Els Vervloesem. The Power of Collective Imagination
Architect and researcher Els Vervloesem spoke to Martina Muzi from Space Caviar and Ciel Grommen from Z33 House for Contemporary Art to discuss the project they developed for the Kolenspoor in central Limburg region in Eastern Belgium.
Text Els Vervloesem
The Kolenspoor is a 70-kilometre long, obsolete transport infrastructure that dates back from the region’s mining past. The coal track that historically functioned as a backbone for regional development, connects villages and cities from Beringen to Eisden. The traumatic shutdown of the Ford factory in the city of Genk in 2014 and the loss of more then 10.000 jobs marked the end of an industrial era.
Today, the region is in need of a radical new vision for the future, and the Kolenspoor still seems to be a perfect vehicle for the surrounding municipalities to join forces, and to collectively re-imagine this future. Commissioned by the Department of Environment, Nature and Energy, and the Territorial Development Programme T.OP Limburg, Martina Muzi and Ciel Grommen organized twenty-five workshops in the municipalities of As, Heusden-Zolder, Houthalen-Helchteren, Beringen and Zonhoven. Three hundred citizens participated the workshops. Collectively, they created a ‘living collage’ of an imaginary future city. A glimpse behind the scenes of a truly ambitious endeavour to take urban design beyond municipal and disciplinary borders.
Els Vervloesem Can you start by describing the main ideas behind your project for the Kolenspoor? I understand that the approach is largely based on ‘The Incomplete City’1 method , which has been developed for architecture students at the Bartlett School of Architecture by Joseph Grima, Dan Hill and Marco Ferrari. In short, the method is an alternative way of city-making which starts from the human scale and focuses on ‘everything but architecture’. It is a very performative way of designing, offering a clear step-by-step plan that starts small, but gradually evolves into a growing number of stories and ideas for an imaginary city by way of handmade drawings. How did you translate this method to the context of central Limburg?
Martina Muzi / Ciel Grommen Actually the Kolenspoor project proved that the ‘The Incomplete City’ method is also perfectly suited to open up the urban design discipline to a larger group of participants, who don’t necessarily have any design background. This has to do with the fact that it’s a very simple way of working, which makes it highly accessible. It is based on drawing, so you only need paper, scissors, pens, and a copy machine. And it’s also accessible in terms of skills — anybody can do it. You have to imagine it as a sort of game: it’s fun! This opens up the possibility of letting everybody participate. So, we invited a wide range of people to take part in different workshops: from city administrators and organisations to residents, local entrepreneurs, students, and even children. And because the Kolenspoor crosses many municipalities, it was a good occasion to apply the methodology in different local contexts.
EV You speak about opening up the urban design process. Some people might misunderstand you, and conclude that you initiated a participatory design project, even though this is not exactly the case. You call it yourself ‘an experimental collaboration in urban design’. Can you explain what makes your project and approach different — and in a way also unique — in more detail?
MM / CG Indeed, we never call it a participatory project ourselves. We prefer to call it a temporary or experimental collaboration. There is a fine distinction in the sense that the Kolenspoor project is more about giving responsibilities rather then just telling people to come, join, and participate. So, it’s much more active. We gave people very specific roles in order to become part of a temporary collaboration. More concretely, in each municipality we looked for a facilitator to host the workshop; they invited the participants, and the workshops were guided by local people we recruited during an opening workshop. So it is also about the step-by-step assembly of a human infrastructure that enables the development of the project. And even after you stop playing your role, something remains, namely all the networks, connections and exchanges. One of the underlying questions we kept in mind was: “How can we formalize the organisation of a group of people in such a way that it can do something in-between the governmental, the institutional and free citizens?” That is really what it’s all about, the formalization of a temporary collaboration, with all the difficulties and with all the joys, through a simple activity: drawing and collaging.
EV When adopting this drawing and collaging method to the context of central Limburg, you didn’t start from ‘tabula rasa’. You made an effort to connect to what was already there, as well in terms of people, places and local knowledge. In the end, you arrived at a very visible, concrete and tangible result with a big collective collage. But I can imagine that there was a lot of invisible work in between. Can you say a bit more about that part?
MM / CG One part was to make the workshop accessible, easy to understand and fun. Yet, at the same time, we wanted also to be respectful to the ongoing local projects and research in the municipalities themselves. We didn’t have to start from scratch, because we already had a rich context to start with. In that sense, the parallel research trajectory on Kolenspoor by research group OSA Urbanism and Architecture at the KULeuven university provided us with an interesting framework based on three big ambitions, namely circular economy, sustainable energy and diverse mobility. In addition, we have paid a lot of attention to the local context when selecting the sites for the workshops. In our preliminary talks with local people, we listened very carefully to detect important areas for future transformation and potential interesting parallels between different municipalities. For instance, in Genk they were working on an industrial area, so we also suggested to the people of Beringen to chose an industrial site as well, because they could use each other’s ideas to develop the sites.
EV You explained before how you have created a temporary setting, in which people were invited to collectively work on their imaginary future city. I’m curious to know how that actually worked in practice.
MM / CG For the way we have been working during the Kolenspoor project, it is important that we started from the dreams, questions and future imaginations of people, in relation to the selected sites. Actually there are three important steps. At the start of each workshop, people were asked: “What questions do you have in relation to the site?” The second step was to think about: “What elements do you need to answer this question?” The groups were asked to make a list, and to draw these elements, or to search for them in the ‘Atlas of Elements’. And the final step was to put these elements together, and to create a new environment, in which you can imagine spending a day yourself. The ‘Atlas of Elements’ kept on growing during the process. At first a lot of drawings were made by architecture students, but during the workshops local people kept adding a lot of new elements.
EV The project complements an ongoing broader spatial project for the Kolenspoor, which is an integrated area development project that works at a regional scale-level. Can you reflect on what you added to this? What could you bring to the table?
MM / CG Architects and urban designers are used to work with a lot of data, but what is sometimes missing is knowledge about more concrete things, about the everyday. It’s like taking a picture: In an urban design perspective, the picture is often taken from a top-down perspective. However, in our approach, we aim to make pictures from within. We also never used plans, in terms of maps. It was not our goal to make an urban plan. And that’s something we wanted to make clear from the start as well. Because some people arrived in the workshops with the expectation that they were supposed to react to something. And we told them: “If we’re going to do anything, we’re going to help you do something.” People are asked to think and draw for themselves — it is really their project. Moreover, you could say the final result is not only about an imaginary future city, it is also about a city with elements that people really identify with. At the end, you see part of yourself reflected; you recognize it. And most of the time those ideas are merged with those of your tablemates. In addition, the approach also allows you to speak very concretely about plans.
EV Can you give an example?
MM / CG In the municipality of Houthalen-Helchteren, participants of the workshop wanted to organize co-ownership of a recreational lake. At first, it was difficult to get beyond this abstract concept of co-ownership, and to translate it into concrete elements. Then we thought of an example in Morocco, where people can rent a tree to do a barbecue. So the idea was adapted and scaled up into a proposal with bigger barbecue areas, owned by an organization. Another striking example is that some people showed us that they are not afraid to install energy infrastructure. One group imagined a whole boulevard as an ‘energy lane’. And they put solar panels and windmills everywhere in a very exaggerated way. The fact that some people still identify their future environment as an energy region is really an eye-opener. And that’s how you can read and interpret these collages. The drawings are not 100 per cent correct, realistic or feasible, but they tell you something about how the future city could potentially function, in terms of visions and ideas. They show you stories, not solutions.
EV In fact the drawings are full of dreams, visions and micro-stories. Some of them will be very clear and visible, like the ‘energy lane’. Others will be there in a more subtle way. How are you going to capture and communicate all of that?
MM / CG We organize an expo and final event on the 30th of September, 2017. On this occasion, all of the different drawings that have been made in the different municipalities will finally be assembled and attached to each other. During the preparation, some key figures from the process are invited to explain what they have been doing and to discuss how their design is actually embedded in the bigger image. At the final event, we will guide the visitors, explain the main ideas, and ask them: “What do you see more?”
EV So again it’s adding extra layers to this already layered patchwork of visual stories. I can imagine the interpretations of all these people will be very different. Local inhabitants, experts or policymakers will each look at it in a totally different way. It’s a very incremental way of doing urbanism. It’s an open process, and also the interpretation is very open.
MM / CG Yes, we will also make recordings and prepare an audio guide, as if you would really do a tour in the city. So by way of QR codes, you can scan and listen to the stories in different corners of the city. The recordings are a way to make the work public so everybody can read and understand it, to the same extent that we have been able to. And in a way, the interpretations are endless. Because everybody can come, discover, look and listen to other people’s stories, and then imagine their own stories for a future city. •