OPINION Harold Fallon (AgwA): Marge

“The white space around a written or printed page, and especially the white space on the right side of the front and the left side of the back of each sheet. We have narrowed the margins too much. (…)

figuratively and colloquially: to have a margin. Give or leave the margin.”

(Littre, Dictionnaire de la Langue Française, 1863)

On the way back from a site visit in Charleroi, the scenery slides past the window on IC 3113 towards Brussels. Arcelor Mittal’s huge, semi-abandoned factories give way to a semi-rural landscape steadily filling with turnkey homes with double garage doors. Under the gray sky, industrial buildings made of steel sheets, glass offices, a concrete cooling tower at a gas power plant, plastered passive apartment blocks arise. And finally the terraced houses’ typical summer houses: a collage of half-derelict outbuildings paved with cobblestones.

The territory – its cities, its architecture – is a reflection of the society that produces it. At the same time, architecture is absolutely a driving force in the development of the society in which it operates.

The project we have just visited in Charleroi is the renovation of a monumental exhibition building with an integrated congress center, strongly supported by Europe, while studies show that the area is undoubtedly saturated with this type of program. In Molenbeek-Saint-Jean, we have just completed a school building in the former complex of Takeda, a pharmaceutical company that has moved its production abroad and is renting new offices a stone’s throw from the airport. In Antwerp, we have just participated in a competition where the city plans to demolish two buildings that are perfectly operational and can accommodate the planned program.

discouraging? Rejection and inaction quickly seem like a solution. Or carelessly cynically close your eyes, work as usual. No, we should rather see these contradictions as the condition for a living context, source of action and change. Marx would no doubt agree. Where then is the margin, the architect’s leeway to deliver meaningful work, to reveal these contradictions and bring about change?

In Charleroi we have proposed a drastic concentration of the programmed spaces, releasing large semi-protected structures: conscious excess with space for appropriation. For the school in Molenbeek-Saint-Jean, we proposed to furnish the existing building with materials that we could dismantle and reuse on site: partitions, false ceilings, techniques, insulation. In Antwerp, we demonstrated that the proposed master plan was not incompatible with the preservation of one of the buildings, and that the other building, after dismantling, could largely be reused on the future construction site.

Granted, these are margins. It’s not much, but it might be enough. And if it is enough, it is probably necessary. In addition to recognizing a project’s contradictions, there is a small leeway between the rigid definition of a project and the requirements of an architectural task, a space for commitment and creativity. However small this space may be, it is a condition for the project’s imagination and dynamism.

This margin is undefined. It can therefore serve as an engine for society’s transformation. Standards, regulations, tools, certificates, procedures, laboratories, plans and guides, with the corresponding specialists, have become ubiquitous in design and construction. We know them: EPB, CSS, PHPP, Totem, NIBE, BIM, Well, Breeam, NZE, RUP or PCA, PRAS or structure plan, NBN, WTCB, NIT.

It looks like they will remove the awkward white space around the page. However, it is significant. It is in the margin that we can comment, manipulate, relativize, refer to and enlarge the frame. As for Fermat then, it is in the margin that new ideas are born.

This margin is hard to find. It is because it must be sought that it frees us from the frame. The margin means that the project can carry an awareness, a project about a possible change, about a new movement, about a commitment.

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