Restart for the Coast

Project

The roots of the current crisis of dwelling in Flanders goes beyond the pure lack of affordable houses and scale of a single unit. Many historical decisions and environmental conditions have caused the loss of a meaningful relationship between the cities and the landscape. Widespread of suburban single-family housing almost filled up the entire land and in fact made from Flanders one large village, where you are not able to tell where settlement ends and the landscape begins. To explore this topic, I have focused on Belgian coastline, which serves as a good example of this deterritorialisation, with many intertwined layers of built and unbuilt.

In order to get a coherent and complex idea about the region, I have spent about half of my time dedicated to a thesis on research. The starting point was the book by urbanist Alberto Magnaghi called Urban Village, and the methodology of his Territorialist school. In align with their approach, I have mapped coastline territory from very different points of view, which I have divided into five sections. From statistical data and researches, I have extracted several key topics, important for future development. I have mapped the most important historical decisions, which effects persist until today as well as patterns, which we can read in different maps. Perhaps the most important part of my research is Atlas – visual catalogue of the Belgian coastline. By defining the key categories and setting up the fixed form of photographs, I was able to compare different types and habitats and read the important differences between them. Based on my research, I have formulated 10 key topics – 10 levers of positive change for the coast, which I have transformed to my architectural proposal.

In align with territorialist methodology, my intervention aims to bring a complex change, across multiple scales and time periods.

To stop current expansion into open landscape and make it accessible again, I am proposing a strengthening infrastructural armature which is spanning across the whole territory and adding new missing slow-mobility means – bike paths and pedestrian transversal links. At the same time, it works as a stabilizing element for new development, which is redefining the seams between the built and unbuilt and recreating the mutual relationship between them. New public space and amenities are built along this territorial infrastructural artery.

In the intermediate scale, I am defining the key sites at the municipal level, for new growth as well as for the demolition. This is done in order to make the territory work as a whole, get rid of bottlenecks which are fragmenting the landscape, and also to select the most valuable building plots for new public facilities, which would then become functional also in large scale.

In a smaller scale, I am focusing on declining camping sites and holiday parks and I am giving an example, how municipalities should tackle these plots in upcoming years. I had rethought the trailer park, kept the valuable infrastructure and retransformed it into new settlement.

The whole settlements fit into my strategy in large scale as well. By many transversal links, it is connected with the sea, dunes and agricultural landscape at the backside. The tram stop is located in walking distance, right behind the dunes. The farms located inland can partially fulfil the food requirements of the settlement.

The desire to live individually in Flanders is very strong and thus, I am not trying counter react on that fully. I am keeping the possibility to live individually in own house, but share many spaces on the settlement level. The house itself is designed as an affordable and flexible dwelling unit with a chance of expansion.

I am also directly addressing the rising need for flexibility of the house. The inner space is divided into the core, which contains all technical rooms and storages, and liberated double height space. The steel structure is providing the possibility to subdivide the space by placing another floor level. By this, the inner space of the house can vary from 80 to 110 sqm, allowing a range of spatial possibilities for different users. If provided space is not sufficient, the house can also grow into the garden in a similar way and the whole area can thus be maximized to 220 sqm. Because of the fact, that the ceiling panels are lightweight, the basic inner expansion can be done without the crane or any partial demolitions. This also allows the shrinking of the house – added the first floor can be dismantled again when it is not needed.

Interview

What prompted the project?

The overall topic of our master thesis studio was Home(s) for Flanders – Everybody had to find own way how to contribute to the housing crisis question in Northern part of Belgium. From the very first moment, I was intrigued by the Belgian coast, which I visited before and which had struck me with its grotesque character. Belgium is characterized by massive urban sprawl, which is increased even more by many second homes and holiday houses at the coast. After a few visits, and mapping the conditions in the territory, I have decided to do a project which would tackle the lack of relationship between urban areas and the landscape around them.

How important was the initial stage of research for the development of the project?

The research was an integral part of our projects and around half of the time dedicated to the thesis was spend there. It helped me a lot to focus my project on the most important issues, see overlooked possibilities and to gain profound knowledge about the site. I see that this part of the architect’s work is often underestimated during the studies, at least in my home country. Research stage usually takes place just in a first week or two and then students jump straight into the designing without formulating their own strong point of view on the problem. This was, in fact, my first project, where the research played a big role in the design development, which I see as really beneficial.

Aside from the book by Magnaghi 'Urban Village' what tools did you implement in this phase?

I have tried to go through as many relevant data about the coastline as possible. Key documents for me were the annual reports about tourism, which underlined the problem of underused campsites as well as council documents mapping the evolution of land usage and housing during the years. Besides that, I took a look into essential urban planning studies, which are focusing on the coastline territory and considering it as one complex system, which defined my further approach. Moreover, I have created my own Atlas of the Belgian coast.

What role does the Atlas hold for the project?

The area around the coast in Belgium can look very chaotic and disorganized at first sight. Mainly because of urban sprawl is hard to distinguish different environments and characterize them. I’ve got inspired by work of Bernd and Hilla Becher and their own way mapping of industrial typologies. Creating of Atlas helped me to see repeating patterns and to find out more subtle issues, which you cannot realize merely from the maps or data.

What defined the selection of drawings through which you explore the project?

It was a great challenge to find the right way how to present the project at the end. Rather than creating an exhaustive set of large scale urban plans, I have opted for showing scheme and architectural toolbox – sample solutions for different situations. Even though that I mapped many holiday parks during the process, I decided to focus just on one at the end. That gave me more time and allowed me to go from the scale of a whole settlement to the detail of individual housing unit. The visualisations are to be read more as a diagrammatic solution than an actual rendering of proposed reality.

How important was the plan for exploring the different scales?

The plan was for me the most natural way to clearly show my design across the scales. Because of that, I have spent most of the time trying to create easily understandable drawings. All the things I am proposing in the scale of the territory are also present in the scale of the settlement and so on. A reader is thus capable to follow my presentation from the scale of the whole coastline towards the scale of a single brick and (hopefully) understand the design decisions that I’ve taken.

What informed the three different scales at which you chose to intervene?

A conclusion of my research was, that a single building would not be a proper response to the housing problem, which has its roots mainly in housing sprawl and past decisions taken on a territorial level. That’s why I started to develop my design on the scale of the whole coastline and proposed a complex solution, which would prepare the ground for more meaningful smaller scale intervention. I have tried to get to the scale of the individual house as well because it adds to the credibility of the project. I think that it’s easier to imagine and understand the change when you see a multi-scalar design, rather than a set of abstract urban plans without detail.

Where do you see the project developing 50 years from now?

To be honest, I am rather sceptical. During my research, I found out many visionary studies, which are being developed on the level of a whole coastline territory. These are often very brave and offer innovative and complex solutions. However, there is a big barrier between large scale and regional planning. Individual councils, in my opinion, have very little concerns about the future and are not fully aware of the situation. Many new tourist facilities are being built, even though the interest of tourist about the Belgian coast is gradually fading. Middelkerke council can serve as a good example. Instead of tackling the situation of underused holiday parks, the council made the architectural competition for a brand new casino with a shopping centre, which would replace old unused one.

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