Shortly after arriving at Kanaal, a former distillery outside Antwerp converted by Belgian designer Axel Vervoordt into an arts complex combined with apartments and offices, I came across a sign. “Dear visitor,” it read. “Please be aware that the installation contains triggers for vertigo.” Placed inside one of Kanaal’s diverse gallery spaces, which range from towering grain silos to 19th-century brick warehouses, the sign referred to a work by Korean artist Kimsooja—a floor covered with mirrors that reflected and distorted the hulking industrial space. However, it also foreshadowed the dizzying effect the city’s bustling design scene would have on me. Everywhere I went I was met with lofty visionaries and sublime design.
Kanaal opened last fall next to a shipping channel (thus the name) in the town of Wijnegem, which sits among meadows and woods. Its unlikely setting echoes the High Line in New York City and Lhong 1919 in Bangkok, which brought nature into industrial spaces. Kanaal does the reverse, planting urbanity in nature.
Its opening, 20 years in the making, crowns Vervoordt as the designer of the moment in a country becoming known for them, including his more modernist counterpart, architect and product designer Vincent Van Duysen, who is famous for an only-in-Belgium spare aesthetic that somehow feels lavish. And it brings the spotlight to a city that, despite its modest size, has emerged as one of Europe’s most culturally influential, with a chic supporting cast of ateliers, restaurants, and places to stay—such as the new 17-room Hotel Pilar, a property filled with bespoke furniture, artworks, and clean-lined ceramics that guests can buy in the hotel shop.
Antwerp’s reputation as a fashion city started in the 1980s with the rise of Ann Demeulemeester, Martin Margiela, and especially Dries Van Noten. The contemporary design and architecture scene had been lagging, although the port city does seem to have a knack for marrying heritage with modernity. (Even the historic harbor area features apartment towers by David Chipperfield and a brick former fire station topped by a glass-paneled rhombus by Zaha Hadid.)
Adaptive reuse and the mixing of old and new have long been Vervoordt’s calling cards. In 1968, when still in his early 20s, he purchased and restored the Vlaeykensgang, a warren of medieval townhouses in downtown Antwerp that had been slated for demolition. Since then, dizzying reimaginations of existing infrastructure have become the signature aesthetic of the city.
Pakt, for example, a hub of cafés, offices, and event spaces near the Jewish quarter, opened last year inside an abandoned construction yard. Its owners, Yusuf and Ismaïl Yaman, spent years struggling for permission to retain the site’s industrial skeleton. Now, because Pakt has one of the largest rooftop gardens in Europe as well as a modeling agency and crowing free-range roosters as tenants, the city touts it as an example of sustainable planning.
The same creative energy buzzes through Graanmarkt 13, a concept store, restaurant, and residences spread out over a five-floor neoclassical townhouse designed by Van Duysen. (The top two floors house an apartment you can rent.) Since it opened eight years ago, Graanmarkt 13 has remained one of Antwerp’s most popular lifestyle stores. Last year, however, co-owners Ilse Cornelissens and Tim Van Geloven decided that they would no longer mark down their inventory at the end of the season and, instead, ask clients to clean out their closets and sell treasured old pieces at a weekend-long sale.
“We want to challenge people to streamline,” says Cornelissens. “To buy less, but better quality.” A few years ago she and Van Geloven challenged Graanmarkt 13’s renowned chef, Seppe Nobels, who reengineered the menu at his wildly popular restaurant to source exclusively from North Sea fishermen, Flemish farmers, and his own rooftop garden.
Cornelissens talked about the evolution of Antwerp’s style. “Creatives here have the luxury of focusing on quality,” she explained, pointing out the city’s low cost of living compared with, say, Paris or London. “It’s less about commerce.” This freedom seems to have bred a particular talent for stripping away artifice and distilling a space down to its essence—which is the genius of designers like Vervoordt and Van Duysen. In fact, it’s the common denominator of many of the best creatives in Antwerp: They are helping to define—globally—a new idea of luxury that includes a respect for authenticity, quality, and history, as well as a compulsion to reinvent abandoned spaces rather than build new ones.
“Simplifying is the purest form of elegance,” says Van Duysen. “Luxury has nothing to do with abundance.”
Antwerp’s Fashionable Industrial Complex
Designer Sam Peeters oversaw the renovation of this three-story Belle Époque building. His husband, Christophe Ysewyn, runs the place. From $280.
A stunning, Vincent Van Duysen– designed apartment sits atop the beloved concept store. $1,600 per night.
A former chapel on the grounds of a military hospital, now a Michelin two-star restaurant where chef Nick Bril also occasionally DJs.
A medieval cellar reimagined as a Japanese restaurant by Axel Vervoordt.
Drink, eat, work, and farm your own microgreens at Antwerp’s latest industrial reclamation.
Axel Vervoordt’s arts complex features works by Anish Kapoor and James Turrell.
Two houses converted into an art and architecture bookshop by Vincent Van Duysen.