I once saw the head office of an airline in Latin America that was shaped like an airliner. This architectural mimesis, or equivalent of onomatopoeia, seemed to me cheap, vulgar, and ridiculous, a kind of symbolism for the irreducibly literal-minded.

The Havenhuis in Antwerp, the headquarters of the Antwerp dock authority, is shaped like a cruise ship and perches, by means of concrete supports, atop an early-twentieth-century copy of a stone-walled Hanseatic building. Its glass facets are diamond-shaped, to suggest Antwerp’s other great trade, diamonds: four-fifths of the world’s supply passes through Antwerp.

I fully confess that I started with a strong prejudice against the Havenhuis. From pictures I had seen, it struck me as the very acme of modern celebrity architecture. Indeed, the open space in ...