Fort Napoleon

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Fort Napoleon. Aerial view.
Fort Napoleon. Aerial view. Courtesy © Herita, BE. Photo: Daniel de Kievith.

General overview

In this century old and inaccessible military bastion, historically full of physical and mental barriers, the main challenge has been to reverse that image, and to make basic physical accessibility a prominent feature now. The monumental steel & glass ramp, connecting outdoor spaces and successive gates, articulately expresses this reversal. In a similar fashion the light and transparent glass cuboid volume of the restaurant highly contrasts with the massive volumes of thick brick walls.

Location

Ostende, Belgique

Principal access interventions

  •  visibility of the entrance and creation of a non-slippery steel ramp near the entrance door
  • accessibility of services : entrance hall, information desk, exhibition space, bar, restaurant and seminar room
  • insertion of a new elevator

Most of the spaces for visitors are ‘accessible for wheelchair users and for buggies (prams), including the bistro and the toilet facilities’, the website tells. Further usability features for people with visual, auditive, and mental functional limitations are not mentioned here.

Description

The former polygonal military bastion, built in 1811 in the North Sea sand dunes close to the mouth of the Ostend harbor, is fully restored and made accessible in 2000. Today it houses a visitor center, a museum space, a museum shop, a bistro and a restaurant, and a seminar room. Individuals and groups can now visit, meet and eat, or rent the place for an event.

Protected monument and protected site, by Royal Decree 1976 (K.B. d.d. 6 July 1976).

Find out more

Article written by Hubert Froyen, International Union of Architecte network (new tab).

Challenges

Heritage significance and attractiveness

At the beginning of the 19th century, the French military and political leader Napoleon Bonaparte expected a British invasion from the sea on the Belgian port of Ostend. In 1811 he had a polygonal fort built in the sand dunes close to the mouth of the Ostend harbor. The attack never materialized and the fort was used briefly for troop accommodation and as an arsenal until the end of the French occupation in 1814 when it was abandoned, and gradually fell into decay.

In 1995, the building complex came into the care of Erfgoed Vlaanderen vzw (the Belgian / Flemish Heritage Association) and following a five year restoration program, was opened to the public in April 2000.

Access challenges

  • inaccessible rampart
  • technical constraints of the previous internal organisation

Project

The accessibility of the entrance

The former bastion fort can boast two hundred years of history, and of explicit and extreme inaccessibility. Now, at the beginning of the 21st century, decision makers and architects have put an emphasis on the careful preservation of the historic structure while adding some contemporary design elements to help make this monument accessible for the majority of users and visitors. By doing so they turned the former inaccessible rampart into an iconic example of an accessible building complex.

The entrance is clearly visible. Through a newly built hole in the solid rampart walls a metal plane is reached via a non-slippery steel ramp near the entrance door. A transparent glass wall guides and protects the visitors.

Main entrance of the Fort Napoleon
Main entrance. Photo R.C. 2005
Fort Napoleon. Glass & Steel ramp.
Fort Napoleon. Glass & Steel ramp. Photo R.C. 2005
Second entrance of the Fort Napoleon
Second entrance. Photo R.C. 2005

The organisation of interior space and services

In the interior space the second floor accommodates a more open entrance hall, information desk, exhibition space, bar, restaurant and seminar room. A transparent glass & steel volume houses the restaurant and stretches as a minimalist bridge structure over a cut caponier (covered passageway that crosses the ditch), connecting the outer wall with the central core of the fort. The flat roof of the restaurant is used as a terrace, facing the sea, the dunes and the port.

Both the monumental entrance structure and the box shaped restaurant facilitate wayfinding in a former pentagon lay out with purposefully no clues for orientation and navigation at all. The more secluded ground floor underneath was left almost intact. In some existing caponiers historical information is on display.

Fort Napoleon. Caponier.
Fort Napoleon. Caponier. Photo R.C. 2005
Fort Napoleon. Restaurant volume.
Fort Napoleon. Restaurant volume. Photo R.C. 2005
Fort Napoleon. Interior.
Fort Napoleon. Interior. Photo R.C. 2005

The insertion of a new elevator

A new elevator connects the two floors, but gives no access to the flat roof terrace. As an alternative, people with reduced mobility can manipulate a camera and enjoy the 360° view from the rooftop on a computer screen. Thus Information & Communication Technology complements physical accessibility.

Fort Napoleon. Plans first.
Fort Napoleon. Plans first and second floor. Graphics L.S. 2016
Fort Napoleon. Cross sections.
Fort Napoleon. Cross sections. Graphics L.S. 2016

Conclusion

The overall image of an old military bastion now made accessible in a drastic and in a respectful way remains, but unfortunately a closer look and checking reveals no further accessibility initiatives. Besides some basic elements of accessibility, the major values of the renovated Fort Napoleon are in it’s iconic and paradigmatic qualities. The symbolic value is much stronger than the functional qualities. Strong architectural interventions of the monumental ramp and the steel & glass structure of the restaurant demonstrate an ‘opening up’ to a completely new function, and to a diversity of users now.

Players and processes

Players

  • client : In 1995 the building was expropriated and given to Flanders Heritage Agency in long lease. The Flanders Heritage Agency (Onroerend Erfgoed) inventories and protects valuable buildings, landscapes, archaeological sites and the heritage fleet. Furthermore, it supports the conservation of immovable heritage and carries out policy-oriented research.
  • contractor : Govaert & Vanhoutte Architects

Processes

The decision process was started 20 years ago and this is reflected in the rather limited scope of ‘accessibility’, mainly limited to wheelchair users, families, prams. Universal Design was not yet at the forefront. Together with explicit inside knowledge & experience, advise was sought from TGB (former non-profit Office for Accessibility, now INTER). The clear intention however has been from the very beginning to go beyond the functional minimum, and to add an intense Gestalt experience.

Pictures and maps