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In Belgium, a Proposal to Put Housing in Big-Box Parking Lots

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Paige Vickers

Welcome back to The Architect's City, a monthly series inviting an emerging architect to reimagine an existing structure in his or her city, submitting a speculative proposal for Curbed readers. This month, an innovative possible solution for empty Belgian parking lots.

"Nothing is untouched nature in Belgium," says Julian Schubert of Berlin-based firm Something Fantastic. "It's a cultural landscape. There is a rich and beautiful vocabulary of different spaces, the valleys, hills, fields, ditches, and rivers that form our image of the countryside. It's becoming so built over with houses, but still, everyone wants a connection with this image of the countryside."

The starting point of Schubert's proposal for this month's Architect's City is based in this reality and one of its consequences. Due to the independent suburban homes in the Belgian countryside, popularized in a post-World War II era, state costs for elder care are high. Densifying the areas around cities, rather than continuing to allow such suburbs to grow, has become a subject of biannual state-run open calls for architects from around the world to propose solutions to key issues of building, planning, and urbanization. Not only would such densification preserve more of the bucolic countryside—the "idea of a Belgian landscape, where every Belgian wants to live," as Schubert says—but it would cut costs for state services and infrastructure. Something Fantastic suggests looking to an underutilized, interstitial existing space: the edges of big-box parking lots.

As Schubert says, "there is nothing left to conquer, so we have to find space in between, or reprogram spaces that we already have." Aesthetically influenced by modernist housing proposals of the 1930s, Schubert proposes a tweaked version of ribbon development—long rows of homes built along suburban roads—along and around existing infrastructure and asphalt, rather than stretching out from town and into the countryside.

His team began with a Carrefour Hypermarket, a large one-stop-shopping outlet in the middle-class suburb of Schorvoort — on the outskirts of Turnhout, a city of 40,000 just south of the border with the Netherlands. Examining the use of the large parking lot revealed that, though spaces are busy in small, determined times, swaths of space go largely un-used for far more hours of the day and week. Implicit in their proposal is a re-progamming of the use of the parking lot: by constructing homes along the rim of the lot, the space would become, during its less used times, a de facto community area.

A three-story apartment block contains loft-like front rooms with vistas toward what would, with use and encouragement, become community-used space. Schubert imagines market stands, designated sports areas (think New York City schoolyards), all guided by minimal paint markings on the pavement, and more. Floor-to-ceiling glass panes further convert front rooms into windows onto a more urbanized space. To the rear of the apartments, the home's private spaces look out on the picturesque Belgian countryside opposite the supermarket.

"We proposed housing typology that would negotiate between those two spaces. You have more lofty, generous front, and more private, small-room back," explains Schubert.

The team's initial plan had been to reprogram the Carrefour roof for use—perhaps as a soccer field or garden—but, as the team learned, the cost of closing the market for the duration of time required to install the necessary infrastructure was untenable. However, Schubert says, "We'd hope to inspire people who build new supermarkets to think of a typology like that from the beginning." He cites recent research on heat recapture from supermarket refrigeration systems to support the idea that rather than retrofitting old supermarkets, green roof systems could be standard issue in the future.

With one face toward the "city" and one facing country, Something Fantastic's apartments provide a midpoint between the urban and the suburban. At two to four stories, they're not so densely populated that they become unmanageable; they recall not only modernist housing blocks, but also traditional European city flats.

To combat the dispersed urbanization of Belgium's countryside via ever-sprawling villages and townhouses along streets, this proposal, by identifying highly trafficked yet underutilized space, solves various issues at once. Though it is intended for general housing, the benefits of appealing, compact, communal housing for aging members of the community are clear. And with fewer houses dotting the countryside to the rear, residents' views remain bucolic.

"We like the countryside, we like the fields, we like the rural-ness," says Schubert. "So we suggested not to further urbanize that but to rather intensify the uses of the existing 'urban' land."

Something Fantastic partners and collaborators include Elena Schuetz, Julian Schubert, Leonard Streich, Daniel Eguren, Ruben Bernegger, and Sebastian Bernardy.

· Belgium coverage [Curbed]
· The Architect's City archive [Curbed]