When developing a sports centre in the precious green open space bordering a big city, the number one priority is the harmonious merging of the building into its surroundings. Consequently this was the basic principle for ZJA Zwarts & Jansma Architects design of the Nelson Mandela sports centre in Neder-Over-Heembeek, in the northern part of Brussels in Belgium.

As a result, the building seems to emerge from an elevation in the landscape; the plinth merging with the undulating land. The nearby woods and a river valley suggested the application of natural materials. The plinth is clad with broken natural stone. The roof rests on a visible wooden construction and the canopy over the stands is made of canvas. To stay close to the human scale, the building consists of two levels. A closed ground floor and a transparent second floor, that by way of its lightness of construction blends with the environment. Approaching the building from the parking area, your attention is steered toward a grand and inviting staircase. This leads visitors into the light central hall that offers a view in all directions.

This central circulation area is where all types of users come together and are re-directed in different directions: the players, the administrators, employees, maintenance crew, suppliers and of course the visitors. According to wish and necessity the spaces on the second floor, where offices and catering facilities are located, offer optimal view of the pitch, through a glass facades. With all this glass and the outward pointing diagonal lines, the center is built like a machine-for-watching. The heart of the building is the glass hall next to the wide stands.

Because the building serves outdoor sports, the design had to consider the issue of noise pollution. Both noise from the environment and from the sports fields. The building separates the pitches and the closest buildings. Equally important is the building’s orientation in relation to the most common wind direction and the sun. The big canopy offers protection against wind and rain. The canvas filters the sunlight but allows enough light to enter the stands.

The Nelson Mandela sports centre is a compact building that is structured and organized to control temperature and energy supply in an efficient and durable way. It may look deceptively simple, but it is a hyper modern and energy neutral building with high tech insulation, solar panels and a circuit to recycle rainwater. All this corresponds with the design of a building that is in harmony with the landscape and its immediate surroundings and is meant to create space to experience outdoor sports in a durable, transparent en inviting way.

The Nelson Mandela sports centre blends into its environment, but is far from a shy building. It stands on a plateau and has a robust, but open look. It offers space to come together, to cheer and yell. To enjoy outdoor sports, a view into the distant landscape and the wind and weather.

Client: Stad Brussel
Principal: Sweco Belgium
Year: 2017

Project: #677

Photographs: ZJA and Willemen Groep