Translating the vernacular, Antwerp
2020






        Historic context
Antwerp, like many Netherlandish towns of the 16th century lacked substantive land on which to build. Lots within the historic core were typically narrow with a long deep plan - a condition dating back to the practiced norm of the Middle Ages. These restricted sites dictated the building style for much of the city, with architects and builders following the medieval precedent of announcing the presence of the building on the street with a prominent gable. Construction in Antwerp, as in many towns throughout Flanders and the Netherlands, was predominantly a matter of timber and brick. During the Middle Ages, vast areas of the Meuse, Rhine and Scheldt River deltas were forested, and timber was readily available for use within framed architectural construction. These timber frames formed the basis of much of built Antwerp from the Middle Ages to the end of the 16th century.
        Self-supporting timber frames constituted the earliest timber frame constructions in present day Belgium. Built from the repetitious employment of timber cross frames, this construction produced a self-supporting jointed frame. The sidewalls of these constructions offered a variety of options to enclose the timber structure, although these early example were limited only to thatch for their roofs. Frames were clad with planks or decorative wainscotting, or finished with wall frames infilled with brick or wattle and daub between the main posts. With the rise and spread of brick construction the earlier form of infill gradually gave way, as brick began to supersede more archaic forms of construction.
        The utilisation of brick as an independent structure, that is beyond its earlier use as a filling within the framed construction, was as a covering built around the structural timber work. These walls, only a brick to brick-and-a-half thick, were built around the structural timber - connected to the frame with iron cross ties to counteract the outward bending of the masonry walls. Beyond the practical reasons for the adoption of brick, the material was initially the reserve of the higher stratum of society before it gradually made its way down the social scale. Like stone before it, brick pertained to a permanence and solidity desired by the monied merchants of the city - the financial expenditure in material and craft, an outward expression of wealth and artistic achievement.
        With the increased production of brick through the establishment of brick making foundries within the city, supplies of the building material more readily became available to the less affluent; the city of wood slowly became one of brick. In this course, self-supporting timber framed construction largely evolved into buildings with walls of brick, or brick built houses employing supported timber frames. This type of frame differed from the completely self-supporting frame due to its dependance on the solid masonry walls of the building on which it rests for footing and support. Provisioning masonry buildings with a supported frame to the upper levels not only enabled builders to employ thinner masonry walls, reducing the number of bricks within the construction of the facade, but increased the structural stability of the building and permitted larger uninterrupted spans.
        While increased brick production can be attributed to the rise in brick construction within the city, other parameters also played their part in spurring on the decline of timber construction. Fire was a constant lurking danger in the timber built city throughout the centuries. Catastrophic fires wiped out entire districts as fire fed on the thatch and wood of the old buildings. Although some were built with brick party walls, their ornamental wooden fronts were at perpetual risk of fire taking hold and spreading. As a consequence of these devastating events magistrates ultimately ordered that thatched roofs on streets through which religious processions passed be replaced with pan tiles within six years, while other buildings throughout the city were to be tiled within ten. Subsequent edicts outlawed timber facades, and prohibited the construction or repair of any building with wood. These edicts, designed to safeguard the city, motivating the city’s inhabitants, in places through financial support, to build in a more durable manner using brick or stone. Timber, once the dominant building material from the Middle ages through to the end of the 16th century was slowly replaced by brick and stone in a long, divergent process, accelerated by calamities such as fire, and influenced by municipal governance, as well as economic growth and industrial development. At its core the additional factors of availability and financial cost of building materials remained the critical component in the development of building techniques within the city.
        Throughout this period, stone, as a massive construction material, remained the preserve only of the most monied institutions and individuals. Whether in civic, commercial or religious building programmes - utilised within the proliferation of churches, guild halls, and municipal buildings throughout the city - stone was the material of choice to announce the importance and permanence of these institutions within the urban fabric. The scarcity of the material in Flanders combined with the skill and knowledge required to construct with it, meant it remained relatively rare within the fabric of the city. Where expenditure allowed, stone was instead utilised as a compliment to brick. Corner stones and window mullions were picked out in stone, breaking up the verticality of the gable and elevating its design through the employment of a finer material. Though this material remains the relative exception for the bulk of Antwerp’s built fabric, it remains a defining character in the experience and legacy of the city’s historic constructions.




Historic case studies







Kaasuri: Masonry facade, with secondary frame







1) Pan tile roof  2) Timber roof boards  3) Timber cross frame 
4) Masonry corbel  5) Timber floor boards  6) Timber tie beam and joist floor keyed into masonry wall  7) Timber wall plate  8) Iron anchor ties 
9) Masonry party wall














Stoelstraat: Primary frame with lightweight cladding




1) Pan tile roof  2) Timber roof boards  3) Timber roof, rafter and purlin 
4) Self-supported timber cross frame  5) Timber wall frame  6) Masonry infill to ground  7) Wattle and daub infill  8) Timber board cladding  9) Timber bargeboard  10) Timber wall plate  11) Masonry party wall  12) Iron anchor tie
















Vleeshuis: Massive construction





1) Pan tile roof  2) Timber roof boards  3) Timber roof, rafter and purlin 
4) Timber cruck frame  5) Timber floor boards  6) Timber tie beam and joist floor with masonry corbel, keyed into wall  7) Massive masonry construction