Dr Robert L. Philippart
The 4th edition of the Architectour.lu guide once again confirms the dynamism and creativity of Luxembourg’s architecture and engineering sector.
The importance of the sector is reflected beyond the statistics alone, with some 537 architectural firms and 218 engineering consultancies established in Luxembourg and employing some 5,600 people in 2022 — a previously unrivalled figure. Rapid demographic development, with over 645,000 inhabitants as of 31 December 2021 (up 43,000 since the last edition of Architectour. lu in 2018), requires a high level of housing production, the adaptation of mobility infrastructure, the development of new concepts, concern to be shown for the environment and great attention to climate change. The 500,000-job milestone was just reached on 31st March 2022, and the number of cross-border commuters is expected to peak again at 212,343 on 31st December 2021 (STATEC). The Covid-19 pandemic has seen more people working remotely and resulted in a new perception of public spaces, while the lack of energy, building materials and human resources has brought with it new challenges. All of these changes have had a profound effect on the construction industry, and there are many other challenges ahead, not least climate change and landscape conservation.
The Architectour.lu project selection committee has chosen 14 highlights that take these changes into account, always with a view to ensuring a better quality of life. This ‘soft skill’ plays an important role in the economic stabilisation and development of a destination and of a market. Several of these 14 highlights are key initiatives and have been awarded the Bauhärepräis (project owner’s award) or the Luxembourg Architecture Award.
A gradual cultural awareness of architecture
Architecture illustrates a certain freedom of cultural expression and ensures the existence of diverse landscapes. These become places of social cohesion and democratic expression. Architecture does not view the landscape as ‘property’ and makes no distinction between the ‘cultural’ and the ‘natural’ landscape, but it does consider it essential to individual and social physical, physiological, psychological and intellectual well-being. It considers the landscape a space to be carefully managed to ensure sustainable development and as a resource for promoting economic activity.
The inclusion of architecture as a separate sector within the KulturLX project launched in 2020 by the Ministry of Culture is certainly something to be celebrated. The architectural sector, which is therefore officially recognised as a form of cultural expression, helps the government to implement new strategies to help improve the visibility and dissemination of Luxembourg’s cultural creativity. Architectural interventions cannot be hidden from view, and in fact make up the historical heritage of the future, forming a whole, along with cultural and natural heritage, of which the various components are considered simultaneously in terms of their interrelationships. The challenge, then, is also to reconcile contemporary architecture with the traditional heritage that forms the basis of the identity of a given space and its usage. The preservation of authenticity and respect for the integrity of a landscape for future generations is a matter of increasing importance to architects, and this same sensitivity to the enhancement of and respect for the natural and cultural landscape characterises the 14 highlights chosen by the selection committee. They all share the same concern for discreetly inserting the property to be built into the designated space and ensuring that it fits well with the existing landscape. The flagship projects selected submit to their environment with a view to enhancing their surroundings rather than dominating the landscape or grabbing the attention. They are at one with nature and its various forms, materials, colours, historical stratification, light and even the infinite sky. Many of the projects demonstrate that real beauty lies in the essential, the minimalist, the stripped back. The play on natural elements, light, wood, stone, colour, form, volume and transparency makes these 14 key projects good role models for others.
14 iconic projects for the general public
Since the selected projects are evident to the general public owing to their location and their quality, visitors and passers-by must be made aware of these architectural works and given help to understand them, in doing so raising awareness of the issue of quality of life and the importance of sustainability.
The Altrier water tower is a lighthouse, a key feature of the landscape, while the National Library and the Learning Centre in Esch-Belval represent the centres of their respective neighbourhoods and speak directly to the international academic world. The Lycée Michel Rodange secondary school and the youth centre in Differdange, meanwhile, are designed to appeal to the audiences they target and that frequent these venues in large numbers.
It was of the utmost importance that the projects selected, all of a high architectural quality, did not all have a directly cultural function in order to appeal to an uninformed public that could then discover the various components of quality of life and harmony with nature and the landscape, the beauty of engineering. The Luxembourg stadium, the Nazzareno Bocci boules pitch in Schifflange and the Bridel sports hall, for example, combine sport, cultural expression, respect for the climate and well-being within the framework of a single project.
Furthermore, leisure venues are the sorts of place where people tend to take the time to really immerse themselves in their environment and connect with both their inner and outer worlds. The projects of the Villa Collart in Steinfort, the Lakeside restaurant in Echternach, the home for the elderly (HPPA) in Clervaux and even the ‘Wine meets architecture’ project in Remich really embody this fusion between the outside and the in, the panorama with its different lines of sight, the connection to the zenith. These are meeting places where the focal point, the spectacle and the spectator become one; the panoramic staircase leading to Echternach at Lakeside or the atriums of the home for the elderly in Clervaux both express this concern for conviviality and the search for peace. These approaches are not without a certain spiritual sensitivity, as represented by their opening out to the infinite panorama, the nature that has created all things, the accentuation of the play on natural light. These approaches reflect the most fundamental aspirations of mankind, the materials used in the constructions they inspire seemingly emanating from the landscapes themselves, from which they appear to rise quite naturally.
Historic cultural heritage maintains its impact
The concern for and attention placed on cultural heritage is currently undergoing a real renaissance, as demonstrated by the new cultural heritage act of 25th February 2022, which brings together for the first time the concepts and definitions of various international conventions that the Grand Duchy has ratified. The 14 highlights showcased on Architectour.lu are fine examples of how the objectives of the Council of Europe Landscape Convention, the main purpose of which is to ensure the appropriate protection, management and planning of landscapes, are being met. The Villa Collart represents an impressive symbiosis between the park and the substance of the building itself, the authentic character of which has been enhanced by its interior refurbishment, representing the successful conversion of a former private property into a public place. The refurbishment and extension of the Lycée Michel Rodange secondary school is another demonstration of respect for historic buildings. The school’s new sports hall was designed in perfect synergy with the brutalist architecture of 1971 while at the same time enhancing its geometry using far fewer building materials. The housing project executed in the Grund district on behalf of the Fonds du Logement (‘Housing Fund’), meanwhile, aimed to create affordable housing within an internationally (UNESCO), nationally and communally listed fabric. Shapes, volumes and materials, colour codes and even functions had to comply with all of these heritage-related requirements while at the same time demonstrating an element of creativity and innovation. Enhancing the heritage of sites of outstanding universal value does not require historical sites to be fossilised or museumised, but it does require quality of life to be developed in harmony with the historical urban landscape. The housing project in the Grund district has been held up as a model initiative at the UNESCO Visitor Centre. In most cases, interventions of this kind are evidence of a fruitful collaboration with the Institut national pour le patrimoine architectural (‘National Institute for Architectural Heritage’). The Luxembourg Learning Centre in Esch-Belval, which saw the former raw material storage hall for the blast furnace converted into a university learning centre, is one of the most avant-garde projects built at the foot of the two blast furnaces, which are listed as national monuments. When it came to designing the facade, the architects were inspired by the patterns left on the windows of the former steelworks by particle deposits from its former steel production days. The abstract patterns serve as aesthetic, graphic and functional components and help manage the infiltration of light based on the orientation of the window in question.
Compliance with the applicable technical and accessibility standards, energy renovation and preserving heritage are major challenges, especially if the original building is to be preserved and is set in an historically significant environment.
Merging with nature
While the example of the housing on Rue Munster in the Grund district illustrates quality of life within the historic urban landscape, the single-family house in Ehnen, which is built on the lower parts of a former bungalow, represents a veritable sculpture within the space it occupies. The wooden construction blends into the topography, bathed in light and merging harmoniously with the colours that surround it. Interior and exterior become one. Nature infiltrates the living space of the property like a huge landscape painting, turning the living room itself into an element of nature, reconciling it and man, and at nightfall, the illuminated interior casts a twinkling light over the surrounding vineyards. The facade of the Bridel sports hall, meanwhile, is both an allusion to the plant kingdom and a reminder of the site’s wooded environment, as well as evoking the stained glass windows of Bridel’s church, which is a listed national monument. The facade itself is made of perforated corten steel sheets and based on a pattern developed specifically for this project, and each surface of the facade is treated as a unique element. The Claude Bentz winery, for its part, features concrete terrazzo flooring made up of aggregates including crushed Moselle stone, the same as is found at the foot of the vines.
A technical feat
Architecture has become a technical feat that has been recognised as a work of art since the latter half of the 19th century. The metal cladding of the water tower at Altrier, combined with the raw concrete of the facade, illustrates the beauty of modern building materials. The architecture of the Luxembourg stadium is characterised by its steel supporting structure positioned uniformly around a huge concrete slab, supporting the roof and slightly inclined towards the outside before bending and leaning towards the inside of the stadium. This part serves as a roof for the stands and provides adequate protection in the event of bad weather.
Air quality measures, checks concerning the origins of materials, their durability and their recyclability, the integration of renewable energy sources and an increase in green spaces to reduce global warming in cities and villages are characteristics common to all of these 14 highlights that could inspire some superb projects for the future.
ROBERT L. PHILIPPART
A PhD in history at the Catholic University of Louvain (UCL), Robert L. Philippart is also a scientific collaborator with the Institute for the Analyses of Change in Contemporary and Historical Societies (IACCHOS). His research and publications focus on urban history, architecture, social history and Luxembourgish engineering in China. After almost three decades as director/ambassador at the National Tourist Office, and then at Luxembourg for Tourism, he was appointed at the end of 2017 Unesco Site Manager at the Ministry of Culture.