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Meeting Alexandre Chemetoff

 - ©MRBC-MBHG/Marcel Vanhulst

2013-02-28 – The French architect, urban planner and landscape designer Alexandre Chemetoff has been appointed by the Minister-President of the Brussels-Capital Region to devise a Plan for the Canal area . Chemetoff, who among other achievements masterminded the regeneration of the Île de Nantes (France), a project frequently cited as a model of its kind in Europe, was chosen following a negotiated procedure advertised in Belgiumand Europe. The procedure was launched in 2011 and attracted 18 applications, including several from prestigious international and multidisciplinary teams.

The objective is to define a clear, ambitious and shared vision for the future of this territory, where for the past few years numerous private investments have reinforced the impact of the many public initiatives taken over the last twenty years with a view to improving its territorial and social cohesion.

A meeting with Alexandre Chemetoff.


Bruplus: what motives led you to put forward your candidacy to devise this Canal Master Plan? Was it because of some personal interest in Brusselsor in Belgium? Or in port zones in cities?

Alexandre Chemetoff: Initially it was the term ‘canal’ that attracted our interest. We liked the fact that the subject and scope were defined by means of a geographical name. The contradiction or paradox between the Canal’s natural and artificial character appealed to us right from the start. Water, a natural element, is contained in a completely man-made artificial framework to create this territorial object: the Canal.

The Canal is not just a physical object: it defines and characterises a territory lying on either side of it. It is an element in the history of Brusselsas a city and a region, from both an industrial and an urban viewpoint.

This specific interface between industrial development and territorial form in Brusselsis highly significant. The Canal bears witness to this transformation of the landscape, the heritage from which we must now learn to manage in order to make proper use of it as we construct the contemporary city.

We consider the site as a resource location that feeds the project. It is the site’s resources that enable an original project proposal to be developed that is rooted in its setting, drawing its substance from the specific conditions of its environment.

The European dimension of Brusselsis a particular motivating factor for us, and from this point of view we believe that the Canal Plan can serve as a model which situates it within the broader setting of a major city, over and beyond the immediate surroundings.

In addition, when we engage in project work, we maintain a close relationship with the sites concerned. Brusselsand the Canal are two hours from our offices, and this is a decisive factor. It means that we can go from our offices by the side of the Bièvre[1] to the Senne valley in Brusselsand acquire the means as we come and go to create a unique response to the questions which are put to us and to those that we raise.

B. You clearly believe in the potential of this central territory of the Region. How would you describe this potential? What is its strategic significance for the Region’s development?

A.C.The Canal is a foundational element in the very identity of the regional landscape. The fact that it passes beyond the administrative boundaries of the cities and of the Region gives it a territorial significance: the Canal is a ‘geographical entity’ on which a regional project may be based. Despite the numerous different levels of political and administrative intervention, it is important for the Region to be able to act directly on a part of the territory on which its legitimacy is established.

There are an impressive number of plots of land whose status is changing. We are at a special moment, a change of cycle. We need to invent the means to accompany this transformation of the city.

The work that has been done over the past few decades has great potential to enable the Region to create an estate that will form the basis for its actions.

It needs to be possible for land used in the past purely for roads or industrial activities to be turned into plots on which new blocks of buildings can be built and integrate the diversity of functions of the contemporary city..

Just as cities have reconfigured the land occupied by military defensive works[2], we propose to use these land reserves to provide a rapid response to the crucial needs for the housing and facilities that the Region faces.

We think it is necessary to devise and implement a public space that is more generous and more fairly shared, to deal out the property cards afresh and create a “Regional Domain”.    

B. Does your work for the Île de Nantes represent an advantage for dealing with a territory like that of the Brussels Canal?

A.C.Each project has its own circumstances, and no experience is reproducible. We devise a separate method for each project. That said, our experience in Nantesis useful to us. We laid the foundations for our presentation of the Canal Plan by referring to certain elements of the Île de Nantes project: the transformation of an industrial heritage the ‘Nefs de la Loire’, or the principle of a network of projects on a territory which form an intervention zone, just as we want to do in Brussels in the Canal area.

B. What were the main strands, the main themes of your application for the Canal area?

A.C. The central idea is that of creating a “Regional Domain”. Effort needs to be put into defining a territory that would form a network and where the Region could act as “urban development architecte”.

The idea of the Canal Plan is not to manage everything, but to define exemplary actions in a limited but decisive area. 

We are engaged in deciding on these actions and are ready to carry out some of them to serve as models, with the role of “urban development architect”.

B. In your view, should economic, logistical or port-related functions extend right into the centre of cities such as Brussels? Are they compatible with housing? And where do they stop?

A.C.For port activities to take their place in today’s city, the Port needs to become an urban player. Such a development is necessary to ensure that job-creating economic activity is not simply rejected and pushed out of the city under pressure from urban development.

In order to be legitimate, the activities located in the port zone or by the Canal must have a genuine and strong link with the waterway, or, if not, must take their place on logistical platforms.

On the other hand, local logistics need to be developed in the city in connection with the distribution of goods to food shops and restaurants, as well as platforms dedicated to construction materials, concrete batching plants and supply warehouses for the construction sites coupled with platforms for loading debris and removing it by waterway.

The question of the mix of functions outside the opening hours of such facilities is central. In the evenings and on Saturdays and Sundays, these installations could be open to the public. Inspiration could be taken from practices which have become widespread on the quaysides of Paris, for example.

In general terms, if we wish to develop urban port activity in Brussels, we need to reinforce relations between the city and the waterway. So that an integrated port activity can find its long-term place in the city.

B. You are going to work on this Canal Master Plan until summer 2013. You will then be involved with its implementation for several years. Are you relocating to Brussels?

A.C.The project is called the Canal Plan, not the Canal Master Plan. This difference is crucial: we are not competing with other procedures. This is an experimental project approach which is about the ability of a “Regional Domain” to respond to the issues faced by the Region.

Our studio happens to be closer to Brusselsthan to many other cities where we have carried out projects, such as Rennes, Grenobleor Saint-Etienne.

We have a studio in Nancyand another in Nantes, and this is linked with the importance of the projects that we are carrying out in those cities. I hope that it will soon become necessary for us to open a studio in Brussels.

B. Apart from this studio in situ, how would you describe your method? Tell us about your approach, your vision and your team.

A.C. Our project consists of opening a cartographic studio, in other words compiling a prospective map of part of the Canal area which we are calling the ‘Regional Domain’. For this we have adopted an experimental method designed on the basis of detailed site visits. We are thus constructing hypotheses in order to define the extent of the “Domain” and assess the possibilities that it offers.

At the same time, an inventory map is being drawn up by the Urban Development Agency (ADT), acting here as ‘regional cartographer’, bringing together on a single map all actual transformations and the main current projects, taking their state of progress into account.  

Our approach lays stress on the diversity of situations encountered and their singular character. We regard this diversity as a precious inherited asset.

We have to answer the difficult question of how to ensure access to housing and to health, education, sport and leisure facilities, in order to improve the ‘fragile city’ occupied by a large proportion of the population in the geographical heart of the Brussels-Capital Region.

Our team in Brussels consists of Lucien Kahane and Hélène Guérard, from the consulting firm Idea consult for economic analysis, of Amandine d’Haese from the firm Ecorem for environmental questions, and of Sylvie Maillard, Philippe Ocquidant and Blanche De Bayser, who are landscape designers and architects in the team Alexandre chemetoff & associés at our Bureau des Paysages  in Gentilly, Paris. It’s a compact and mobile team which can make site visits and hold regular working sessions in Gentilly or Brussels. It is being deployed for all the subjects relevant to the formation and development of the Regional Domain , in order to ensure that the Canal Plan becomes reality and responds to regional issues in a concrete, effective and inventive manner.

B. As you doubtless realise, the population of Brussels, especially its network of civil society organisations, is closely involved in the debate on the development of the city. How do you take this into account?

A.C.In September we will present the result of our work after sharing it with the main decision-making bodies in May. This will represent a preliminary  hypothesis which will be subject, as is desirable and natural, to the appraisal and comments of anyone who is interested.

We are in the process of choosing a location near the Canal where our proposals will be exhibited and made public. It is a good thing that in Brussels, as in most large cities, public opinion is both well-informed and concerned about the future of the city and its transformation.

Urban development is a public art, and our assignment cannot be carried out in isolation: in order to exist and become reality it has to be shared.

B. How can a Frenchman, or any foreigner, even a highly regarded and famous one, help find solutions to the challenges facing Brussels?

A.C.We are European urban architects working in Europe on territories, each of which is set in a geographical context: on the Île de Nantes, the banks of the Meurthe or the Plateau de Haye in Nancy, the banks of the Vilaine in Rennes, the banks of the Furan in Saint-Etienne and the Canal area in the Brussels-Capital Region.

Having said that, we sometimes feel like strangers because the situations that we encounter are strange. One has to overcome this sense of strangeness, while at the same time taking advantage of the aesthetic insight that it can yield and recreate it as one carries out projects.

Personally, I particularly enjoy establishing links between situations in distant locations around the world, and I regard myself more as a traveller than as a stranger in the countries and places that I visit.

The number of subjects that we address at the same time at the agency is limited, because we want to be able to give them sufficient attention and become familiar with the location, so that each situation can generate its own vocabulary and its own singular style.

We believe that each situation is rich in lessons, provided one acquires the means to learn from it. To paraphrase the title of a famous publication entitled Learning from Las Vegas[3] on contributing solutions which are suited to the circumstances, we too need to learn from the local situation. ‘Learning from Brussels, learning from the Canal’ could be the title of our contribution and a way of describing our attitude.  

B. The Region has asked you to provide an ambitious overall vision, but certain important projects are in progress alongside the Canal, and will leave a mark on the urban landscape and the way that the city is used. How will you take this difficulty into account?

A.C.We look at the city as it is and as it will be. These are the bases on which we work. We do not claim to manage everything or to ensure overall coherence: our view is that this will always remain an unattainable objective, and it is probably just as well that this is so. We deal with reality and consider its transformation in a relative manner.

We wish to develop, in a single part of the territory, a set of projects which are emblematic and have the potential to transform the way in which the city understands itself, develops, constructs and organises itself and lives. We are putting all our energy into creating projects whose qualities will enable people to see the city differently and will make it simultaneously more accessible, more refined and more popular.

Our position is a relative one, in the sense that it is situated in an environment. We are not claiming to reform everything, but operation by operation to set an example and so transform the way in which the Region plays its role as a city. 

B. Let’s go forward twelve years. We are in 2025, and an inhabitant of Brusselsis showing a friend around the Canal area. What would you like him to be able to point to as the concrete consequences of your work over the coming months and years?

A.C.We are not responsible for the past or present, but we may be able to shape the future. For a while, in a defined set of spaces, we can create developments whose designs, relations with their surrounding areas, aesthetic qualities and links with one another benefit the city and those who live in it, and that can be regarded as models oF a public policy of local administrations in the Brussels-Capital Region on either side of the Canal and along the Senne valley.

We would see, pending the arrival of the tramway, a district centre whose main hall has views of the quays.

We would see residential buildings being constructed around new bridges, offering the inhabitants superb views of the Canal. 

Alongside the Senne valley park, we would see a new garden city exploring the possibilities of a gentle, peaceful form of city living.

We would see an open-air school revisiting in the early 21st century the fertile ideas of the 20th century, and children doing their lessons on broad sunlit terraces in the spring.

We would see people walking to work near a railway station from the new housing blocks in the park districts.

We would see barges unloading pallets of fresh drinks and provisions, and trendy cafés and little bistros taking delivery of their precious cargos.

We would see, by the Canal, a public space vibrant with the life of the local neighbourhood and the city, and public concerts drawing happy crowds in the evening.

We would see open-air swimming pools and sports facilities alongside concrete batching plants supplied by barge, and quays where construction materials can be obtained.

We would see huge warehouses becoming covered passages and opening up an entire residential district interspersed with small businesses to form an active, industrious and inhabited city.

We would see what was formerly a fast road used to create a new street with buildings, shops, services and everything that makes local life pleasant.

We would see, here and there and from day to day, the city changing, metamorphosing and giving everyone the novel pleasure of city life by the Canal and the Senne.

Urban planning is not the art of forecasting, nor is it an exercise devoid of critical feedback, where the people responsible can never be found because too long a time has elapsed between the ideas and their accomplishment: it is an art set in the present. It has to be brought alive in this way. We can then see together what the city could be like, how it could be understood and shared. This is why the first model projects in the Canal Plan need to be undertaken from tomorrow.       

[1]          The Bièvre has been a culverted river since the early 20th century. We have studied the possibilities for re-opening it and taking it into account as a foundational element of the Parisian region’s urban landscapecf. Visites, Alexandre Chemetoff, Patrick Henry, juin 2010, ed. Archibooks.

[2]          Thus the fortifications of Pariswere used after the First World War for a programme of affordable social housing and educational and sporting facilities linked with health and leisure. Des fortifs au périf, Jean-Louis Cohen and André Lortie, Pavillon de l’Arsenal Paris.

[3]          Learning from Las Vegas, Denise Scott, Robert Venturi and Steven Izenour, 1972