Tuesday, 1 December 2009

Documenting and Designing for Louvain-La-Neuve

masterplan of Louvain La Neuve
Workshop group in front of LLN model from the 70s, after a lecture by the head of Planning at LLN University
Karel Wuytack and I recently taught a design/research workshop, to the full final year of Urbanism students studying at Sint Lucas' two campuses of Gent and Brussels.

Railway and Road entrances into and under LLN
The topic of study was the University City of Louvain La Neuve, a piece of Utopic, pedestrianised, Brutalist New Urbanism, from the late 1960s that grew out of the need to resolve (by removal and relocation) old Flemish-French tensions in Leuven University proper. A site in between Leuven and Brussels, in Wallon Brabant, was chosen.
Street in LLN
more after the break...

Clear attempts were made to resemble the scale and texture of Old Leuven's city centre, rendering a little bit less traumatic the unnatural extraction from 600years of located history, whilst also using the opportunity of being built from scratch to go one 'better' than the original, and bury all infrastructure and parking in a huge plinth (up to four floors deep in places), called "La Dalle", that sits under the entire city centre.

Edge of La Dalle
The project, which is unfinished in many places, leaves several edges of La Dalle unconcluded, with the expecting party-walls of scattered apartment buildings hanging unclaimed at the edges of its idyllic streets; a girdling wall-like Back-end to a city that was designed at its street levels as a large three dimensional interior, a cosy and human-scaled labyryinth sustained by the Disney-Like support infrastructure feeding it from within the plinth, an infrastructural section which is laid bare at the points where it was never completed, was left in its unfinished state. Laid bare also by these moments as a fundamental miscalculation, in that this was not realy a city, it never needed, and was never going to need thousands upon thousands of parking spaces and endless concrete ramps, as well as entire subterranean by-pass tunnels, for its few university departments and its several clusters of little villas, let alone at an initial cost of 24000Euros per parking space. The whole plinth has long since become a liability, and the city is having to rely on a large new shopping centre, that draws shoppers from all over the Brabant region, in order to maintain much of the parking area, which has otherwise become slowly decaying left-over volumes, been creatively occupied (a snooker hall for instance), or has been cleaned up and left innaccessible due to high charges, and only ever at best reaching a 40percent occupancy rate.

An un-renovated access to subterranean parking
The city has also been adding new elements to itself in the form of the out of scale shopping centre, a large glass box tellingly called the "Magna Aula", a new shapely museum about the comic, and national hero, Herge (author of "TinTin" and "Quick and Flupke"), by Christian de Potzamparc, sprawling Science Parks and a bog-standard series of suburban enclaves. They each face the fabric of the original masterplan in their own way, either trying to smooth over any discontinuity, as in the case of the mall (its entrance from the street is blended into the figure-ground of LLN as a low, semi-circular piazza), separating themselves completely as with the new residential streets oriented towards the city's scenic lake, or else deal with their ambiguous context by suggestively playing with the given scenario, as Potzamparc does, mooring his ship outside the dock-edge of Louvain La Neuve's unconcluded expansion.
Musee Herge by Christian De Potzamparc

Students in Louvain La NeuveWe asked students, in groups of 6, to approach the city and look for situations where the original masterplan, and the circumstances that have occured during its realisation, have produced unusual situations that are both locally contingent and generaly relevant. We asked them to creatively document these conditions using film and photography, during a two day trip to the the city, and then over a two day studio in Ghent, to form a film presentation that would tell the story of what they had discovered, its links to the history of the overall projet of Louvain La Neuve, and then to speculate on the potentials of the unique qualities they had pinpointed, as possible strategies for extending and/or intensifying the area's incipient urbanity.
Storyboarding and constructing positions
Starting with the text "Reinventing the Urban Project in Rotterdam; In Search of a New Credibility for Architecture and Planning After the Financial Crisis of 2008" by Crimson Architectural Historians, we decided to take up the idea of seeing this city "itself as a source of solutions and new ideas, instead of as a passive body waiting to be operated on by specialists", and look for a way to recognize "the fundamental specifity of each city", from within the city itself. However where Crimson call for a piecemeal and pragmatic approach to urbanism based on practicable case-studies, whose "straightforwardness [] could be the antidote to the degradation of meaning and credibility that the Big Plan has brought to the profession of architecture and urban planning", we wanted the workshop students to look for contradictory and vital singularities, but rather than approaching them as a series of real, solvable projects, treat them instead as possible urban principles which if extended, could be the vital ingredients in the overall development of the city.

learning to communicate in video
Beginning with research on the ground, and an awareness of the site's history, the students were asked to imagine how Louvain La Neuve might develop in a manner that deepens the generic and reinforces its possibilties to absorb singularity.

The group showing the footage on the laptop above worked on an analysis of the public-private interfaces in the old masterplanned areas, and drew up an idea for a planning framework that liberated the stylistic and quantitative zoning of the city, but prescribed in detail the qualitative relationship between the built fabric and the street. This would allow for a strong quality of public space to extend beyond the University-owned, and University-developed centre, to the majority privately developed environs.
Below are the video presentations of three of the other groups. The first is an exploration of the complex interior of The Plinth (La Dalle), its relationship to the city above, and its potential development and conquest by anything from Meat Processing to wildlife:

The second is a proposal where the unfinished edge of the city, its revealed section, is celebrated and used as a generator for a marked growth that embeds an internal, active archaeology within the expansion of the city:
A drawing by the Edge groupThe third is a group that looked at the new urban entities that have been moored within the masterplan of LLN, and explores how they can be used as linchpins for a hybrid development that actively emphasises and uses the gaps and contradictions between the scale and layout of the 1960s plan, and its recent, unplanned additions:

The final group (who's video is not online) worked on a way to extend the University's system of Kot'a'Projets (dorms where students come to live together with similar interests, and are given funding to arrange events and activities), into an urban scale network of 'bottom up' architectural production and activity development, which if given distinct locations around the city, could also involve residents.

Informal Housing in La Baraque
This required research into La Baraque, an alternative settlement started by students from the University in the 70s who did not wish to live in the Masterplanned areas, instead building their own, semi-official, community. The students proposed bringing similar concessions (the land on which the Baraque sits belongs to the University, but they willingly tolerate the 120 permanent 'squatters') into the centre itself, as communaly organised zones where University regulation is suspended.
To conclude, a short process video by the group that did the interior of La Dalle:

Thanks to all the students,
also to Michael Callant, Ruben De Leersnyder, Jef Pottier, and Kobe Stroobants for their superb and fun support

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