Without doubt, ‘50 shades of grey’ covers the overall atmosphere along the Belgian coastline. It’s the northern light that plunges the sea, skies and sandy beaches into a deep and diverse pallet of greyness throughout the year. And sure, the endless ‘coastal wall’ made up by stacked apartments doesn’t add much brightness to the scenery. And yet, somewhere alongside the dike at Knokke, one will find a new bright yellow pavilion. It somewhat resembles a washed-up buoy sunk in the sand after a stormy night. Despite this romantic metaphor, we’re looking at a straightforward lifeguard and police station, fully equipped to comfort pain, save lives and guard overall security.
The Belgian coast stretches over a short 65 kilometres receiving more than 6 million tourists in the high season with daily peaks up to 300.000 visitors.
Every year over 1800 children are reported ‘lost’.
It’s obviously not the endless wall of apartments that will provide them any point of reference amidst the overcrowded beach, but the yellow dot just might make that single but important difference.
The winning proposal for this safety pavilion is designed by Compagnie-O architects in collaboration with Dutch architect-artist John Körmeling. His straightforward and even blunt reading of the project proved to be decisive throughout the design process. The station is conceived as a look-out platform visually connected with al 12 lifeguard posts along the waterline of Knokke-beach. It hosts the lifeguards, a police station, a first aid post, a garage and public toilets. The formal bright yellow shape manages all these functions efficiently into a clockwork machinery. Although the brief was all about surveillance and security, we simply didn’t feel like making a ‘building of fear’ amidst the joy, fun and happy-go-lucky associated with a sunny day on the beach. In fact, looking at the shear massiveness of the coastal wall dominating the dike and the beaches, we didn’t want to build another building at all.
The design changed when we considered the project as part of the public realm, rather than a mere safety station. By designing a public routing through the building, it turned into a playful pavilion where one can actually see the full content of its functioning. The passage is a place where one can meet up with friends, take a seat in the shade while watching people passing by, shake out those sandy shoes and have direct eye-contact with a lifeguard, police(wo)men or first aid crew. This blurring of functional boundaries seemed appropriate, considering the beach and the endlessness of the horizon.
In order to establish this, we set the building free from the dike and positioned it lower, on the beach in the sand. The station became a toy in the sand, freed from the coastal concrete and its shadows, granting the people strolling on the dike their view towards the sunset beyond an uninterrupted horizon.
Enhancing the interactions with the strolling and sunbathing audience, we made the pavilion speak out directly. ‘Ladies and Gentlemen’ is set out in illuminated letters alongside the handrail on the platform. The phrase reminds of the inviting start of a play, yet here it merely indicates the location of the public toilets.
This gimmicky trick sets the tone of the architectural language: a playfully serious game flirting with the memory of Emberton’s Blackpool’s iconic Pleasure Beach.
The circular plan (17m diam) defines 4 distinct zones, interconnected with the public passage and in-between spaces. The first-aid room is easily found adjacent to the passage. Due to privacy reasons it’s lit up from above only. Its interior is elaborated in a fresh minty green tone expressing the clinical conditions.
The life guards and police station are combined in a circular, fully glazed circular cockpit overlooking the passage and the beach. The glazing was important since it inverses the classical panopticum by allowing bathing suited people to address a fully dressed (and armed) policeman directly.
The public toilets and the staff rooms make up the third and fourth zone. In between them lays the garage for life boats and beach-truck and equipment storage, all visible from the outside so as to force the guardians to show off with a tidy and well-organised station. The first deck of the pavilion is accessible for professionals only and allows the guards a further view. Above this deck hovers the look-out tower providing a 360° visual covering the full stretch of beach and dike. On busy days, the main lifeguard takes position on the balcony overlooking all the teams along the water’s edge. After sunset the pavilion holds its position playfully, lit up from within and surrounded by the fairylike illuminated letters.
In wintertime melancholy strikes and stormy weathers lash the yellow skin. Sand will pile up against the walls and in the passage until the mid March opening of the beach season. A fresh team of lifeguards will open up the beaches and the pavilion for a new, carefree summer season.