AGORA – The industrial wasteland: a fascinating urban planning study subject
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The industrial wasteland: a fascinating urban planning study subject

After asking AGORA, architecture students chose the Alzette Quarter as their experimental playground. Objective: to dream up innovative concepts and train for the job. Beate Heigel, project manager at AGORA, and Jörn Hadzik, their teacher, now tell us about this fascinating experience.

During the urban planning study on the Alzette Quarter, students architects were interested in the major AGORA project. And the aim was? To suggest their own ideas and train for the job on a site unique of its type. Supervised by their teachers from the Münster School of Architecture (MSA), the apprentice architects thus developed experimental and original concepts around the theme of sustainable development. Beate Heigel, architect project manager at AGORA, and Jörn Hadzik and Max Wombacher, from the Spine architects studio (Hamburg) and the two teachers behind partnership, are delighted with the creativity of the workshop. Today they tell us about this rich experience.

Beate, to begin with, could you explain to us how this joint project between AGORA and student architects came about?

Beate Heigel: Actually, we regularly receive requests from students or universities expressing their interest in our projects. They see it as an opportunity to enhance their training on an unprecedented practical case. In 2019, teachers from the Münster School of Architecture in Germany wanted to have their students work on the Alzette Quarter site. Of course we said yes.

How is such dialogue between urban planning professionals and universities instructive?

Beate Heigel: It’s a very rich experience. For us at AGORA, the interest is twofold. This allows us to test some of our concepts, to explore them, via student research, and to see if they actually work in the field. Then, the students, who bring a fresh perspective to the project, bring new ideas, surprise us, and open up horizons we hadn't thought of.

For the students, this is a great opportunity...

Beate Heigel: Absolutely. It is an opportunity for them to leave the university lecture rooms and get their hands dirty. During their workshop in the Alzette Quarter, they came and visited the site, of course, but also met with clients, local authorities, AGORA experts, etc. It was a real exchange of views, which benefited everyone!

So, Jörn, you are an architect and a teacher. Could you tell us in what university context this type of workshop takes place?

Jörn Hadzik: I have actually been teaching courses at the Münster School of Architecture with my colleague Max since 2018. In particular, a course based on a very conceptual and experimental approach to urban design. The central theme is sustainability, broadly defined, and the goal is to push students to think outside the box, to let their imaginations run wild, by immersing themselves in a real project.

Why did you specifically choose the AGORA site?

Jörn Hadzik: Because the Alzette Quarter is a great playground for our apprentice architects! When you start from a wasteland, you can dream up anything. And then its industrial past gives the place a fascinating atmosphere. It challenges you to come up with urban planning that is new, while being rooted in the history of the place.

In concrete terms, what was the programme?

Jörn Hadzik: With Max, we proposed to a first group of students that they work on what we called the PhyLab. The idea was to invent a concept and an architectural framework that could accommodate people working on the still insufficiently researched techniques of biological renovation. And to do all of this while considering the history of the site and the multiplicity of target audiences. Our other course based on the Alzette Quarter, called Maison de l'acier (House of Steel), also dealt with the sustainable development of the site.

Did your students take ownership of the place?

Jörn Hadzik: At the start, they were a bit lost. It must be said that the site covers 61 hectares. Their first ideas were quite conventional... even a bit boring! But the urban challenges are so numerous, and the site so inspiring, that they finally found an angle of attack that appealed to them.

What were these urban planning issues exactly?

Jörn Hadzik: They are those of urban development in a post-industrial environment. We had to rethink the ecology of a site formally dedicated to the steel industry, an activity that has polluted the soil and left its mark on the landscape. These issues include mobility, reuse of existing materials and reclaiming the industrial heritage and existing buildings, by combining new and old.

Do you ever find yourself inspired by the students' work?

Jörn Hadzik: Indeed, I do. For example, some teams have introduced us to new sustainable materials that we had never heard of before...!

For us dyed-in-the-wool architects, the view of young people is precious. It opens up perspectives for us.

With regard to their proposals for the Alzette Quarter, can you give example that you particularly liked?

Jörn Hadzik: Yes, absolutely. Let's take the project - my favourite - of a team that envisioned a temporary decontamination station combined with research, all based on the concept of “phytomining”...ButMax will tell you about it better than I can!

Max Wombacher: Phytomining is a technique of soil decontamination by plants. The concept was invented more than 40 years ago by the British biologist Alan Baker. It consists of transforming plants... into underground miners! They extract heavy metals from the soil through their roots.

The point of the project proposed here by our two students is that it uses the existing infrastructure (the old rails) to integrate it into the ultimate solution: their concept proposed mobile laboratories, in the shape of a bubble, travelling on the old railway tracks of the site. A really brilliant idea.

We also liked the social and multidisciplinary dimension: the new decontamination activity thus created combines research and employment and networks former steelworkers, residents, students and scientists. In other words, a real collaborative effort to rehabilitate the site.

Have any other projects caught your eye?

Max Wombacher: Yes! We also really liked a project called "hold". We were impressed by its ability to highlight the industrial heritage, using a bold structure, with in particular an elegant concrete façade.

Beate Heigel: This is typically the type of new ideas that inspires AGORA! These projects are not necessarily destined to be carried out as they are, but they allow us to open up horizons and feed our future urban innovations. In this, it was a great success.

"REGARDS CROISES" is series proposed by AGORA with the aim to tell the story of a project since its birth.

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