AGORA – Belval: contemporary urban planning promotes heritage and reinvents it
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Belval: contemporary urban planning promotes heritage and reinvents it

In Belval, the industrial culture of the past has been integrated into a contemporary setting through a complex – and fascinating – process of redevelopment.

In Belval, AGORA has not been satisfied with just promoting the conservation of the former steel installations of ArcelorMittal (formerly Arbed). From the very first reflections on the future of the site, it became clear that they should play a key role in urban life. They had to be given a function commensurate with their “affective load". Here, more than anywhere else, industrial culture has found a sublime contemporary setting to welcome it. A result made possible by a complex redevelopment process.

At the end of the evening, when the last spectators at the Rockhal are pouring into the Avenue du Rock'n'roll, still lulled by the music, they cast an admiring glance over the blast furnaces, magnified by the night-time lighting that carves them out in relief and highlights their sparkle. Thus enhanced, they are the symbol of a proud claim to industrial tradition and successful restoration. In Belval, the redevelopment of industrial heritage serves as a driving force for social, economic and urban development.

In Luxembourg, the rule of consultation and the search for compromise are not just words. This approach, always geared towards the development of solutions, predominates. It is in this spirit that the debate on the place of industrial heritage in Belval was approached. The decision to preserve and revitalise it has not, however, aroused as much passion as elsewhere in Europe. We are a long way from the polarised debates of the 1970s around the restructuring of the Les Halles quarter or the construction of the Beaubourg centre in Paris.

A dispassionate debate allowed the history of the site and its witnesses, recognised as a "national symbol" by former Prime Minister Jean-Claude Juncker, to be given its rightful place.

“The first strong signal was given during the preliminary studies on the future development of the site. The idea soon took hold that a natural line was emerging along an axis from the blast furnaces, through the old sintering ponds, to the park and beyond," recalls Robert Kocian, Marketing and Development Manager at AGORA.

“This naturally forms the backbone of the urban development and this concept has been widely acclaimed". The rest of the story is reflected in the final decision to keep the two blast furnaces. The first in its envelope, while the second is more stripped down. A concept of great educational virtue: while we see the body of one it is also possible to make out the skeleton of the other.

Today, in a contemporary quarter where modern urban life is lived, nestles a dynamic reminder of the working-class past. The very first blast furnaces, those of the Adolf-Emil Hütte works erected in 1909, have long since disappeared, but their memory lives on in those built by Arbed (now ArcelorMittal) between 1965 and 1970, which were revitalised a few years after the last symbolic casting of furnace B in July 1997. It also brings back memories of a more distant past, that of the pre-steel era, when the site of Belval was "an enchanting valley containing a mineral spring and sheltering a marvellous forest, the “Bois du Clair Chêne" (or Escher Besch).

Beyond the museum aspect, a truly integrated heritage

From the very beginnings of the Belval project, industrial heritage was imagined as being integrated into urban life and playing a real role in the quarter. Neither AGORA nor its partners wanted to turn them into mere museum pieces or an open-air archaeological park. The Luxembourg State and ArcelorMittal, partners in GIE-Ersid and then in AGORA, insisted on this requirement in the specifications of the first urban planning competition. The concept of the City of Science on the Blast Furnace Terrace was born.

Gigantic and magnificent, blast furnaces A and B of the former Esch-Belval works are witness to a great industrial saga. They document a period of steel production that greatly contributed to the wealth of the country and influenced its social history.

On the Blast Furnace Terrace the landscape and its history would not, however, have been complete if other essential elements had not also been restaged.

This is true of the Masse Noire and the Halle des Poches à Fonte located at the feet of the two "steel giants".

Further on, discovering the perimeter of the University and the public research laboratories is also a must. The Maison du Savoir, has rigour and a resolutely contemporary aesthetic appeal, while the futuristic Maison du Livre, installed in part of the former industrial building of the Möllerei, arouses astonishment and admiration from all.

Situated in the middle of the industrial relics and symbolising the continuity of the scientific and technical progress of the site, the Business Incubator is located in a 1970s building that bears witness to the know-how of the engineers of the steelworks of the time.

Of course, the foundations of the old blast furnace C, destined to be dismantled and transported to China to be given a second life are not to be missed.

Created with a concern for beauty and functionality but without excessive staging, this image of dynamic redevelopment won over the jury of the international urban planning competition organised by AGORA in 2002. Each of its members wished that they could experience “varied, living job assignments". The future proved them right!

An inheritance to be talked about and shared

However, giving the old industrial buildings new functions was not enough to satisfy the development ambitions of AGORA and its partners. We had to go further. We had to be able to explain and pay tribute to Luxembourg's industrial history, its pride and wealth.

It is in this context that the Luxembourg State wished to develop a scientific and educational support tool by setting up the National Centre for Industrial Culture (CNCI). A cultural centre with national and cross-border influence, geared towards the discovery of the Luxembourg steel industry, but also, more generally, towards industrial culture and th history of work.

Bringing it progressively into being has enabled many exhibitions and seminars to be organised. It also led to the long-awaited opening of blast furnace A to the public in 2014. Success has been achieved, far beyond the borders.

Other initiatives are being prepared. This is just the start!

"Il était une fois" tells the history of AGORA through its events and encounters with people who have marked its history.

Discover all the articles of this series by clicking on the tag below.