August 1, 2017 → The Arch: A socio-circular gate to technology at Thorpark, former coal mine in Genk, Belgium, 2017

Unlearning Efficiency and Speculating on Togetherness

On an industrial scale, recycling is nothing new. However, industrial recycling processes have not embraced closed cycles of production, waste and reproduction. Economic efficiency and productivity are the key factors dictating the degree materials and human power should be valued, exploited or wasted. Industrial and consumerist processes always need to produce strong, finished products. However, if we add factors such as learning outcomes, social encounters and sustainability to this equation, new conditions make recycling interesting on a different scale.

In the Arch, the transformation and rebirth of new materials is not only an aspiral outcome, but the setting for one-to-one learning experience and a new ground for sociability, cultivating exchange, experimentation and emergence of new ideas coming from a diverse public.

The project The Arch addresses the topics of the industrial development and renewal of material production towards a more sustainable future for the city of Genk, Belgium. An era of mining and the presence of the company Ford had previously given a strong identity to the city. In 2017, it was time for a new civic identity. Within a big construction site in Waterschei, former coal mine and currently becoming a research campus on new technologies, Thor Park, the Arch was a five months on-site residency, a collective design project, a summer long in situ research project with the realization of a full scale, architectural prototype that hosted a pop-up school of material flows. The project used interdisciplinary research resulting in a holistic understanding of materiality. In an exemplary, transparent process, the Arch researched and developed a series of recycled plastic bricks. Using this newly invented building material an equally physical and symbolic entrance gate was constructed for Thor Park.


The Arch was a social and experimental laboratory, where the architecture was study subject and research space at the same time. The wooden framework and support structure for a future plastic vault was conceived in the form of a catenary line in order to support the later self-standing brick-Arch. Whereas formwork is usually only used once, here it is conceived as modular laboratory building that can be dismantled, transported and rebuilt elsewhere.

In an open floor plan on the ground floor, research facilities could interact with public uses, such as a bar, seating tables and sanitary facilities through proximity and mutual visibility. Residents would be provided with a well equipped plastic, wood and metal workshop, while being hosted in a small cabin on  the second floor, providing all necessary provisions. A regular evening event format offered insights into artistic researches, concerts, talks and spontaneous program.


The built support structure of the Arch, a 26 m long, 6.7 m wide and 7.5 m high temporary wooden vault, was a place to share knowledge and to learn new skills from different fields of knowledge and social environments. Weekly open and free-of-charge workshops were conceived to lower the threshold of getting involved. Through a curated program of cultural events like screenings and concerts, the Arch proposed an interdisciplinary range of points of contact. Nevertheless, while proposing a low-tech approach on the one hand, the openness for collaborations also resulted in a dialogue with technical experts such as the engineering office Mouton Office for Structural Design, the research laboratory of Ghent University, testing lab, the local plastic collector and processor Eco-OH and individual researchers on site, who all brought in a technically advanced perspective and enabled to develop complex and new solutions.


The construction site, starting with the woodwork of the support structure of the Arch and merging into the plastic research and brick production, in its functioning related to the historic model of construction sites organized around building lodges: sites of experimentation of local, site-specific materials, adapted for the purpose of the project and readily adaptable for unplanned outcomes. A site, which could, through the integrity of all planning and building steps, think and function in closed cycles, use left overs  of one workshop as energy supply, mould, or insulation in another workshop (for example). In the Arch a kind of autonomy was envisioned that did not result from being cut off, but having a biotope-like complementation of necessities and uses, which would be discovered and applied by people on-site, present 24 hours a day, every day for a whole summer.


ConstructLab proposed an applied research laboratory that was situated between artistic experimentation and public research – situated both off-site from public institutions and outside an emerging research hub.The Arch was taking place on the periphery of Genk, far off from the cultural center of the city – its position in a specific, social context raised the question: who can be part of a school?

In viewing distance to newly established state-of-the-art laboratories behind locked doors, it positioned itself as a complementary approach to academic, scientific research to deal with new technologies in an accessible and associative way. Ever open doors and no requirements for being part of a public rarely included in the search of innovation towards more sustainability.


Both education and production have to become more conscious, more open and more sustainable. As described before, the construction of the Arch could be informed through new insights and hence adapted. Within this approach lies a similar attitude towards material and knowledge. The first step of the plastic research was a think tank simulating the expected project evolution, with the goal to define fixed moments in the process-to-come that would reinform the planning with critical insights and allow us to conduct necessary tests to get permissions. Another loop of the spiral, the project of the Arch itself, was a prototype realisation of and research on a plastic arch, able to inform other projects of its kind, amongst others by publishing in disciplinary papers. Practicing circularity in this way means to recognize the necessity of bringing oneself back into the position of the ignorant, like reusing a material as a resource for something completely new. This metaphor is a first step to address a connection of using material and thinking knowledge, but supposedly, concluding from this work, practicing circularity of ressources helps learning to think circularly, not least on the individual level.

Concretely, the aspect that involved the biggest number of people in the Arch was the production of tiles. It started with experiments on collecting bottle cups in the city, and resulted in a twice-weekly workshop, where participants would design, compose and produce their own tile and, voluntarily, be registered in the tile archive. Being involved in designing the surface of a building, even a tiny fragment of an architectural proto-type, released an impressive energy to collect, sort and donate home recuperated plastic caps.

To further explore a merging of educational models with real construction sites and production cycles, thinking in integral processes is the big potential of this approach.


The Plastic Arch documents the time of experimentation and reflection in the summer of 2017 and is thus conceived as a transitional object; a monument to help emancipate from the mining past and to project on it, visualizations of possible futures. The collective effort of the construction, but also failures, evolutions, dead-ends and innovation are traced in the history of this production.

The Arch, for the time it exists, awaits the paradigm shift from the faith in efficiency and productivity to a smaller, transparent production in the city that incorporates deviation and allows change. It was a simple and practical, but also symbolic, site-specific, multi-layered, applied and theoretical learning experiment.

The Arch was one test in what could be a series of evolving experiments, expanding not in size, but horizontally into new directions and disciplines, exploring new materials, entering institutions and approaching industrial stakeholders.

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Thor Park, Genk, Belgium, 2017

ConstructLab is the description of a collaborative construction practice working on both ephemeral and permanent projects. Throughout their work, ConstructLab binds the creative and the practical, thinking and making, and sets the project within a social, environmental and temporal context.

The Arch was conceived by Bert De Backer (Belgium), Wouter Covers (Netherlands), Mascha Fehse (Germany), Alexander Römer (Germany) and Sébastien Tripod (Switzerland) and involved many other people henceforth.