Architectural Icon: Belval blast furnaces
One of Luxembourg’s biggest restoration and renovation projects of this century, the blast furnaces at Belval are an iconic reminder of Luxembourg’s former steel glory days.
Forests felled for steel
It was between 1909 to 1912 that the Escher Bësch (a 200 hectare forest known for its legends and for the healing properties of its Belval spring water), changed dramatically with the creation of what was then one of Europe’s most modern steel plants.
The plant, built by Gelsenkirchener Bergwerks AG, included six blast furnaces, a rolling mill, and was equipped for end-to-end steel production. By 1913 it employed more than 3,000 workers and was producing up to 400,000 tons of cast iron and 360,000 tons of steel a year.
Blast furnaces replaced by electric
From 1965 to 1979 the steel works was modernised and refurbished and the six old furnaces were torn down and replaced with three new high-capacity ones. However, the glory days were already on the wane and in 1993 Blast Furnace A shut down, replaced by an electric one that was fed with scrap metal rather than iron ore.
Today, there are only two furnaces remaining, as the third was sold in 1995 to the Chinese Kisco steel group. Some 240 Chinese labourers took five months to dismantle the 10,000 tons of steel that made up the furnace, numbering and wrapping each piece, which was transported and fully reconstructed 20 months later in the province of Yunnan.
Project to rejuvenate the Belval steelworks
In 1997, Blast Furnace B also shut down, and a few years later the Luxembourg state together with the ARBED steel group (now ArcelorMittal) ran a competition to design and plan a new, modern and lively city quarter on the decommissioned industrial site.
The competition was won by Jo Coenen & Co, architects from Maastricht, and work began almost immediately on the City of Science, which incorporated a university and research campus, a new railway station (on the site of the former steelworks one), residential and office buildings, and Luxembourg’s biggest music venue Rockhal.
Lighting by Ingo Maurer
It wasn’t until 2014 that the blast furnaces and plant were open again to the public, providing a testimony to the industrial heritage of Belval at the centre of the rejuvenation project. Night lighting to highlight the furnaces was provided by Ingo Maurer, the German industrial designer, nicknamed “the poet of light” who also designed the lighting inside the Grand Ducal Palace.
Today, Belval is home to the Research Institute of Biotechnology, some 3,000 residents and 6,000 students and researchers.
Retaining shells of other buildings
The building that once housed the changing rooms and sanitation blocks for the furnace workers has been converted to a business centre by architect Arlette Schneiders, but it retains its industrial appearance.
The 170m long stock house which was used to prepare the charge from coke, ore and other materials, which fed the furnaces, now houses the university library. The building’s unusual prism design highlights its original shape.
Blast furnaces A and B are 82m and 90m high respectively, and stand out as the striking feature on the new city quarter’s skyline. Blast furnace A stopped operating in 1990 and was in good condition and easier to preserve. It now houses the National Centre for Industrial Culture and you can climb the 180 steps to the charging platform for spectacular views across the region. Blast furnace B has been maintained as just a shell and as a landmark but it is not possible to visit it.
The “Massenoire” or black mass building lies to the south of the furnaces and was where the tar-based black mass used in steel production was prepared. Today it houses the City of Science where you can learn about the steel production process.
Information panels and tours
Information panels on a signposted tour explain the production of pig-iron, and you can visit from April to October from 10.00 to 19.00 Monday to Friday, 10.00 to 18.00 on Saturdays and 14.00 to 18.00 on Sundays for a fee of €5 (children under 14 years are free). The entrance to the factory hall is on the corner of Avenue du Rock ‘n’ Roll and Avenue des Hauts-Forneaux.
You can also take a guided tour in English which starts at the Massenoire building and takes in the viewing platform, or participate in a treasure hunt for families. Both take about 1.5 hours. Alternatively try the two-hour 6.4km bike tour that costs €20 including bike rental.
Perhaps the best way to experience this uniquely preserved piece of industrial heritage is to visit and view it during the Blast Furnace Festival (not held in 2020) but which usually takes place in early July. Fire dancers and live musicians fill the streets whilst the furnaces, industrial pipes and brick chimneys are lit to create an unusual and mesmerising skyline.