‘Water in Historic City Centres’ has Mechelen as its proving ground
The first project for the ‘Water in Historic City Centres’ (WIHCC) project has been completed in Mechelen, Belgium. The Melaan, a tributary of the Dijle river, has been excavated and newly landscaped in the old city centre of Mechelen.
WIHCC is a European collaborative project between the cities of Breda (NL), ‘s-Hertogenbosch (NL), Gent (B), Mechelen (B) Chester (UK) and Limerick (IE). The project was set up within the framework of the European Interreg (Interregional Cooperation Programme) for North-West Europe (NWE). The project has roughly reached its halfway stage: the opening conference took place in November 2003, and the closing event is planned for November 2007 in Breda.
The title of the project reflects the increasingly central role that water is playing in the economic and spatial intensification of old city centres that have a historic relationship with water. In addition, there is a growing problem – but also a challenge – of good water management in many NWE cities.
Water returns to the city
Water and Mechelen are inextricably bound up together. The water network of the Dijle river and its tributaries covers the entire city. The Dijle was originally three times wider than it is now, and had various arms and tributaries, which have disappeared through silting up, or have narrowed into small streams alongside the places where streets and houses were built. The streams, such as the Melaan, were originally used for water transport, as drains and for washing. Most of the streams were arched over, because they were seen as breeding grounds of disease. The Melaan was filled in, to make space for cars and parking places and for hygienic reasons.
After more than a century, the embankments of the Melaan stream are now being uncovered once more. Their walls are still in very good condition. The same applies to the Minderbroeders bridge, which still largely survives. The restoration of the Melaan stream is a substantial element of the task of bringing water back to this historic quarter. Once all the work has been completed, by the summer of 2006, the Melaan stream will once more flow through Mechelen in all its glory.
Because of the filling in of the stream in the Melaan, the logical layout of this area of Mechelen disappeared. It is no longer clear why the profile is so wide. Why do many of the buildings stand with the blank walls of their rears towards the street? The logic of the location is no longer there.
By bringing back water into the profile of the Melaan, this place will be given back its logic, and will become attractive and liveable once more. The Melaan will then once again form a part of the historic core fabric of the city. Water has become the catalyst of this urban development. Multiple aims will be served. The integral approach is of vital importance here: archaeology, the plan for school transport on the Melaan, mobility in general, a tourist axis between Lamot and St. Rombout’s cathedral and the renewed city centre all form essential aspects of the development.
Reconstruction of the Mechelen Melaan
Around the Grote Markt lies a cluster of squares and small streets. This is the historic core fabric of the city, in which the Grote Markt, IJzerenleen, Vismarkt, Melaan, Schoenmarkt and Saint Rombout’s Cathedral Square will form one of the central circuits.
These locations all have their own meaning in the historical fabric. Within this, the Melaan will acquire the allure of water, as a result of the reconstruction of the historic stream that will form an element of the city centre. The newly laid out Melaan will then exude an attractive atmosphere that invites one to linger and quietly enjoy. The public space will become the showpiece of the city, so that the city centre will attract more people from the wider city and the region than it does now. The Melaan will become a tangible element within the network of historic public spaces in the city centre of Mechelen.
In fact, the development of the Melaan does not only mean the opening up of a stream in the centre of the city, but also the creation of a new location with meaning. It will become a new quayside in the heart of the city: a quay along which people will live, on which people will work, where small boats will have their moorings, where people will take a stroll. It is also a quay that offers opportunities for long-term transformation, both in the buildings and in the public space. The atmosphere of the quay will be made unique by the materials that reflect the old stream. Here you can experience water in the midst of the city bustle. The stream and the quay need to reflect a feeling of encounter between the city and the water. It will be a quayside for strolling and peaceful recreation. This calls for an attractive and balanced layout, with fine historic materials and appealing street furniture.
The Melaan is a special space in the city centre of Mechelen. The profile of the space has an asymmetrical character. The road hugs the southern gable walls, and many of the walls on the northern side are blank. The reconstruction of the stream will only reinforce this character. The blank walls stand in the water, as it were, and a water channel runs through the space on one side. This beautiful asymmetrical scene is the inspiration for the design.
Two lines will delineate the Melaan in the future: the route line and the water line. They are two different worlds – two different movements – in one and the same space: the world of the car and the world of strolling by the water. The route for cars and bicycles is laid out as efficiently and functionally as possible. A curved road trace delineates the scene, and parking places are situated directly on the street. Bands of natural stone mark the road trace, and give the road its historic reference, while trees alongside the road mark the continuity of the scene.
The line of the water, of the stream, has a completely different character. Here the historic course of the water defines the atmosphere. Old quay walls have been rediscovered and will be built up. These quay walls mark the banks of the stream, and are topped off with a wide natural stone strip. On the north side of the stream the walls of the buildings make up the quayside. Because of this, the buildings stand in the water, and so form a bank alongside the stream. This gives the Melaan an asymmetrical profile: a characteristic that will be reprised in all facets of the design. A profile of contrasts: between a high and a low quay, between slow and fast traffic, greenery and stone, water and land, and so on.
The zone between the stream and the route over the Melaan is a margin that constantly changes in width. A zone in which to linger, to read a book in the sun or to sit beside the water. This margin is executed as a low quay, meaning that the pedestrian can get closer to the water of the stream. The water is a tangible presence, and contributes to the leafy, peaceful atmosphere that characterises this part of the profile. Through the difference in height between the road level and the low quay, a rim of around forty centimetres in height is created, which functions as a low bench to sit on. In some parts of the Melaan the bench disappears, and automatically leads to the high quay via steps.
The new stream of the Melaan will acquire no less than five bridges. The two vehicle bridges will form a part of the city network. If possible, these bridges will be restored or reconstructed. The three footbridges over the stream have a completely different character, being entrances to buildings on the other side of the stream. The signature of the bridges is contemporary. They are small cable-stayed bridges with the low quay as their jumping-off point.
The Melaan will become an element of the historic core fabric of the city of Mechelen, and will be developed as such. The Grote Markt is also a major element of this fabric, and has been newly laid out, with very attractive results. In our view, the Grote Markt is the calibration point for the choice of materials for the Melaan. The basic paving for the Melaan will be made up of the same cobblestones as have been used for the Grote Markt. The main lines of the design are set out in natural stone bands. The bench rim between the high and the low quay is composed of an element specifically designed for this location.
The plan for the Melaan in Mechelen has been developed within the framework of a multiple commission from the city of Mechelen. Bureaux from Germany, the Netherlands and Ireland competed for this multiple commission, which was ultimately granted by the city of Mechelen to the OKRA Landscape Architects bv bureau from the Netherlands.
Together with the city of Mechelen and the Spatial Advice Studio, OKRA developed a sketch design into its definitive form. In addition, the Spatial Advice Studio took responsibility for technical development, while the city of Mechelen acted as the supervisory body. The plan has currently been completed, and we would like to make some observations with regard to this collaboration.
For public spaces in Belgium, it applies that work is done on a project basis, and not on the basis of comprehensive master plans. The result of this is that, in general, a practical approach is taken to the work, so that the possibility arises that the coherence between projects within a city is lost. In the Netherlands, project issues are usually solved in advance in meetings, whereby a culture of endless consultation has come about. The civil service apparatus per number of inhabitants is also considerably higher in the Netherlands than in Belgium. In the Belgian situation, many issues are tackled on the work floor in a practical way. In the Netherlands, the emphasis lies much more on an intricate network of responsibilities. In Belgium, by contrast, it is much more about the right personal expertise in the right place.
To carry out work in the Netherlands you need a large organisation, where knowledge is stored in a sort of ‘abstract location’. In Belgium, the people who identify a problem are also the ones that are involved in its solution. This creates learning experiences for the future. Safety on the work floor is a good example of this. In Belgium you have a safety officer on site who personally supervises safety issues. In the Netherlands, much more is established in rules and regulations. When problems arise, claims are fallen back on.
As a Dutch bureau working in Belgium, we have been able to learn a great deal about Belgian working methods. In Belgium, an effective team works on the plan, with short lines of communication, and traditional working methods are oriented towards quality and project completion.
+ Project credits / data
Project: Reconstruction of the Mechelen Melaan
Location: Mechelen, Belgium
Organisation and Supervision: City of Mechelen
Landscape Architects: OKRA Landscape Architects | http://www.okra.nl/
Specifications and Supervision: ARA, Spatial Advice Workshop
Contractor: Interplant n.v.
Photographer: Ben ter Mull
+ All images and drawings courtesy OKRA Landscape Architects | Photo by Ben ter Mull