Forma urbis - Interpretations and Forms
Benoit MoritzUrban planning architect
If it can be said that, in general, all cities are different from one another and are distinguishable by characteristics related to their geography and history, then it is true that certain cities are “more different than others”, and Charleroi clearly belongs to this category.
Even though it was founded in the second half of the 17th century by King Charles II of Spain (and the Netherlands), who decided to build a fortress there (later solidified by Vauban), Charleroi’s urbanization as it can be seen today is the result of two eras:
— On the one hand, the great epic of industrialization (and its subsequent decline) that spanned the 19th and 20th centuries and left its mark on the region through the development of industries (steel, coal, electromechanical, etc.), the concurrent creation of major transport infrastructure (rail networks, canals and roads, etc.), the creation of new landscape artifacts resulting from coal mining (slag heaps) and the development of low-density residential areas around coal mines, factories and infrastructures, which sometimes merged with existing settlements (Couillet, Gosselies, Marchiennes, etc.) or which developed in a more open way in the second half of the 20th century in the wooded housing estates to the south of the urban area;
— On the other hand, the enactment in 1977 of a Belgian law to merge municipalities, which incorporated fourteen other (former) municipalities into Charleroi’s historic territory, thereby forming the 472.19 km2 municipal territory we know today. Until 1977, the municipal territory covered a very limited area, which roughly corresponded to the inner perimeter of the current R9 ring road, along with an extension to the north (La Garenne). The 1977 merger brought with it a political reform of regional planning, relegating the former municipal centers to the background and cementing Charleroi as the operational and decision-making center of a new conurbation, which until then had not been considered in terms of spatial organization. This was an operational center for which the construction of the small R9 ring road and its various branches — combined with the metro network, designed around a central ring from which eight branches initially emerged — was meant to be an attempt to define a territorial structure that would give it some semblance of cohesion.
Charleroi’s form cannot be immediately understood in this way and requires a more complex approach that integrates the multiple dimensions of the city’s history, sociology, regional ecosystems, and economy, as well as industrial mining and exploitation systems, etc.
In recent years, several descriptions of this area have been published, providing keys to understanding the city’s unique forma urbis.
In December 2015, Mayor P. Magnette proposed a new idea in a lecture given as part of a “Collège Belgique” session, held at the Palais des Beaux-Arts in Charleroi. He sees a region that must fully embrace its polycentric nature, transforming it into a valuable feature in its own right.
“Cities with a central core and a first and second ring, etc., are a model. But this doesn’t mean we should dismiss polycentric cities, which are wrongly viewed as second-class towns, or agglomerations of villages. We need to be able to turn this notion on its head. Polycentrism, once viewed as a flaw, must become a strength.”
Applied to Charleroi, the polycentric agglomeration model involves strengthening the structure of the central city, complemented by distinct secondary centers, which are linked by mobility infrastructures and landscaped open spaces, inherited from the industrial epic and becoming “shared places” accessible to all.
This vision was further brought into focus in 2015 with the publication of an “Plan d’intensification urbaine et paysagère” led by Charleroi Bouwmeester, which shows a polycentric conurbation, arranged in a star shape, striking a balance between green spaces (natural or artificial, products of industrial exploitation) and the metropolitan form made up of the centers of the merged former municipalities, the various districts’ major public squares, the immediate surroundings of metro stations, the main public transport routes, and the Sambre valley.
This intensification plan is made up of two complementary plans: the urban intensification plan and the landscape intensification plan. The goal of these documents “is to intensify these two features and accentuate their contrasts”.
In a city experiencing demographic decline, this plan is based on the assumption that the urban area will shrink on the existing artificial terrain, highlighting the landscaped system of natural and artificial artifacts (slag heaps, industrial sites) that have shaped the area.
It is worth mentioning the seemingly random pattern of slag heaps scattered throughout the Carolo region on the landscape intensification map. In landscape terms, the organization of these slag heaps — which are evidence of the subsoil’s exploitation — reflects the particularly irregular geometry of the mining claims located within the thick carboniferous seam that crosses the Charleroi territory from east to west.
In the introduction to the “Guide d’architecture moderne et contemporaine – Charleroi Métropole”, G. Grulois presents a third interpretation of Charleroi’s forma urbis, inspired by the perspective of R. Banham, a British architectural critic.
In a book originally published in 1971, Banham presents an analysis of Los Angeles focusing on four ecologies which represent the city’s essential elements. Following Banham’s example, Grulois proposes an analysis of the Charleroi region based on key features in the history of Charleroi’s urbanization.
He identifies four major territorial features, which appeared chronologically and sometimes overlapped:
— the planned fortress and the consolidated metropolitan center;
— the industrial mining basin;
— the industrial axis of the Sambre;
— suburbanization and the fragmented territory of the automobile.
According to Grulois, each territorial feature can be interpreted in the sense of an ecology; in other words, a system of interactions between the living beings that populate it and the living environment that characterizes it.
This reading, which complements the previous two, focuses on the emergence of territorial features in the context of the Fossil Crescent, both in terms of its exploitation and its decline.
The three aforementioned interpretations allow us to think of the Charleroi conurbation outside of the conventional spatial framework of a city shaped by the long sedimentation of history and instead approach it from the viewpoint of its topographical, infrastructural, landscape, functional, and isotropic characteristics.
All these interpretations implicitly refer to the “archipelago city” model developed by R.Koolhas and O.M.Ungers in 1977, in response to West Berlin’s demographic decline in the 1970s.
In this model, spatial fragmentation is viewed positively, with each fragment possessing its own functional and spatial qualities, like a city within a city, and its own particular identity. The hybrid nature of these forms is not viewed negatively, but as forming the constituent identity of the city-archipelago. The fragments — which in the Ungers/Koolhas approach embody the idea of the neighborhood — are interconnected by mobility infrastructures, immersed in a vegetated continuum, expanding and absorbing the ruins of neighborhoods abandoned by their inhabitants in a context of decline. It is each fragment’s functional and morphological synergy that makes it possible to “create a city”.
The question then arises as to what kind of architecture and urban and territorial projects are being produced in Charleroi today, and what territorial strategies are being put in place. What are the specifics in terms of forms and typologies?
As a corollary to the forma urbis, which diverges from conventional frameworks, contemporary architectural production is characterized by a specific morphology of large objects that can be read on a metropolitan scale and interact functionally with one another. In Charleroi, for example, it is very rare to find street-front construction or renovation projects that form an “urban fabric” or are part of an acupuncture strategy, but instead they are isolated interventions of a certain scale, forming a landscape.
From a project point of view, recent urbanization, the absence of a strong cultural heritage and the unique forma urbis allow architects to develop innovative proposals. When asked in 2017 about specific buildings in Charleroi, architect G.Maillis mentioned the Hôtel de Police’s Blue Tower (arch. J.Nouvel and MDW, 2014), the Fire Station (arch. Ph.Samyn & Associés, 2016), the ring road renovation (J.Glibert and ReservoirA, 2019), and the Rive Gauche shopping center (arch.DDS, 2017).
To this initial list can now be added projects such as the Grand Hôpital de Charleroi (arch. VK Architects & Engineers and Reservoir A), built on a leveled slag heap, the renovation of Charleroi Expo (arch.Vylder/Vincke/Tailleu – AgwA), and the future Aerospacelab megafactory (arch. Office Kersten Geers – David van Seeveren).
From a Koolhas/Ungers perspective, it would also be worth considering the concentration of urban projects in the Ville Haute, the District Créatif, and the Ville Basse that run along the Sambre river as large, stand-alone urban objects, and as morphological entities that form part of the Caroloregian archipelago and embody the urban intensification vision championed by the eponymous development plan. The building complexes left by the former ACEC conglomerate at the Porte Ouest can be viewed in the same light.
In terms of carrying out the territorial/regional strategy, the four features proposed by G. Grulois can also be applied to the axes used to classify urban projects developed by the city and its institutional partners over the last decade. These are extensively covered in Charleroi Bouwmeester’s recent publication.
One of these axes is the creation of a new narrative for the Sambre’s former industrial corridor, in terms of its relationship with the city and the region. The literal backbone of the town’s industrialization in the 19th century, the river’s role as a means of transporting goods and merchandise progressively declined with the closure of factories and coal mines, as well as through the development of road logistics in the second half of the 20th century as an alternative to waterway transport. The intense industrial activity depicted in paintings by Pierre Paulus (1881-1959) was gradually replaced by a bleak and sometimes empty landscape, where few relics of the industrial epic remain.
At the end of the twentieth century, this area had been abandoned by public policy in favor of developing new economic activity zones in the northern part of the conurbation, especially around the airport, which became civilian in 1997.
It is only in the last ten years or so that the Sambre’s former industrial corridor has received renewed attention, thanks to a unique initiative spearheaded by the city and promoted by Mayor P.Magnette and architect G.Maillis, to develop masterplans encompassing the waterway’s route that anchors the valley floor. These plans aim to find a balance between economic considerations, soil remediation and the development of green spaces.
The first master plan, which is currently being implemented, concerned the urban layout of the Sambre running along the city center (Left Side, see below). The most recent masterplans, on the other hand, concern large, extremely complex areas, covering 110 hectares for the Porte Ouest, and almost 180 hectares for the Port Autonome de Charleroi concessions to the east of the city (SuperSambre – Trilogiportn see below).
Three of these masterplans, designed by MSA, are part of a twofold urban and landscape intensification strategy, making use of the Charleroi area’s particular morphology.
Benoit Moritz, Forma urbis – Interpretations and Forms, Jan 2024,
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