Designing the Place des Bassins, imagining a new public squareon the remains of the former Belval sintering basins, was a stimulating challenge for the architects Metaform and Latz + Partner. Combining the new with the old, overcoming the depths of the basins and imagining multiple public uses: the task fascinated the architect Shahram Agaajani, co-founder of the Luxembourg firm Metaform. .
He has been thinking about the future of the old sintering basins for a long time. 10 years ago, having come to Belval to work on another project, every day he walked past these gaping holes with their 16-metre depth that gave him an intoxicating tingle and invited him to imagine new architectural forms. Little did he know then that in 2017, AGORA would issue a call for projects that would allow him to finally develop one of these great ideas.
“In Luxembourg, it is rare to be able to compete for the design of a public square,” says the architect. It was exhilarating to be able to invent such a place, a real democratic space, in a place that was not intended for it in history. It is a space that is highly charged, culturally, socially, democratically and historically. Nothing excites me more. Especially since the revitalisation of old architecture is also an ecological statement, and even more so in a densely populated area like the new Belval.”
To give a human scale to architecture that was not designed for people to walk around is the main challenge of the impressive infrastructure of the basins in its original state. “We have a depth of 16 metres in a narrow space,” says the author of the project. What would city dwellers be doing at the bottom of this hole, in the heart of a dense urban space? What meaning could be given to this underground space? How to give back an accessible dimension to this space, which at first sight is off the scale? These questions galvanised us. “
A second challenge? To pay tribute to the industrial history of the structure while projecting it into an urbanised present. The new and the old had to dance together. To preserve the concrete structure but find a way to magnify it. To link the two basins together and connect them to the urban piazza in a new way, but without erasing the traces of the past.
Third concern? On the scale of the neighbourhood, to multiply the uses and functions to meet the needs of a large population, in a space that is both imposing in its depth and modest in its surface area. “To make this object viable,” says the architect, “we needed an attraction that would be something other than the object itself. “A simple museum space was not an option; AGORA’s intention was to make it a vibrant living environment and the beating heart of the quarter. ”
A vision accomplished
On the drawing board, Metaform’s architects flirted with several ideas. A car park? Not human enough. An underground art gallery? There is no real sense in displaying works on lower floors like this, nor is there a strong enough cultural inscription in the history of the place. “When we were looking for a proposal that would truly interact with the past and with the current life of the people in the quarter, we thought that water could play this role,” says Shahram Agaajani. It is an irresistible and unifying attraction; it is part of the industrial history of the basins; it reduces the impression of depth. It inspires serenity.”
The idea of devoting the deepest pool to it was quickly adopted, followed by the addition of a glassed-in resto-lounge. The second basin, on a more human scale, seemed perfect to be a public square in tiers to stroll around, to watch a street artist or chat with friends. “And, on top of that we thought of this infinite loop structure, where teenagers can skateboard while their parents have a drink downstairs,” the architect adds.
“The loop evokes the idea of a concentric circle,” he continues. It establishes a permanent convergence towards the square. Its radii are attractive, one wants to walk through them to meet together in the centre. It also symbolises the circular economy and renewal. It underlines the ability to reuse something that seemed obsolete.”
Concrete? “It is only partially covered, minimalist to allow ample room for greening. On a wasteland, time does its work and nature quickly takes over. Latz + Partner specialises in the treatment of industrial landscapes. Together we wanted to amplify this movement of reclaiming the green by planting a variety of species in the treatment of the different levels of the square. The structure will therefore also serve as a plant support”
The result will be “unique,” promises the architect. “A post-industrial installation like this, serving as a public square in the very heart of the city, is certainly unique on the scale of Luxembourg, and quite singular on the European scale as well,” he concludes.
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