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Ageing infrastructure and urban transformation

2021 – 2022 semester 2 / design studio / 15 ECTS (B-KUL-A34446)
Engagement: Urban Cultures
Language: English
Campus: Sint-Lucas Ghent

Ageing infrastructure and urban transformation

Tutor(s): Sophie Leemans
Erik Van Daele, Maarten Gheysen

Image left: Maison du Canal along the Spiere Canal. The former lockkeeper’s house has become a bar with a terrace. Three million euros were spent to dredge the canal after it got out of use for coal transport, and is now accessible for recreational purposes. Sources: Geneanet (left), City Hall Spiere-Helkijn (right)

context

This design studio focuses on the relation between infrastructure, architecture and urbanism. Architects rarely design infrastructure. However, the presence or lack of roads, railways, waterways, sewage etc. significantly influence how we live in our urban environments. Especially in dispersed territories (low-density urbanisation) infrastructure networks can be considered ‘lifelines’. For example, it is only because of the abundant presence of roads and railways that it is possible to commute daily over long distances in low-density areas.

“Architecture has been designed as the art and science of designing and constructing buildings and other physical structures for human shelter or use. In this definition the word shelter is meant in the broadest sense of the term. Going back to ancient times people needed shelter for protection against storms, rain and snow, direct sunshine and cold weather. For protection against hostile tribes cities were built surrounded by massive city walls. Dykes were built to protect against floods. Besides the need for shelter an increasing need for mobility emerged. For mobility of people roads and waterways were built. Aqueducts were built to transport water over long distances. With the industrial revolution there was also an increasing need of energy and energy transport, requiring the design and construction of energy supply systems. To save densely populated cities from catastrophic water pollution, sewage systems were designed and installed. Large railway systems were built to enable long-distance transport of people and goods by train. Via bridges, Viaducts and tunnels otherwise isolated transport networks became connected. All this illustrates that a modern society is inconceivable without a well-developed physical infrastructure.” (van Breugel, 2017, pp. 53–54)

Today we are challenged to rethink our urban environments towards more sustainable and resilient alternatives due to large-scale urban questions such as a changing climate. At the same time, many of the underlying infrastructures are ageing. Infrastructure is either overused, underused, polluted, degrading, abandoned or simply outdated. Many of these ‘lifelines’ were constructed in the second half of last century and have average service lives of 50 years. For example, a lot of bridges over waterways in Flanders are in urgent need of either renovation or replacement.

The decisions that we make for infrastructure today will define how we live in our cities in the coming decades, if not centuries. What to do with these ageing infrastructures? To renovate, restore, re-use, musealise, retrofit or renaturalise? In dispersed territories, city and land are intermingled, going beyond the traditional notion of a city as a compact figure. Dispersed territories have been put forward as 21st century cities. What is the infrastructure that we imagine for this 21st century city? The urgent challenges that their infrastructures are facing provides an opportunity to rethink dispersed territories.

These infrastructure challenges are complex and require answers on different levels (politics, policy-making, urban planning, engineering, heritage). While architects cannot solve these infrastructure issues on a large scale, we can reflect on their local impact and imagine future scenarios by using our design skills. Rethinking these lifelines could result in new forms of urbanity. As architects, we have the skills to imagine future scenarios that go beyond functionalities. What are the spatial qualities of existing infrastructure? And how can they contribute to more sustainable city-land dialogues?

This design studio deals with punctual architectural interventions that can re-imagine the territory on a larger scale. It operates at the intersection of urbanism, architecture and urban design. The output is thus an individual architectural intervention framed in larger infrastructure networks.

This design studio builds further on the results of a research elective ‘Mapping lifelines and tracing tendencies in the dispersed city’ (2020-2021 sem 2) and a summer school ‘Eurometropolis 2.1: a blue space in transition’ (summer 2021) that focused on the Eurometropolis Lille-Kortrijk-Tournai. This means there is a large amount of existing material available.

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