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 front of it is now named after the architect, Zaha Hadid, who died just before the building was inaugurated. The modern part of it is not so much an addition to the old (which in fact had been the city’s fire headquarters before being chosen as the new site of the port authority) as its conqueror, subduing it as a successful wrestler subdues his opponent. Preponderance and prepotency are the main desiderata of the productions of celebrity architects, and the Havenhuis certainly achieves these ends. The architect seems to have paid little attention to the aesthetic compatibility or harmony between the old and the new, or if she has done so it is in the reverse fashion from that which is intuitively desirable: rather, she has sought incompatibility and clash, the better to draw attention to her production, indeed to make inattention to it impossible. In me, at any rate, the new building induces the type of anxiety or unease that unbridled power always induces, a kind of crushing or crushed sensation, as if the works of Man had seized control of Man’s destiny from Man himself.

Four-fifths of the world’s diamonds pass through Antwerp.

And then I had the banal, petty bourgeois thought that seizes so many visitors to, say, Versailles: how on earth is it to be kept clean? The concrete supports of the Havenhuis are polished, and the glass, no doubt, is of the self-cleaning variety; but the facets, even so, might accumulate dirt not easily removed, and thus the polished diamond will come more and more to resemble uncut stone. Few materials create a slum-like atmosphere as quickly as dirty concrete and dirty glass; but perhaps my fears for the building (or were they wishes?) were unfounded.

Certainly from one angle—from the cruise-liner building stern-on—it had a distinct elegance: and no one could deny that it will long be an icon of the city, until it is trumped in the now ceaseless search for architectural attention.

My attitude to the building, however, changed on the inside. I found this change in itself reassuring, for it suggested that my judgment of it was not mere prejudice invulnerable to experience. My guide to the building told me—I had no reason to disbelieve him, and what he said was undoubtedly credible—that those who worked in the Havenhuis loved it immediately.

All the offices are open-plan, even that of the chief executive of the port; the glass walls and high ceilings lend an atmosphere of almost celestial airiness and light (though, in reality, the flow of air through the building must be far from natural, and in fact highly controlled, that would create a hell if the machinery broke down). The panoramic view over the port and the city is—to use for once the language of real estate salesmen—stunning. The five hundred workers in the building were widely-spaced at their desks: I have never seen better working conditions anywhere. A calm reigned, almost monastic in its silence: if a calm can be intense, here was intense calm. And as one surveyed the port, one could see why it needed to be.

Antwerp’s port is immense, though fifty miles from the sea down the broad and constantly-dredged River Scheldt. It handles over 200 million tons of freight a year and ships five hundred yards long, with twenty thousand containers each, dock there. The management of this immense enterprise needs the utmost sangfroid, for disaster here would be disaster squared or cubed, and the interior of the building provides just the environment for its exercise.

The port is the center of a vast chemical industry that transforms raw products into needed chemicals; the distant industrial landscape has an undoubted romance and beauty of its own, though no doubt this might disappear on closer approach, and ecologists, observing the smokes of many colors emerging from the forest of tapering chimneys, would see nothing in it but the death of wildlife and the production of the canopy or pall of pink-gray-mauve that now covers so much of the earth’s surface, the price of our industrial abundance. The chimneys and their plumes of smoke would, by contrast, have delighted the inconographers of communism, who would have regretted only that it was capitalism, not communism, that created them.

The sheer immensity of the port of Antwerp, its concentrated human ingenuity, intelligence, and industry, is best seen, however, from the detailed aerial photograph of the city, the port, and its surrounds, on glass squares illuminated from below, that forms part of the floor of the lobby. This photograph is an education in itself.

One sees—if it is pointed out—the first artificial dock constructed in Antwerp. It was constructed under the orders of Napoleon, who recognized the strategic importance of Antwerp in the imposition of his Continental System on Great Britain, a system that the European Union, in order to survive, will have to try to impose (under different guise, of course) once more.

Napoleon bestrode the world of his time, of course, and his struggle with Britain seemed titanic, of world-historical importance, to all those involved in it, and to historians ever after. But what is immediately obvious about Napoleon’s dock is its tiny, almost toy-like scale by comparison with the modern docks. Nothing could more graphically illustrate the phenomenal growth of modern production, transportation, consumption, and technical prowess than this unexpected comparison. Without Napoleon’s little, doll-like dock being pointed out, no one would even notice it, lost as it was in the immensity of its surroundings:

My name is Napoleon, King of Kings;

Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!

Napoleon is said to have had more books written about him than any other human in history, with the possible exceptions of Shakespeare and Hitler, but how puny was his physical mark on this landscape!

And then again, astonishing as it is, Antwerp is not, at least by tonnage—or the rather odd measure that is usually used to measure these things, twenty-foot equivalent units—among the largest ports in the world: Rotterdam is at least half as big again, and Rotterdam is not even among the first ten. Antwerp’s port training school educated the chief executive of the busiest port in the world, Shanghai, it is true, but gratifying as this no doubt is, it is not the same as actually being the largest port in the world. It is humbling, in the best sense, to gain a glimpse of the scale of human practical intelligence.

Antwerp is not, at least by tonnageamong the largest ports in the world.

Size is not everything, and the fact that there is something larger elsewhere does not diminish the achievement of the Low Countries. Shanghai’s port might be four times the size of Antwerp’s, but I doubt it is four times as efficient or as clean. What astonished me most about the aerial photograph was the way in which farmland came right up to the port: industry and agriculture as next-door neighbors, as it were.

Of course, I know that this would not please everyone. Surely the crops, within so short a distance as the wind blows of the chemical factories and other polluters, must be contaminated? One can just imagine all those carcinogenic residues entering the bodies of the middle-class worried well of Europe, causing them to die at the age of eighty-two instead of eighty-one.

All the same, it seems to me an immense achievement that anything at all should grow so close to so large a concentration of industrial activity. Those of us who remember the good old days in Eastern Europe remember factories that seemed to produce nothing at all except pollution, and that poisoned the earth for hundred of yards, if not for miles, around, so that nothing would grow in the oily, poisoned land. It was as if the communist masters took pollution as a metonym for economic advancement: the smokier and the fouler, the nearer to the proletarian heaven the regime approached. And in Cornwall, where arsenic, at one time the elixir of industry, was mined in the nineteenth century, the land is still bare more than a century and a half later. One expects scrub, not fields, around so vast an enterprise as the port of Antwerp.

Another thing that surprised me when I examined the photograph, and that I would never have guessed, was the clear difference between the Belgian and Dutch sides of the border (Antwerp is adjacent to it). It was as clear in its way as the difference between the Israeli and Arab sides of the border, or as that between the Haitian and Dominican Republic sides. Of course, it was not that there was abject poverty on one side and prosperity on the other—both countries are very prosperous—but the difference was in the layout of the fields. On the Dutch side the fields were large; on the Belgian, or perhaps I should say Flemish side, they were small, almost reminiscent of mediaeval strip-farming. The shade of green was different on either side of the border, darker on the Dutch and lighter on the Belgian side. What did this mean? The Dutch used more fertilizer, or they grew different crops?

And why the difference in size and shape of fields? Could it be a different law of inheritance, such that primogeniture is still permissible in the Netherlands but not in Belgium, thus preserving the size of fields? Has the division between Catholicism and Protestantism something to do with it? I suppose I could find out, but I know that I won’t. At any rate, the difference was (to me) unexpected, though I knew of course that there had been a Belgian revolution against the United Kingdom of the Netherlands in 1830, complete with heroic revolutionary paintings afterwards. One of my Belgian friends is an Orangist—that is to say he wants Flanders to rejoin the Netherlands, and probably Wallonia to rejoin France—but he cheerfully admits that he is in a minority of 99 to 1.

Belgium is a conundrum. It functions though it is dysfunctional—or is it that it is dysfunctional though it functions? At any rate, the port of Antwerp is a human triumph, greater than any merely political arrangement.

This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 35 Number 7, on page 31
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