After 13 years of hold-ups and incompetence, the EU's 'Berlaymonster' rises like a phoenix

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The Independent Online

The entrance lobby looks like the inside of Stansted airport, while the most exclusive meeting room would not seem out of place on the Starship Enterprise.

The entrance lobby looks like the inside of Stansted airport, while the most exclusive meeting room would not seem out of place on the Starship Enterprise.

After being evacuated 13 years ago following an asbestos scare, the headquarters of the European Commission has almost completed a futuristic makeover ahead of its opening in November.

Gutted from top to bottom, the Berlaymont building will be unrecognisable to former occupants such as the former president Jacques Delors. Only the starfish-shaped design has remained and that was preserved because demolition would have threatened the nearby metro system.

With walkways, space-age lighting and high-tech equipment, the phoenix that has risen from the old structure is on a scale to match up to the "Berlaymonster" nickname.

Opened to the press for the first time yesterday, the state-of-the-art building is one of the most environmentally sound public structures in Europe. Its "outer skin" is made up of Viennese blinds which shield the occupants when the sun is shining, keeping the building temperature down. The energy from electricity generation will be used to heat the Berlaymont in winter and cold water will be produced at night to circulate during the day.

One of the most striking features, an egg-shaped meeting room that resembles a space capsule, is on the 13th floor, which will be occupied by the new President, Jose Manuel Barroso. Commissioners will sit round an oval table illuminated by a massive, ultra-modern chandelier.

With the blue carpet only laid recently and the translation booths still to be fitted out, the 13th floor has yet to be finished. Construction workers are still assembling Mr Barroso's personal dining room, which is equipped with four translation booths. The kitchen area, which will serve smaller suites of dining rooms, is extensive enough to ensure that guests will not be eating sandwiches. Space is allocated on seniority. A director general can expect a 59-square-metre office, with blue carpet, a black leather sofa and the familiar EU blue flag with its golden stars.

Commissioners will be given a larger office, probably of around 75 square metres, though the sizes can be altered easily by removing partition walls. Floor lights spaced along the lengthy corridors complete the feel of being in a spaceship.

But for Britain's new, dog-loving commissioner, there will be one disappointment since he - like all staff - will not be able to bring pets on the premises.

Though the European Commission has no more bureaucrats than many British local authorities, between 2,200 and 2,700 of them will be housed in the Berlaymont, whose car park holds more than 1,100 vehicles.

Forty-two lifts and 12 escalators will ferry people around the 241,515 square-metre surface and the cafeteria will be able to accommodate 900 diners.

Downstairs, the design gives an impression of space, with modernistic, 4m-high lamps illuminating an area like an empty airport concourse. The decor is mainly cream-coloured, with the floors either tiled in grey or wooden and pot plants are soon to be delivered.

The opening of the Berlaymont in November will mark the final stage in a tale of delay and incompetence. The building, first occupied in 1967, was vacated in 1991 because of the discovery of asbestos and was originally supposed to have been renovated by 1997. The work was taken over by a firm whose target date was included, somewhat optimistically, in its title: Berlaymont 2000.

As the repair bill mushroomed and delays mounted, the building site became a growing embarrassment, a symbol of slow workmanship and broken promises. It was, however, the Belgian state that picked up much of the tab, having to provide alternative accommodation for the Commission.

Last year, under a complex legal agreement signed with the Belgian State and Berlaymont 2000, the Commission agreed to pay €552m (£365m) via an annuity over 27 years. That includes the Commission's purchase price and its contribution to renovation costs. The Commission has also paid€157.2m in rent during its absence.

Officials insist that, despite its scale, the Berlaymont will not introduce a new note of opulence. Michael Mann, spokesman for the Commission, said: "Any suggestion that it is a luxury palace would be wide of the mark."

There is, however, one unusual perk for staff. At the request of Nordic officials, the new Berlaymont building boasts a small, subterranean sauna.

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