A heritage in question
Despite being extremely short on the geological timescale (+/-150 years), the Fossil Crescent’s industrial history 1 — the likely cause of our civilization entering the Anthropocene — left deep and lasting traces on all regions involved.
For the first time in human history, the massive mining of riches buried deep beneath the ground gave rise to a built heritage of unprecedented technological and structural richness.
The depletion of one world (the soil) fed the wealth of another one (the above ground).
This state of affairs, which is inherently unbalanced and unambiguous, is now seen for what it is: human activity has become self-destructive.
Heated to a temperature of 1,100 degrees for about twenty hours, coal is turned into coke. This new fuel, indispensable to the rise of a productivist civilization, led to the emergence of materials with remarkable properties. By reaching temperatures between 1,450 and 1,750 degrees, molten coke allows sand to be turned into glass, iron ore into steel, and limestone mixed with clay into cement.
The pollution caused by transforming these raw materials is colossal.
The massive use of fossil energies exponentially fuels the extraction/ combustion/ production/ consumption cycle, promising unlimited growth. The link between growth and higher quality of life is such a given that the coming environmental disaster, even when pointed out, will be largely ignored.
Glass, steel, and cement are the materials of modernity which allow cities to grow and spread, bridges to span rivers, railway stations to handle the transport of people and goods, shed roofs to naturally illuminate production lines, and buildings to stretch skywards.
At a time when this extraordinary and brief industrial era is drawing to a close, and the post-modern and neo-avant-garde globalist babblings of the late twentieth century are fading, the regions impacted by this dizzying epic are becoming poorer, more fragile and, in some cases, even dying. Heirs to this meteoric development, the architects and urban planners in the first quarter of the 21st century are reassessing their approach.
The unprecedented scale of the environmental problems arising from our entry into the Anthropocene suggests that a portion of the energy to be expended to ensure the future of our built and unbuilt environments should be focused on repairing and rehabilitating the damage that man has inflicted over the past +/-150 years. Landscapes that have been transformed, made artificial, abused and polluted will be given targeted care and will once again become our primary cultural anchor, our roots. Built elements, meanwhile, will be revived, revitalized, repurposed, recycled and/or rehabilitated. The amount of grey energy embedded deep in the foundations, beams, columns, slabs, bolts and other reinforcements of this singular heritage is an invaluable war chest — and perhaps our lifeline.
Remarkably, the urgency and scale of the environmental crisis we’re facing means that all levels of intervention, with no hierarchy in terms of the intrinsic value of the object concerned, are involved in this rescue strategy. Everything is important; nothing is small, nothing is big. As such, the action to be taken is a form of democratic generosity.
Landscape architects, botanists, urban planners, architects, engineers and designers will be called upon in a coordinated fashion to ensure the relevance and consistency that this new task requires. Only multi-disciplinary teams working together will be able to establish the links between the various components of the thought process and the actions to be taken.
The richness and diversity of the heritage that needs to be rehabilitated requires us to separate notions of form and function. We do not build to house a given program, but instead reveal the unstable balance of possible relationships between a pre-existing site and its potential use. This instability reveals the interplay that results from imperfect assembly, which in turn reveals levels of interpretation, variation and uncertainty in the way space can be made useful. Form is freed from its singular relationship with function, and vice versa.
As a result, an abandoned industrial site is transformed into an urban park, a slag heap into a recreational trail, an urban highway into a public space, a factory into a museum, a warehouse into a multi-purpose center, a boiler room into a training facility, and a woodshop into offices.
This exercise naturally and happily leads us away from the banalization and standardization imposed by a set of constraints.
The recycling of pre-existing locations gives us a glimpse of a new kind of spatiality. One that is between a collage and a bricolage — expertly executed, of course.
The industrial era’s built heritage is generally located in dense, urban environments, which today are rather run-down and in need of revitalization. Factories, workshops and other associated buildings requiring renovation are an integral part of the area’s history as well as its spatial and social evolution.
The very fact that this heritage is “located” amplifies the impact of a redevelopment project on its environment. A precise and forward-looking analysis of contextual changes strengthens and clarifies the decisions to be made at the level of the more targeted project. Conversely, a precise and forward-looking analysis of the more specific intervention site strengthens and clarifies the decisions to be made at the level of a broader context.
Like the beating of a heart, these numerous back-and-forths between the different levels of intervention help to breathe new life into the architectural, urban and landscape project. Life begins again.
The significant amount of energy required to manufacture steel, cement and concrete is inversely proportional to the efficiency of the resulting construction systems. The properties of steel and reinforced concrete have opened the door to the manufacture of three-dimensional post/beam/slab skeletons whose structural efficiency and spatial openness are unprecedented in architectural history.
These skeletons are in no way the remains of a bygone era, but perhaps its most valuable legacy. Open-plan design offers infinite possibilities for rehabilitating our modern heritage.
Out of the tragedy of an inefficient system of production springs the limitless efficiency of a spatial organization system!
The built boundary between interior and exterior has always been related to managing the thermal comfort of occupants. Open plan design, made possible by the evolution of construction systems and the ingenuity of architects and engineers, relegates the thick load-bearing wall to the bottom of the list of available options for constructing this protective shell. Why choose an opaque option when complete transparency is available?
This nearly total negation of the boundary between the interior and exterior worlds — a simple sheet of glass — clearly establishes man’s dominance over his environment. The protective interior belongs to him, and the outside world, which he can observe with no limits or obstacles, belongs just as much to him, no matter how much energy is required to ensure the thermal comfort (heating or cooling) of this privileged and comfortable observation space.
Strangely enough, these technical, building, structural and functional advances are poorly suited to the Fossil Crescent’s continental climate and rely heavily on fossil fuels extracted from the ground both here and elsewhere. The devastating disconnect between above and below ground knows no boundaries.
Surprisingly, these same technical, structural, stylistic and functional advances are particularly suited to the hotter, sometimes humid climates of the southern hemisphere. Open plan layouts and openwork facades provide for natural ventilation, while cantilevered construction provides much-needed shade. In the 20th century, a number of Western architects set out to conquer the world, while others from Africa, Asia and South America returned to their home countries, confident in their ability to locally reinterpret the modernist precepts acquired in European and American architecture schools.
Does globalization, and perhaps a certain level of guilt, still have a few surprises in store for us? After this brief, intense and very rich period of industrialization, we are now confronted with the severity of the environmental problems we must address, and are now seeking to develop building techniques based on the use of clay, straw and mycelium! Is the great rebalancing underway? Do our architect friends from the new Global South regard us somewhat mockingly?
The remarkable built and non-built heritage inherited from the Fossil Crescent’s industrial history inevitably includes the ingredients of the moment of civilizational rupture that is humanity’s entry into the Anthropocene era.
This particular observation forces us to take a critical stance. Passive preservation of a given era’s built heritage is no longer an option. It is now our duty to use this targeted heritage to explore new relationships between space, as well as its use and manufacture, in hopes of making bearable our unbearable failure to adapt to living in the world.
Arlette Baumans, Bernard Deffet, A heritage in question, Jan 2024,
à lire dans cette issuevoir toute la revue
From the Midlands to Silesia, the Fossil Crescent is characterized by industrial development, environmental upheaval, urban growth, migratory and demographic changes, closely linked social and political movements, and profoundly shaped by the presence of coal. It forms a bioregion that is at once singular and universal. Singular in its genesis and the contrast it provides … Continuedlire l'article
The Fossil Crescent Origins of the Anthropocene
Twenty years ago, Nobel Prize winner in chemistry, Paul Crutzen, introduced the term Anthropocene to describe our modern era. Since the end of the 18th century, he observed, human action on the environment has become so great that “global climate may depart significantly from natural behavior for many millennia to come”. Two decades later, this … Continuedlire l'article
Cities and Coal: Can We Move Beyond Fossil Hubris?
In his 1877 novel The Child of the Cavern, Jules Verne imagines an unusual city: “Coal City” is located completely underground in a giant coal vein in Scotland. Artificially lit by lamps which probably use electricity produced by the omnipresent fuel source, the city houses the mine’s workers who build their brick cottages around a … Continuedlire l'article