Author : Ekaterina Nagibina

University : University Universität Liechtenstein

Status : MDegree MS Arch, 2016

Advisor : Prof. Peter A. Staub, Dipl. AA MSc LSE, Dipl.-Arch. Georgia Papathanasiou

Title : The Case of Monceau sur Sambre

CHARLEROI

The city of Charleroi developed according to the development of the coal industry, of which it was highly dependent. Since the Second World War the importance of heavy industries had drastically decreased. Together with the heavy industry the city went into decline between the late 1960s and the 1980s, caused by the closing of the mines (the last mine in the area was closed in 1984).

Although some of the industries that used to shape the city before have gone a long time ago, their presence in the city is still overwhelming. The post-industrial condition is not only the current reality of Charleroi, but with every passing day it is becoming more associated with it, the condition becomes part of the city’s identity.

MONCEAU SUR SAMBRE

The coal-burning power plant was built in 1921 by INTERCOM. At that moment, Monceau sur Sambre was still an independent municipality, and the plant was the largest in Belgium. In 1977 the municipality was added to the municipality of Charleroi, and the plant became the main supplier of energy in the region.

By the year of 2005 there were 7 coal-burning power plants left in Belgium, including one in Monceau sur Sambre. According to the report Green Peace presented in 2006 Monceau sur Sambre Electrabel was responsible for 10% of the total amount of CO2 being emitted in Belgium. The plant was eventually closed in 2007. The owner’s plan was to demolish the remaining buildings by the year 2014. The Power Plant still stands there now, in 2016.

NARRATIVE

The network of the power lines, originating from here, spreads in different directions, covering the entire city and neighbouring communes. It means that there is a literal physical connection between this place and every single apartment and household in the city. Every time when a person is making coffee in the morning, when he is turning on his TV, when he is doing his laundry, charging his phone, shaving his beard – all these actions connect (or at least they used to) him to this very particular place in the city.

There are also, probably in every culture, in every civilization, real places – places that do exist and that are formed in the very founding of society – which are something like countersites, a kind of effectively enacted utopia in which the real sites, all the other real sites that can be found within the culture, are simultaneously represented, contested and converted.

The place went through a long way of transformation, starting from being a major representation of the capitalist society, the place of power (in both literal and figurative ways), the place of profit and extraction, and ended up being a place devoid of program and action. This could be applied not only to the specific power plant but to all currently abandoned industrial sites, prosperous in the past.

As non-utilitarian spaces, they opposed the capitalist society and even more so the architectural profession, the notion of design and production and as such they were spaces of resistance.

ACTION

We always perceive abandoned sites as if they are begging for salvation, which we believe we give them in form of a new use, by converting them into museums, art galleries, community centres, etc.

What if we put aside this preconception? What if we start with the appreciation of what is already there? What in the case of Monceau sur Sambre is there (apart from the physical structures and infrastructure) is the inextricable literal and metaphorical connection between the power plant and the city of Charleroi, as well as its amazing ability to oppose the capitalist system, while being the former representation of the very same system at the same time.

What is then an architect’s role in treating these kind of sites? As I see it, the starting step would be to define the key elements. By the key elements I mean parts (physical or intangible) of the site that constitute it, its history and its memory. In the case of Monceau sur Sambre there are four elements of this kind, they are: the main building of the power plant, the vast limestone quarry, the alien cooling tower, and the river Sambre.

The following step is the development of a curated path, which is supposed to guide visitors through the territory of the site, and to allow them to discover each of the elements. The concluding step is the framing of the key elements, with the tools not requiring direct physical intervention into the structure of the elements.

After a number of studies I ended up with a set of three tools. These tools are light, curtain and scaffolding. I started from the very basic definitions and features of each of the tools. By investigating the opportunity they offer me through drawings, I came up with a new set of definitions for each of the tools relevant for my particular case.

Interview

S//A : What’s the most important aspect of this project that we should be aware of?
Ekaterina Nagibina_ The overall present tendency in the treatment of abandoned sites, which one may call unintended monuments, like the one which is the object of my investigation, is aiming for facades scrubbed clean, and interiors painted white. I am convinced that this kind of approach could not be named different rather than sanitization of the place. The cleansing of any signs of age and decay from surfaces of monuments erases the identity of a monument accumulated over years. What I try to achieve with my project is to offer a new reading for an abandoned site in the contemporary environment. A site, which is neither being imprisoned by restoration, nor replaced by a new function; but which seeks for its own role in the life of
the city (in my case – post-industrial city).

S//A : What other fields outside of architecture interest you?
EN_ Right now I am interested in the various ways of performing architecture. This automatically brings me into the fields outside of architecture itself, such as filming, photography, and literature. The last one I find especially intriguing.

S//A : Most important thing you learned in architecture school?
EN_ The topic of politics in architecture is something that I find important, something that is quite often being denied. I do not want to say that every architectural gesture is purely political, but the attempts to prove it being completely apolitical are hypocritical.

S//A : Describe your dream project
EN_ A dream project for me would be one pushing the boundaries of architecture, and exploring the relationship between architecture and other disciplines.