First Richard Morris Hunt Scholar : five weeks in the USA historic industrial sites

by Isabelle Michard

RMH Prize - Isabelle Michard - 2012

It is fascinating and encouraging to see how a series of marvellous coincidences can flow from a single act. I have just had this experience!

On December 4, 2011, I applied for the Richard Morris Hunt Fellowship. As the Architecte des Batimentsde France in Moselle, I work on behalf of the the Ministry of Culture to protect the built heritage in my region. I monitor the quality and integrity of protected zones around designated historic monuments. I met the RMHF Juryand presented my research topic: the industrial heritage of Moselle, which is known for its industry, its steel factories, and especially its coal mines. Today this area is deteriorating, its landscape is polluted and abandoned, and its future is in question, to say the least. I did not receive the Fellowship, but the jury, struck by the timeliness of my topic, decided to create the first RMH Scholar Residency. I became the first Hunt Scholar and was invited to spend five weeks researching in the United States.

On June 30, 2012, UNESCO designated the North Mines of Pas de Calais as a the World Heritage Site. It was the first industrial basin to receive this recognition. Our Minister of Culture and Communication, Madame Aurélie Filippetti, stated that «This designation brings with it the recognition of the lost world of mining to which the universal and exceptional value of this cultural, industrial, and social landscape pays hommage.» Moselle is not cited, but there is a clear reference to a universal heritage, and this awareness shows an evolution of attitudes.

I left for the East Coast of the United States on July 1st, 2012. Designed by AAF, my program would allow me to explore American  industrial heritage and to compare the French and American approaches, from Philadelphia to Washington, Baltimore, Bethlehem, then Lowell, New Bedford, Nantucket, and finally Chicago and Gary.

 

 

I met politicians, professionals, and residents. As a French architect accustomed to the consultation approach which came from the 2000“Urban Solidarity and Renewal Law”, I was particularly interested in the notion of the “neighborhood organization”. The workshops I attended were not “the paper” presented and prepared by professionals for residents and organizations. Instead, the project was a collaborative process, often starting with guidelines, a compromise between the needs and constraints of all parties.

On another note, I found the social, political and financial dynamic in the US to be very unlike the «tabula rasa» response typical in Moselle in the face of these industrial remains associated with joblessness, pollution, and economic difficulties.

After these few ‘American weeks’, I have a fond hope that the adaptive reuse of industrial sites will take account of the presence of the structures which are often “markers” in the landscape, emblematic of the sites’ earlier activities; that the ranking of buildings to be conserved will depend on their architectural, historical, and symbolic value; and that their capacity to be transformed to house new uses and contemporary architecture will be studied.

The mix of functions and ownership must be a priority in order to allow the creation of places with a diversified life, and to avoid limiting the site to a single use, which is of doubtful value economically for the site as well as socially for a much larger geographic area.

The State and communities dependant on local, flexible urban regulations owe it to themselves to partner with local private initiatives in order to guarantee equal opportunities to territories in those of our regions already marked by the closure of these industrial sites.

Thank you for your confidence in me, for helping the mission of the first RMH Scholar to succeed. I hope that my Scholar Final Report will be useful to our profession.

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