Sous les pavés, le train: an interview with Stéphane Damsin

The “Jonction”, is the half underground, half viaduct that crosses the city center of Brussels. The question of its relevance, effectiveness, footprint and future challenges remains to this day a burning topic (the saturation current network and the important works of extension and renovation). Concerned about raising awareness among the Bruxellois regarding the multiple issues related to the present and the future of the “Jonction”, the non-profit associations Recyclart and Congres (art centers that animate the stations of the North-South junction) supported by the bMA (Bouwmeester – master architect) and the ADT-ATO, initiated the project JONCTION a two-year cultural program around this topic.

In December 2013, after two years of specialized and diverse programming in partnership with many cultural and academic actors in the region, JONCTION presented a manifesto stating its conclusions, reflections and position towards the current conditions and future challenges of the “Jonction”. Today, almost a year later, these conclusions remain on the top of public opinion with the start of the operations of the “Contrat de Quartier durable Jonction” in 2015.

Within this current state of the affairs, the Shht Brussels Newsroom interviewed Stéphane Damsin architect, programmer in Recyclart and coordinator of the project JONCTION.

Shht Brussels Newsroom: Which was the impact of the construction of the “Jonction” during such a sensitive historical period?

Stéphane Damsin: Just imagine the implications of the construction of a six-lane tunnel under the city center: obviously, it was not possible to dig a tunnel under the city without having to break what was above. Entire neighborhoods have disappeared since.

In the height of the pre-war period, planned for the opening of the link between the south and north stations in 1915. But the most delicate part of the work – the tunnel and the Central station – remained to be done. Brussels’ center lay in ruins, leaving a sad impression on pedestrians. It appeared then to be the wastes of war. But then came the war and other delays.

Then budgets, deadlines and collateral damaged severely wounded the city. The completion of the post-war period, the unifying and national project dimension, its grand opening, the modern and modernist euphoria around the 1958’s exhibition, the apology of the speed and the progress, all these elements came to somehow heal (or hide) the wounds of the past. But neither definitive nor complete; we can learn some lessons from the past.

Today, which is the role of the “Jonction” within the city and which are the future challenges?

Of course, the “Jonction” has great advantages. It has turned Brussels into Belgium’s rail network hub and become central in the Western European rail network.

For the city itself – its public spaces and inhabitants – the junction has long remained a scar. But over the last decades, its appearance has changed in an attempt to heal the wound: many public and private stakeholders have sought and still seek to exploit the various potentials the junction offers in an attempt to integrate it more into its urban context. We think about social and cultural projects provided by non-profit organizations like Recyclart and CONGRES, but also projects like the Brigittines (made by the architect Andrea Bruno), the Jardin des Visitandines, the Ursulines skatepark, the installations of Patrick Rimoux Place de l’Albertine and Daniel Buren Place de la Justice. We also think about the new palais des Congrès (“Square”), the redevelopment of the parvis de la Cathédrale or the ongoing project of redevelopment of the old cité administrative in a mixed-use area (offices but other functions promised).

Today, the “Jonction” is, by far, the densest section of the national network. Most recently, the national railways company forecasted that the saturation of this junction would be inevitable in the short term. Then, what to do? Should it be split as some engineer’s dream of railways? Seek to bypass the city center to ease the “Jonction”? Or simply close and return to the principle of the terminal stations?

Could you please introduce the project JONCTION?

JONCTION is a story. Sixty years after its inauguration, the city and its people have changed. But the role of infrastructure remains a pertinent question for the future of Brussels. This topic is too critical to remain exclusively the prerogative of governments and engineers.

To try to identify and respond to these questions, we connected a range of stakeholders. This included Recyclart and CONGRES (both community NGOs), with support from the city architect and the regional planning agency (ADT- ATO), which gave the mayor impetus to invite inhabitants, decision makers, architects, urban planners, the railway company, developers, specialists, commuters and even tourists to create public debate over the subject.

Junction has also attempted to demonstrate that complex questions can be shared positively. In this, the program was intended to get more than clues for the future of the North-South junction and its cultural approach aimed to break through politics and build public awareness by supporting an ‘open city’.

The debate goes on; the positions on the future of the “Jonction” are still divisive and the budget allocated to its renovation and future every time planed require all parties to review their copies, promises and creeds every six months… Stay tuned.

Within the program of JONCTION, the exhibition “4×4 visions on the north – south Junction” brought together 4 interpretations of the city that recognized the value of the underground urban landscape of Brussels beyond its functional relevance. This exhibition exposed an underground theme using a forgotten technique, the art of tapestry. Did this strategy actually enhanced citizen’s interest in understanding their own city?

Ask an architect’s office today to hand-weave a tapestry and it would likely be treated as absurd. Olivier Bastin (bMA) did just that, asking guest architects to envision the “Jonction” deprived of traditional tools of models, 3D images, plans, sections and elevations.

We speechlessly faced the imaginary that all the official communicators of that time successfully developed in relation to this massive project. Enlightened by these records, we came to wonder: What kind of imaginary drives the “Jonction” nowadays? How to communicate it visually? What narrative can build up its future?

I think that the beautiful ‘reflections’ and ‘tapestries’ produced reveal the astonishment and the effort demanded by the public (it must be admitted, we are also very used to “read” tapestries). Today, there is a kind of sensitive conscience in Brussels, cautious but excited at the same time, about the underground city, the subway, the backstage, that does not want to be hidden any longer but rather it wants to be assumed, functional and sublime.

In general, do you think the JONCTION program put the discussion about the future of the city on citizen’s agenda?

I hope it does but of course – I think it does to a certain extent. One of the great satisfactions is to have been able to gather people, services and institutions in public debate that rarely or never discuss nor reflect together on this matter. Yet all decision makers and stakeholders at the forefront of this issue. The role of moderator we have taken has helped everyone, including us, to understand how absurd, expensive and inefficient was to keep on working ‘each in his corner’, as if such complex problems could be better solved separately. These moments of public dialogue don’t remain as just the “successes of one evening” but involve constantly modifying the modus operandi on these macro challenges.

(An interview with Stéphane Damsin by Sedaile Mejias and Diego Luna Quintanilla // This interview was published in Shht#2 Underground, January 2014 )


Photo gallery: “4×4 visions on the north – south Junction”

© 354 Photographers

4x4 visions on the north – south Junction4x4 visions on the north – south JunctionTapestry by XDGATapestry by 51N4E / L'AUC / BBSTapestry by V+Tapestry by Studio 012 / Karbon

(photo cover: The Container by Luc Deleu, within the frame of the JONCTION project /© Diego Luna Quintanilla