Géopolitique, Réseau, Énergie, Environnement, Nature
Future History
Issue #4


Issue #4


Kersten Geers , David Van Severen

Published by the Groupe d'études géopolitiques, with the support of the Fondation de l'École normale supérieure

Charleroi, Belgium, the city in Wallonia where the largest satellite manufacturing plant in Europe is set to open in 2025, lies on the river Sambre and 30 km east of the French border, part of what is known as Pays Noir (“black country”) for its coal reserves, Belgian industrial underbelly, the workers’ land that once powered national economy and experienced hardship as the production went elsewhere and the energy transition took place, with the last coal power plant closing in 2016. What today looks like a pastoral rolling landscape intersected with roads, railways and canals is in fact entirely manmade, the result of strenuous effort to extract rocks and minerals from the deep layers of Earth’s crust. It is in this particular stretch of Europe which encompasses the Ruhr valley in Germany, over Aachen, to Liege and Charleroi in Belgium, and Nord-Pas de Calais basin in northern France, all the way to English West Midlands, where some three hundred million years ago, during the so-called Carboniferous period, the remains of lowland tropical swamp forests were flooded by sea, and marine sediments, pressure and heat had built up over millions of years to transform the organic matter into coal. A combustible black sedimentary rock, with a high amount of carbon, that burns more efficiently and produces more heat than wood. This geological fact alone was at the centre of the narrative that shaped Charleroi’s future.

The future began with the onset of technology that used coal as fuel, starting with the steam engine at the end of the eighteen century, and by the mid-nineteenth century Belgium was, after Great Britain, the most intensively industrialised country in the world. Collieries and blast furnaces and steel mills popped up across Wallonia, and the perfect synergy between natural reserves of raw materials, transportation network, technology and market demand, made heavy industry flourish at what seemed as an ever increasing rate. The future ended when the mines became deeper and coal more expensive to extract, when the new centres of coal and steel production appeared on the global market, when oil, gas and nuclear power became main sources of energy, and when the once pioneering technology became outdated. The profound transformation, not only of the industrial sector, but of the entire community, began in the early 1950s, as the unprofitable collieries within the newly established common market of the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC, the predecessor of EU) closed one after the other. The last active colliery in Wallonia was shut down in 1984, leaving over thousand people out of work. What followed was an entanglement with the history of what used to be the future. Charleroi became a city amidst what was dubbed a post-industrial landscape, a condition that suggested an aftermath, a postscript to the narrative. 

The increasingly abstracted global economy involved dissolving of the established markets, dematerialisation and externalisation of production, and part of this broader course was deindustrialisation and reconversion of the former industrial sites. In the centre of that process, in the midst of a virtual dystopia beset by pollution, wastelands, economic decay and social struggle, was a community with deep ties and collective identity. Generations of miners and people employed in sectors connected to industry, formed an international working class, with common strive for social justice and workers’ rights. If the public image of Charleroi was shattered, the city still did have a civitas and a polis—a social association of citizens, and a political community. This basic condition of a city would prove critical for the urban and economic transition from the 1990s onwards. Opposing swift reconversion that would obliterate anything that could possibly discourage new investments and multinational corporations, protests arose across the region to preserve the industrial heritage. Spurred by local activism and academic support, industrial archeology thrived as a new form of historical research, and several former coal mines in Wallonia have since been protected by UNESCO as World Heritage sites. The question of how to conceptualise historic space, to maintain the collective memory of the city, and at the same time promote transformation and development of Charleroi, had to take into account its specific urban morphology. 

The first factory industries of the late eighteenth century were typically dependent on the proximity of resources (like mine-shafts, or water-power), and were thus randomly dispersed across the predominantly rural areas, making a hybrid of rural and industrial landscapes. Lacking a real centre, they developed as a sprawl on a territorial scale. In the following decades, as transport network developed, most industry had acquired an urban environment. Given the large workforce demand, the agrarian population, as well as immigrants, were swarming the new industrial centres, and the mythical proletariat emerged as a new social class. A paradigm shift in ways of living and working required new types of housing and public infrastructure. As a way to relieve the pressure from overpopulated cities, self-contained ‘model’ communities for the workers, so-called industrial villages, or company towns (cité ouvrière), were typically developed as islands close to workplaces. These suburban and periurban collective housing developments announced what would eventually become the major enterprise of modern architecture: large numbers—of people, and by extension, housing—and dissolution of the city. Charleroi is in that sense an extreme example of modernism fully realised, a testbed for what an alternative future could be.

From a centralised medieval hamlet and a seventeenth-century fortress that dominated the landscape, to a dispersed urban conglomeration, Charleroi developed an ambiguous relationship to its hinterland, its territorial scale expanding after the merger with fourteen surrounding municipalities in 1977. Today, Charleroi Métropole stretches across two thousand square kilometres, its thirty boroughs home to about six hundred thousand people. The city has a low density, with more than half of its territory an undeveloped land. Its polycentric morphology comprises urban and suburban areas, rural grounds and industrial wastelands—this is a showcase of everything a city can be, an evenly covered field where housing, factories, farms, civic buildings, slag heaps, and highways with a series of viaducts and tunnels, merge into a single scene. With the disappearance of coal mining and decrease of heavy industry, the city turned towards the so-called R&D (Research and Development) industries, in domains such as biotechnology, logistics, optics, space and digital technology. In difference to earlier factories which depended on natural resources, and around which urbanisation was largely organised, the new high-tech industries are typically completely detached from their environment—they can be anywhere. They are also not a polluting nuisance to put away from the city (the city is now everywhere, after all). Long gone are the days of the CIAM’s Functional City. Factories, research facilities, logistic centres—in one word, Big Boxes—are not only part of the city, they have become the new signifiers of civic architecture.

The post-industrial city is a parable of the bio- and techno-sphere intertwinement in the Anthropocene. Any development has to take this relation into account, given that sustainable management depends on the existence of both realms. This is precisely why the city of Charleroi is developing a twofold strategy: an urban intensification plan and a landscape intensification plan. In difference to Berlin, which was politically too important to evade conservative reconstruction, Charleroi is the unlikely place where “A Green Archipelago” can actually be realised. Ungers’ theory of the European metropolis is a reality in the city where the Industrial Revolution on the continent effectively began. This is a place where the modern project has been so dramatically compressed, that we can observe its time-lapse simulation, its history and future history. As the sustainable urbanisation became alarmingly urgent in the face of global climate crisis, Charleroi, on its way from a black city to a green city, can serve as an aspiring model for the future, once again. 

One of the municipalities that merged with the city of Charleroi, and is now part of the city’s strategy to redefine its territorial structure by pointed densification, is Marcinelle. This place is a summary par excellence of the entire fiction of the city: it was developed around the Bois du Cazier coal mine, which also happened to be the site of the biggest mining accident in Wallonia, when 262 miners, most of them Italian immigrants, lost their lives in 1956. The coal mine was closed in 1967, listed as a national monument in 1990 and opened as a museum in 2002. Marcinelle includes industrial zone south of the Sambre river (subsidiaries of international steel manufacturers Industeel, Thy-Marcinelle and Alstom are all operating in the area), and a residential zone, separated by green patches. In-between, among the shrinking industrial sites is the former location of ACEC (Ateliers de Construction Électrique de Charleroi), the renowned Belgian manufacturer of electro-mechanical products, which closed down in 1992 after more than hundred years of existence. At its heyday in the mid-sixties, the company employed around twenty-two thousand people in several production facilities throughout Belgium. What is left of it today on the site in Marcinelle is a 13,000-square meters ACEC 38 building—now occupied by the Federal Judicial Police of Charleroi—and a four-story ACEC Administrative headquarters built in 1971. The now defunct 5,000-square meters office building features a glazed facade enveloped in steel profiles, a symbolical glorification of the city’s trademark material. 

This is the site of the future “megafactory”, scheduled to start the production in two years and publicised as the largest spacecraft manufacturing plant in Europe, large enough to produce 500 satellites annually, a forty-million euros venture capital investment and a success story of Charleroi’s economic revival. This will be the second factory of the Belgian satellite platforms and geospatial intelligence company Aerospacelab. The entrepreneurial spirit of the New Space economy mirrors that of the inventors and engineers of the Industrial Revolution, people like Julien Dulait, the founder of ACEC, and the location of this startup comes oddly apt. How should this factory look like, how can it pay tribute to the history of this place and live up to its future? And finally, how can it align with the ambition of the city’s development? The factory is a 16,000-square meters Big Box, its major feature a 6,000-square meters production and assembly space, the so-called ‘cleanroom’, surrounded by 3,000 square meters of laboratories. But it is also a civic building, its bold presence dominating the cityscape, akin to former coal bunkers and mine heads, its metallic facade an homage to the industry that made the city. The upper floor is reserved for offices and shared facilities, providing outstanding and dignified workspace for the employees. The accessible roof garden is connected by a pedestrian bridge to the former ACEC Administrative headquarters building. Given the ACEC building does not conform to contemporary building policies, and could not be reused as office space, it will be transformed into a parking garage. It is the responsibility of the architects—and even, broader community—to consider the environmental impact of any building campaign. 

The decision to save the ACEC building meant not only a more sustainable solution, but a more profound concern for the living environment and cultural heritage, as well as the design rationale; this building was designed in the modernistic logic of open plan that enables easy transformation, and transforming an office building into a parking garage is nothing but an extreme application of this principle. Finally, this meant liberating the site from cars, and making way for public squares and green spaces around the factory.

The Aerospacelab Megafactory is an example of architecture being part of a larger effort to realise a vision. As part of its economy diversification and territorial densification, the city is planning a myriad of other projects: university campuses, an economic park, a shopping centre, and significantly, housing, having set a goal of four hundred new units over the next thirty years. But this cannot be only the result of a speculative management in the times of restructuring industry. For too long, Charleroi has been developed and destroyed disregarding its citizens and environmental consequences. Having experienced the bitter outcome of these actions, the time seems right for a different path. For long-term planning. For nature. And for culture. The future takes shape too soon. 

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Kersten Geers, David Van Severen, Future History, Jan 2024,

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