, Richard Rogers, Renee Searle, Patricia Sendin, Simon Smithson, Yoshi Uchiyama, Martin White

Co-Architect: PVK Architects
Acoustic Consultant: Arup Acoustics
Facade Consultant: Lesos Engineering
Fire Consultant: IFSET NV
Landscape Architect: Wirtz International BV
Lighting Consultant: Arup
Main Contractor: Interbuild / KBC / Artesia
Quantity Surveyor: Bureau Van Kerckhove
Services Engineer: Arup / Bureau Van Kerckhove
Structural Engineer: Arup / Bureau Van Kerckhove
Text Description: © Courtesy of Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners, RIBA, Arup, Wirtz International BV
Images: © Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners, Richard Rogers, Grant Smith, Katsuhisa Kida, Christian Richters, ArcelorMittal, Regie der Gebouwen, Marijke Anne, flickr-Yvette Depaepe, flickr-Cheetah_flicks, flickr-Klaas Vermaas, Eamonn O’Mahony

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