AGORA – When urban planning draws on history
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When urban planning draws on history

Innovative and contemporary, the grand project developed by AGORA in Belval also honours history. By reviving the memory of a spring of water or that of the industrial era, one has to imagine today’s social mixing without denying the site’s past.

We are in 1850, between Belvaux and Esch. It’s Sunday and families are dressed in their Sunday best to stroll through what is now a recreational area full of nature. It must be said that the forest growing here, the “Escher Bësch”, is a very popular place. Also known as the “Clair-Chênes” wood, it is as beautiful as it is mysterious. Children love it.

Same place, one and a half centuries later. This time, we are in Um Belval park, in 2021. The setting has necessarily changed, marked by the change from industry in the 20th century, then by the grand urban project that has been growing here for the past 20 years. However, there is one constant: although the forest disappeared in 1909 to make way for factories, the joyful activity has not gone. And now it’s our contemporaries’ turn to come and stroll along the pretty paths, sit in the shade of a birch tree or stretch out on the fresh grass.

Greening the remnants of the industrial era.

Because nature is always there. Or rather, it has returned. AGORA has indeed decided to honour history and, right in the middle of Belval, revive the greenery that once brightened up Sunday outings.

“The park project dates back to 2002 and the Belval master plan,” recalls Beate Heigel, project manager architect at AGORA.

There was an empty space between the future neighbourhoods. The landscape was strange: trees and other vegetation had grown on the remains of gravel left by industry, in the middle of large puddles.

In short, nature itself had taken over. “So we decided that this place would be dedicated to it,” explains Beate Heigel.

Although a “wild park was envisaged at one point, the project will evolve in the future. Objective? Green, then, but also diversity. Because in Belval there are many users: students, families with children, workers, the elderly, etc. In the end it was the Franco-German Agence Ter that won the competition. “We liked their concept because it offered spaces adapted to this multiplicity of uses,” says Beate Heigel. There is thus an “original garden” which preserves the gravel left by industry as a relic, but also playgrounds, grassed areas for resting or sitting, birch plantations, etc.

A spring was quietly slumbering under Belval...

In Belval, another development will soon embody this desire for a link between history and modernity: the Bel-Val Spring Pavilion. In order to understand the essence of this project, you have to step back into the past. Back to 1868. Joseph Steichen, adviser to the Superior Court of Justice in Luxembourg, discovers here... a mineral water spring. Incredible luck, its quality is exceptional. From 1893, the water is bottled and marketed. It was a huge success: the precious beverage would soon travel the world. Bel-Val water? “The most hygienic of table waters, the most pleasant of medicinal waters!” was the slogan of the time.

However, it only needs the operation to cease in 1935 and the venerable spring falls into oblivion. Decades go by, no one notices it any more... Until AGORA and the municipality of Sanem decides that it’s time to bring history back to life.

“The spring was rediscovered in 1999, but it was only recently that the idea of putting it back into the landscape emerged,” says Cliff Schmit, Head of the Culture department of the town of Sanem. In 2017, Esch-sur-Alzette learned that it would be the European capital of culture 2022, This was the opportunity they had dreamed of: “Among the many projects launched in the wake of this decision, that of a Pavilion in honour of the spring quickly gained unanimous support,” explains Cliff Schmit.

Opening of the Pavilion in summer 2022

The aim is twofold, he says: “To highlight the remarkable history of this spring gushing out of the earth 200m below and to create a multifunctional place for visitors.” There is plenty of opportunity for self-improvement but also for rest and refreshment.

At the end of 2020, the people who will come up with this Pavilion have been appointed. The Luxembourg collective BeBunch (two architects and a designer), associated with Ney & Partners have been found for the engineering; and for the scenography, the architect and multidisciplinary artist Laura Mannelli. Her ambition? To make the Pavilion a link between two worlds, thanks in particular to virtual reality:

Beyond its walls, the spring and its history are revealed. The pavilion becomes an intermediate territory, a medium between the past and the present, between a forgotten world and the world of today,” she describes.

Although the real spring will remain underground (its quality remains questionable and the work to exploit it too expensive), the water will obviously be in the spotlight. It will exist in small pools that will dialogue elegantly with the wooden structures of the Pavilion. “The inauguration is planned for June 2022,” says Cliff Schmit impatiently.

A canal garden almost completed

This fascinating work on the memory of water is in fact not a first for Belval. It can be found in a place similarly dedicated to rest and nature: the Canal Garden.

Located at the eastern end of the park, not far from Belval Sud, the Canal Garden also evokes the past. “In the past, a watercourse ran through the entire Belval site,” recounts Beate Heigel, AGORA’s architect. “And then this watercourse was diverted into an underground conduit along Belval Sud.”

The idea was to recall its presence by subtle design work: “The Canal Garden, designed by the Agence TER, plays on colours and shapes to evoke water and its power over the landscape,” Beate Heigel describes. Three quarters of the garden is already completed. In Belval, time passes, water flows but history remains.

"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.