After conducting extensive research in the mining districts of Limburg, Belgium, Jacopo Zani has developed a novel approach to revitalizing declining regions, one where “sufficient is enough”. The newly devised toolbox facilitates a well-balanced decision-making process for determining which buildings should undergo redevelopment and which should be returned to nature.
Can you (briefly) explain your choice of subject?
During my bachelor’s degree in Architecture at the Polytechnic University of Milan, I became fascinated by the Belgian ‘nebulous cities’, the scattered urban settlements in the countryside.
Old mining towns interested me in particular. This has to do with the fact that many Italian guest workers worked in the Belgian mines. My grandfather also worked for a while in a mine in the French-speaking part of Belgium.
What strikes me about the mining town of Waterschei in Genk is the extremely beautiful surrounding landscape. I started reading more about Waterschei and came up with an idea for a research proposal.
What or who are your sources of inspiration and can you briefly explain this?
My project can serve as an example for many other former industrial cities. Think of Detroit, where shrinking suburbs are being demolished and swept away without regard to the opinions and positions of the residents. Or think of the impoverished, empty cities in northern France and Germany.
Also, I was very fascinated by the work of Landscape Artists such as Robert Smithson, working with the notion of Entropy.
State and (briefly) describe the key moment in your graduation project.
Certainly, the moment when I decided to extend my graduation time was central. I felt I needed more time since the topic required to ‘step out’ from many tropes and ways of thinking that shapes modern thinking.
Can you (briefly) explain what design(ing) means to you?
The more time passes, the more I try to impose on myself to design as less as possible.
To give the right answers through design, I think is fundamental to first become a good listener and observer.
What hope / do you want to achieve as a designer in the near and / or the distant future?
Unfortunately, the monumental building in which I had planned the social palace was largely demolished shortly after completing my project to make way for the construction of apartments. This means that another part of Waterschei’s shared history has been wiped out.
In any case, what my research has yielded is a methodology that architects and urban planners in cities with similar problems can apply broadly.
I am now developing a Phd, moving between histories and theories in Environmental and Social sciences that I want to apply in the writing of different histories of this, and similar places. I believe there is a lot of potential to re-think the ways we look at cities.
The project investigates the present and possible futures of a former mining-economy Company Town in the Belgian Limburg. Its conditions of decay and depopulation are accepted, and its latency is taken as a place from which to reconstruct its future.
The project proposes that fragments of the surrounding natural world, are allowed to establish themselves within the settlement. Gradually dissolving its original rigid structure. The center – where former institutional buildings have fallen into ruin- is used as a testing ground. Remaining and possible new inhabitants are guided in restoring facilities with simple material and means. The outcome is not that of a final product, but rather a speculative process of incremental transformations. The proposal allows for some things to fall apart while re-establishing roots and foundations within which people and other living things can live together with mutual respect and dignity.