The former Arbed castle, now owned by BCEE, Luxembourg’s state savings bank, seen during a tour given to Delano on 26 February
Photo: Jan Hanrion/Maison Moderne
When the Banque et Caisse d’Épargne de l’État purchased the ex-HQ of steel firm Arbed on avenue de la Liberté, it faced more than a simple renovation job. This iconic building has national monument status, and is a physical manifestation of the country’s economic independence. How did the bank meet these challenges?
Affectionately known as “d’Schlass” (the castle), many Luxembourgers have an emotional attachment to the building at 19 avenue de la Liberté in the capital. Where once this country was an economically-backward pawn in great power politics, its booming steel industry gave the country economic independence to go with political freedom. By the early 20th century Arbed had emerged as Luxembourg’s largest steel company and was looking to make an impression. They decided they needed a grand headquarters.
National and European significance
This decision coincided with the government’s desire to develop the land on the Bourbon plateau, the land between the Pétrusse valley and the central railway station. The Adolphe bridge had been built in 1903, but yet this neighbourhood had still not fully taken shape after fortress bastions had been removed in the 1870s. While the government considered building a grand national museum, Arbed came forward with their plans for 19 avenue Adolphe, as the stately main artery was then called. The current building was inaugurated in 1922, just as the company embarked on its international expansion programme.
Some historians see the first steps toward the creation of the EU having taken place in this building. In June 1925 the first Western European steel summit meeting was held as part of an attempt to better coordinate German and French steel production. The meeting broke up without agreement, but less than 30 years later the European Coal and Steel Community was created, with its HQ a couple of blocks away. Before then, though, the building was used by the occupying forces, before reverting to civilian use on the renamed “avenue de la Liberté” in 1944.
History for sale
The building became the HQ to the world’s largest steel company ArcelorMittal in 2006 following two rounds of mergers. However, the new management decided a modern construction was a more appropriate work space. They moved around the corner, and started to look for a buyer for “d’Schlass”. Rumours circulated that international investors were considering a bid to turn the building into a hotel or shopping centre. Responding to popular disquiet, the government made the building a national monument in 2014, thus limiting the changes that could be made to the structure. Then the public bank BCEE stepped in, completing the purchase in early 2015. Press reports put the purchase price at €97m, and the bank also invested considerable sums in state-of-the-art renovation.
The bank decided this high prestige building would be ideal for its corporate banking and high-net worth private banking activities. As well, its central location lent itself for use as the bank’s training centre and base for marketing and communication. It also has conference and cultural facilities. But first they had to undertake the sensitive task of bringing the building up to meet today’s norms of safety, comfort and efficiency while respecting the historic design of this national monument.
“The national Sites and Monuments Department were involved at every stage of this project,” explained BCEE’s Marc Bettendorff, assistant vice president in the buildings and logistics support unit. Everything from the shade of varnish used on 130 solid oak doors to 375 brass door handles made from original models, to the design of corridor lighting, to how fire extinguishers should be deployed needed to be in keeping with the building’s original architectural style and décor.
The building was structurally sound. Although it is clad in stone, the floors of the building have a concrete and steel structure. The most substantial work was the need to replace the aged slate roof. No less than 4,370m2 of slate roof had to be replaced, with the substructure also needing to be renewed and insulation fitted. This was a tricky task due to the undulating detail of the roof, including 150 dormer windows. Moreover, there is extensive green oxidised copper cladding, much of which had to be replaced. It takes many years for shiny new copper sheets to develop the distinctive green patina, so the bank had to source pre-oxidised metal. An added complication was that the scaffolding had to be freestanding due to the building’s delicate façade of white Comblanchien limestone from Burgundy and yellow-tinged Savonnières stone from Lorraine.
Internally the décor was feeling tired, but this was not just a simple painting and decorating job. Nearly a hundred years of dust and tobacco smoke had discoloured the interior stonework. Strong detergents would have damaged the surfaces, so a more innovative solution was required. A mildly adhesive gum was power-sprayed onto the wall. When dry, this was pulled away, removing encrusted dirt but leaving the stone intact.
The building has parquet flooring. The original wood was renovated where possible, but otherwise replaced with matching coloured slats. Doors and surrounds are in varnished oak. In both cases, just the right tone of varnish had to be used to match the walls and the historic colour scheme. Original storage spaces and cupboards were also preserved where possible.
Creating a modern office space
While taking care to preserve as much of the 2,700m2 of walls and around 1,500m2 of floors and ceilings as possible, there was also the matter of bringing the building’s specifications up to modern standards. No less than 108km of IT cable, 137km of electrical wiring, 850 ceiling lights, and 120 emergency ceiling lights had to be installed. This had to be done without cutting visible slits into the stonework. Moreover, the LED light fittings had to be specially designed by the architect in collaboration with a lighting specialist to match the building’s historicist style, while projecting light in a subtle fashion. Wifi routers, intruder alarm sensors and fire extinguishers also had to be accessible but hidden. Fire alarms and electronic access pass sensors are one of the few visible compromises to the necessities of contemporary office life.
The old wooden lifts are a particularly delightful feature. The mechanics needed replacing and protective surrounds installed, but the wooden doors and structure remain as they were first installed. However, these four person lifts are inadequate for modern needs, so a new lift was installed, again in keeping with the surroundings. Also not up to scratch were the bathroom facilities, originally designed for an era when steelmaking was a man’s business. Kitchen spaces also had to be renovated and blended into the surroundings.
The turnaround was very quick, not least because there were expectations from the government for a speedy renovation. Work began with the Luxembourg architect Jim Clemes early in 2015, with attention to the roofing and façade starting in May, with internal work beginning in June. A team of ten from the architect were active on the project, coordinating more than 70 companies involved. Completion was about 18 months later in July 2016, when it was officially inaugurated. Before coming into service, the building was opened for a public viewing in November 2016. Around 10,000 people visited, with queues forming around the block. This is testament to the place this building has in Luxembourgers’ hearts and minds.
An emotional connection
“After the work was completed, I brought my father to visit because he had worked for Arbed all his life,” commented Rudi Belli, senior vice president and head of secretary general department at the BCEE. “I’m sure I saw tears in his eyes when he walked into this building, such was the importance that building played in his life.”
Indeed, there is a symmetry that this landmark is now being used by a bank. Steel was the country’s economic lifeblood for a hundred years, and now it is finance. Whether the buildings that today house fund administration companies, private banks and consultancy firms will stir the emotions in a hundred years’ time remains to be seen.