MA Studies > Public space design > Public space design alumnus > Jessica Castelari Castelari Machado

Jessica Castelari Castelari Machado


Industrial Heritage: Creative solutions for urban problemsand the wasteland of Thurns and Taxis

The concept of Industrial heritage was only introduced in England in the middle of the 20th century, during a period when several industrial buildings and landscapes were destroyed. Since then several efforts have been made in order to define what should and should not be considered as industrial heritage. In this sense, and according to Borsi1, the industrial landscape may be defined as “the landscape resultant from a thoughtful and systematic activity of man in the natural or agricultural landscape with the aim of developing industrial activities”. This definition enables the recognition of an entire landscape as a single “element”, not only simply recognizing a building, or a group of buildings of an industrial site, allowing the expansion of the conception of industrial preservation.2
The fact that several countries - and Belgium is not excluded of it- are now facing various problems produced by landscapes built during the Industrial Revolution, and now are in complete decadency and/or became wastelands, contributes to enhance the negative perception about these spaces.

Often located in noble areas near city centers or adjacent to residential areas, these landscapes are environmentally damaged and need to be returned to productive uses, and reintegrated into the city. As quoted by Loures and Panagopoulos, these landscapes, when reintegrated into urban context, represent a valuable resource to society, however, to achieve this objective, new approaches and methodologies are needed.3 The size and location of these industrial areas offer new perspectives for the improvement of the city. This industrial heritage can be a strong catalyst for the development of their surroundings.

In the present society, industrial landscape reclamation projects should not only respect environmental diversity and architectonic value, but also should strengthen the landscape character taking into consideration the spirit of the place, integrate the industrial heritage in the new landscape, and promote the creation of multifunctional landscapes, capable to enhance life’s quality and promote a new identity to the place. Industrial heritage can be a key factor in improving its surroundings, encouraging economic development and also contributing to increase the visibility and image values of the area.

As an example of successful industrial heritage protection, public participation and involvement and multifunctional redevelopment as catalysts of urban regeneration and economic development, I mention the Wester Gasfabriek (Western Gas Factory) in Amsterdam.

At the end of the 19th century, the Imperial Continental Gas Association built two coal gas factory complexes in Amsterdam, one is the Wester Gasfabriek completed in 1885, strategically located near to waterways, the rail network and access roads. In the end of the 19th century, the production of gas increased and the site was expanded. Later, the gas production was gradually reduced and, in 1967 the factory ceased the gas production. By the time the factory shut down, the site was heavily polluted, making it difficult to find a new purpose for the area. In 1981 the Amsterdam council decided that the site of should be made a park.

It became the meeting place of choice for creative and innovative Amsterdam residents. Some of its buildings house creative organizations and offices on the first floor and, for the general public, cultural spaces, restaurants and cafes. The site and the creative buzz around it ultimately led to the area becoming a permanently designated cultural zone. The Westergasfabriek is regarded as a model for redevelopment.

Considering number and importance of industrial heritage objects in Belgium, very few is really properly valorized and protected, according to the Inventory of Monuments and Sites.4 Take the Tour and Taxis site in Brussels, for instance.

Originally vast marshy area, the site takes its name from its use until 18th century as pasture for horses for postal services by imperial family Von Thurn und Tassis. Located along the canal Willebroeck, in Brussels, the site has played an important role in the economic development of the city and, further, the country- at the end of 19th century, Belgium was the 5th largest economy in Europe

Between 1903 and 1907, Thurns and Taxis begin to work with zone railway freight station, the Post Office building and various warehouses, forming an intermodal platform with access by railway, waterway and road. In 1904 have been built the second work area, consisting of Customs building, the Royal Warehouse, stores and warehouses used to store various goods awaiting customs control. The site was completely built in 1922, the same year the new port of Brussels was opened. The entire site contains buildings of various architectural styles and forming a coherent whole.

The site, which was one of the "engines" to develop the economy in Belgium, also have a dark side in its history. During the World War the site was in hands of the Germans, serving as headquarters and deportation basis. Later the area was acquired by the Belgium Railways, SNCB, and turned into storage and courier services again.

The '60s marked the height of the site, which employs more than 3,000 this time workers. The site then became a center of transit and customs in the hands of the SNCB. The dynamic gave new impetus to surrounding neighborhoods, suck as Laeken and Molenbeek, and transformed the right bank of the Canal into a business and industrial area.

The traffic that brought this great trade hub to life gradually dried up. In recent years, Europe without borders has literally shaken the main site activity by abolishing tariffs so the activities were strongly declined since the 80s. In 1987 the site was gradually abandoned and few years later the SNCB withdraws from Thurns & Taxis.

Known for his remarkable industrial heritage, this site (35 ha) represents a major challenge for the development of the region, it was narrowly saved from demolition by the energetic intervention of advocates of industrial heritage, which is ironic because the site is not mentioned in the Inventory of Legal Sites of Brussels and some of the buildings, such as the Royal Palace, are still in the Unprotected Heritage list. Various redevelopment projects were prepared, but without success.

The use of this rich heritage, Thurns and Taxis site, as a testimony of the history and material culture, can be considered as an attractive and potential product. It is essential to understand the value of heritage – both at the beginning of a project in order to inform decisions, and afterwards to understand what kind of difference heritage can make.5

The quality design of industrial landscapes in public space - considering the heritage as canvas- play a decisive role in ensuring the quality of the urban environment, because in addition to their contribution to economy and leisure, public spaces are places of social communication. They serve as representative spaces, elements of identification and - as a place where different social groups meet – spaces for integration.

These benefits play an important role in order to make the neighborhood, which nowadays has a bad reputation, attractive to live, work and leisure; and also contribute to increase the visibility and image values of the area This, in turn, brings the development to this multicultural area, that carries an important past, in a new integrated perspective within the city.