Observation Deck: Antwerp
In 1977 Rem Koolhaas wrote The Story of the Pool, imagining how the Russian Constructivists created an open-air swimming pool that by dint of their repeated laps in the opposite direction, slowly ferried them across the seas to New York. Antwerp's many émigrés simply took the boat.
It's hard not to reflect on the image while sitting on the deck of Antwerp's Badboot, the world's largest open-air swimming pool. Fashioned from an old ferry boat, it sits above the waters of the River Scheldt, a sleek enclosure with a chic bar and restaurant slap bang in the middle of Europe's second largest sea port.
Directly opposite, two impressive freight ships form a solid bulwark guarding the premises of The Red Star Line. The shipping company's historic warehouses will reopen in September 2013 as a museum charting the journey of the millions of Europeans who embarked here for America after 1800.
Their tales seem particularly resonant to a newcomer like myself. Ever since I decamped from London, Antwerpenaars have exhibited disbelief that these days the Belgian port might be a destination in its own right. But between its famous avant-garde fashion, impressive architecture and manageable size, Antwerp offers metropolitan casualties some welcome recuperation by the waterside.
Badboot features a revolutionary reed-bed water filtration system that eliminates waste and a sleek elongated deck from which to take in the huge transformation that is changing the face of Antwerp's once neglected Het Eilandje docks. This of course is now an area of distinct stylishness with the already-iconic MAS (Museum aan de Stroom) building, hip bars, restaurants and myriad creatives and fashionistas strolling around.
By winter, Badboot will morph into a ice-skating rink and construction will have begun on the most gleaming facet in the city plan initiated in 2002 to gentrify the district. When it is finished, the new Zaha Hadid-designed Port Authority at the mouth of the harbour will bear aloft a huge diamond, trumpeting the city's most famous export.
From MAS' impressive terrace, even the cranes and shipping containers are reduced to insignificant dots. The eye is instead drawn to the old monoliths like the Police Tower and the KBC Tower; the latter was the first skyscraper in Europe, built to impress a sense of Antwerp's might on visitors to the World Exhibition.
A few years later, a 527m-long corridor lying 30m below the Scheldt linked the city's two banks. Accessed by original art deco wooden escalators, the Sint-Anna tunnel doesn't lead to the New World perhaps, but the view from the other side reveals yet another, more tangible, profile of Antwerp. Like Badboot, MAS, and the Red Star Line Museum to come, it's one that begins and ends with the water.