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What are the ingredients for a successful small city? \

Each year all our staff are invited to go on a research trip; themed to a sector or service we offer. In 2015 one group visited Luxembourg to explore urbanism.

Business Districts: ‘Only Work’ Doesn’t Work

Luxembourg’s central business district (CBD) is located on the Kirchberg Plateau to the northeast of the city. In contrast to inner-city business districts that are common in North-American cities and London, Luxembourg’s CBD is an extension on the edge of the city.

The government has planned and developed this new district since the 1980s to accommodate the substantial growth of the financial and service sector but also to the presence of the European Commission which has driven international investment. As the centre of Luxembourg is an intricate medieval World Heritage Site unable to accommodate large commercial floor space, the Kirchberg Plateau has become the focal point of much of Luxembourg’s recent economic growth.

Initially planned as a pure office district, the government has since recognised its failures and diversified the district with cultural institutions, shopping and residential developments. Born as a mono-functional CBD on the edge of the city, Kirchberg is set to become a distinct mixed-use urban extension where people work, live and visit.

Plateau De Kirchberg

Knowledge Districts: From Industry to Innovation

What was once the site of Luxembourg’s largest steelworks is now being transformed into a centre of science, research and innovation. The country’s economic outputs have changed from heavy industry to financial services and Esch Belval now produces knowledge rather than steel. The masterplan retains many of the relics of the site’s industrial heritage as a reminder of the constant evolution of the country’s economic outputs and know-how. The industrial features are integrated as landmarks within the new research campus. Pools of water surround the blast furnaces to reflect their new role as ‘objets trouves’ rather than productive engines. New buildings are inserted as sober blocks encasing their intricate context, displaying a contextual response to their surroundings only through subtle references in the material palette.

Esch Belval is the new home of Luxembourg University together with a range of commercial research institutions. In order to be at the forefront of scientific exploration, the university and private industry partners have co-located here. The university-industry collaboration allows them to boost innovation by linking academic knowledge to the capability to put products on the market.

Esch Belval University campus

Civic Districts: Palace of Justice

The EU Court of Justice is a formal building by first impression. Based on a strict Rectilinear grid, it encloses grand volumes in a neutral colour theme of mostly black and white. However, at the heart of the building lie the courtrooms, distinctly characterised by vocabularies of luxury, opulence and power. The main court room is a spectacular arena arranged under a golden baldachin and furnished with mahogany and velvet. The judges’ deliberation rooms are clad in metal scales and lit by crystal chandeliers, conveying an atmosphere of exclusivity and power. The building’s extravagance is commensurate to Europe’s royal palaces of the past. In fact, its lavishness stands in stark contrast to the politics of austerity and economic rigour that the European Union advocates and imposes on its member states.

Luxembourg has greatly benefited from its status as one of the three capitals of the European Union. The location of the EU institutions in the city have unlocked the development of a whole new urban district and have boosted the country’s economy. However, the EU’s civic institutions directly express a distant exclusivity and lack of relationship with citizens for which it has so long been criticised. Shouldn't the civic institutions of the world’s oldest democracy be closer to the people it governs?

Residential Districts: Self-Build Individualism

Housing in Luxembourg is traditionally self-built. Chosen and customised from a range of basic models or individually designed from scratch, single-family homes are built on serviced plots provided by a developer. The resulting neighbourhoods are diverse in architectural styles, proudly displaying personal tastes and generous proportions. Guided only by prescribed set-backs and maximum heights, the mix of forms is eclectic and sometimes surprising.

However, in recent years rises in land prices have started to challenge this paradigm. The price of a plot is no longer affordable for a single family and the housing model has thus turned to a developer-led market. Two or four dwellings are grouped in buildings that look like single-family homes and conceal the multiple occupancy of a plot which is not considered desirable. The individual expressions of self-build houses are gradually replaced by repetitive architectural types of large house builders. Most recently, entire neighbourhoods are being built speculatively based an a single building typology and consistent material palette throughout. While the design quality is generally high, the individualism of self-built neighbourhoods is lost to the economy of scales.

Cite Pescher, Strassen

Town Cities: Keep it Tight

Luxembourg’s old town has grown out of a medieval fortress where homes, workshops and government institutions were tightly packed behind a circle of military walls. Public space was a luxury, only affordable at the expense of losing land for living and working. The city has long since shed its armour and outgrown its protective walls, but the small lanes, alleys and squares remain.

As a result, the town centre of Luxembourg is a largely car-free environment, a place that is shaped by and for the pedestrian experience. The scale of streets and buildings is human and sheltered, encouraging progressive discovery rather than grand vistas. With the intricacy comes a spatial concentration of uses, where shops and town centre activity are located together in an area no larger than the Barbican centre. Whereas many city centres have been torn open and spread apart by the rise of car use in the 20th century, Luxembourg’s city centre, aided by its World Heritage status, has preserved the vibrancy and diversity that draws us to cities in the first place.

Did you also Know?

The city is divided by a deep river valley and split into a lower and upper city. Both are separated by 50m of vertical rock and currently connected only by a single lift. In order to link the lower and upper urban quarters, the city is building a new public elevator and a funicular with an interchange to national rail and bus networks.

Luxembourg is developing its vertical transportation

Photographer Nicolas Wildschutz

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