Jacopo Zani, who graduated from the Faculty of Architecture and the Built Environment in March 2022 with a master’s in Architecture, Urbanism and Building Sciences, came up with a unique vision on the redevelopment of the dilapidated mining town of Waterschei in the Belgian municipality of Genk. His vision revolves around social cohesion and space for nature, and it gives architects a new role. It earned him the title Best Graduate 2022 of his Faculty. 

How does an Italian student studying at TU Delft develop a future vision of a former mining town in Belgium? Jacopo Zani explains. “While I was doing my bachelor in Architecture at the Polytechnic University of Milan, I became fascinated by the Belgian ‘dispersed cities’, the scattered urban settlements in the countryside. I was particularly interested in old mining towns, in part because a lot of Italian guest workers worked in Belgian mines. My own grandfather too worked in a mine in the French speaking part of Belgium for a while. What struck me about the mining town of Waterschei in Genk is the amazingly beautiful nature that surrounds it that is in sharp contrast to the urban area. I am intrigued by that contrast. I started reading more about Waterschei and came up with an idea for a research proposal. My first choice was to do my master’s at TU Delft so I was thrilled when I was accepted and could start under the supervision of engineer Leontine de Wit.” 

Waterschei: social utopia

Waterschei is located on the periphery of the city of Genk and is the example of an industrial city – a city built around a particular industrial activity. In the first half of the 20th century, Waterschei was laid out, adopting the idea of garden suburbs around the coal mine. The design was inspired by the garden city movement, an idea of a social utopia from England. “There was one major difference though,” continues Jacopo. “Utopian garden cities combine the advantages of the city and of the countryside. But the design of Waterschei was more directed at exerting control over the miners. Every family got a house with a garden, but there was no city centre and there were no social gathering places such as bars. The idea was to minimise the risk of rebellion by the miners by limiting life as far as possible to the privacy of their own homes.”

A new beginning

Waterschei’s mines closed in 1987 as they were not profitable enough. In the decades thereafter the city became impoverished and many residents left Waterschei. What remained is a desolate, decaying town with no identity and little social cohesion. “I wondered if it would be possible to revive the abandoned and decaying town of Waterschei without that dependency on one economic activity,” says Jacopo. “I also wondered that, if so, what values would be important. With these questions in mind I went looking for a new social and ecological start for the shrinking garden town.”

I wondered if it would be possible to revive the abandoned and decaying town of Waterschei without that dependency on one economic activity.

Jacopo Zani

Best Graduate 2022 of the Faculty of Architecture and the Built Environment

Dialogue with the local community

In his project, Jacopo focused on architectural modifications that would improve the quality of life. “I put the existing social infrastructure at the heart of my work. I also allocated space to the expanding surrounding nature, especially in places where the woods were growing towards the empty parts of the city.” In his dissertation, he sketches in detail an image of a future city that is becoming greener. He shows situations in which people come together, undertake activities together, and build a sustainable relationship with nature.

New role for architects

In doing this, Jacopo is moving against current norms. “What you see happening is the municipality of Genk is developing industrial zones and a high tech science park on derelict land and is not involving the local residents. To my mind a redevelopment will only be successful if there is continuous dialogue with the local community about the aspects that they want to retain and transform, and what we leave to nature. He also sees a new role for architects. “I really believe that architects should take their social responsibility and enter into dialogue with residents, clients and construction partners. They should jointly look for solutions that go further than the usual economic considerations, such as cost efficiency and profits.

Architects should take their social responsibility and enter into dialogue with residents, clients and construction partners.

Jacopo Zani

Best Graduate 2022 of the Faculty of Architecture and the Built Environment

Architects should take their social responsibility and enter into dialogue with residents, clients and construction partners.

Jacopo Zani

Best Graduate 2022 of the Faculty of Architecture and the Built Environment

This is why I put what I call a ‘social palace’ at the heart of my plans. This is a place that is alive and where discussions can start on what the local population considers important to give new meaning to life in Waterschei. It’s also a place where the residents and local companies have a role in carrying out the plans.” He has already found a location. “One of the historic buildings of the former mining company is perfect for this as it has a central courtyard. In my vision this will become a natural garden for plants and animals which you can see through glass walls from inside the building.” His idea will give Waterschei the beating heart that it has always missed.

An invitation to looking at things differently

Jacopo emphasises that his proposal for Waterschei is not an end product but an invitation to look at redevelopment and reconstruction differently. “My project can serve as an example for many other former industrial cities. Just think about Detroit where shrinking suburbs are being torn down and swept away without considering the opinions and positions of the residents. Or about the impoverished emptying cities of northern France and Germany.”

In any case, the Examination Board was impressed by Jacopo’s presentation and the many drawings that he made with such care. They also expressed their appreciation of his vision on the role of architects in this process. “I am especially honoured by their latter compliment.”

Future

And what does the municipality of Genk think of his ideas? “Unfortunately the historic building in which I had located the social palace was largely demolished soon after I completed my project. It will make way for new flats. So yet again some of the shared history of Waterschei has been swept away.” Jacopo, who is currently doing a PhD at ETH Zürich, of course finds this a pity, but does not dwell on it too long. “What my research in any case showed is a methodology that architects and urban planners can widely use to apply to similar issues. I hope that my PhD will make the project more practical so that I will be able to bring at least some of my ideas to fruition.”

More information
Jacopo Zani graduated under the supervision of Leontine de Wit in the master studio Interiors Buildings Cities.
With this graduation work he is the Best Graduate of the Faculty of Architecture and the Built Environment 2022. Zani’s work is also one of the nine selected projects of our faculty for the Dutch Archiprix. 

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