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THE WALL STREET JOURNAL


WEDNESDAY, JUNE 10, 1998


Beauty in the Eyes of the Beholder

Builders of Europe's Garbage Incinerators Say It's Really About Art

By CHARLES FLEMING
Staff Reporter of THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

 

JEAN-FRANCOIS NOTTIN doesn't want any trash in his new garbage plant-like rowdy rock musicians, for instance. "My factory isn't here to make a nuisance. It's here to make clean," says Mr. Nottin, managing director of Novergies Centre, the plant operator. "After all, it's beautiful, isn't it?" he adds proudly, gesturing toward the huge, futuristic white incineration plant under construction here in the wheat fields within eyeshot of the medieval cathedral that has made Chartres famous.

Mr. Nottin estimates that if he had settled for a bare-bones industrial complex at the Chartres plant, without the architect's sleek design, building costs-not including the engineering work-could have been halved to 25 million francs ($4.2 million). But, he adds, building costs are only a fraction of the total 300 million francs, and the extra 25 million francs should be considered over an estimated 30-year life span for the plant.
Mr. Read, of the Hampshire County Council, also seeks to put the extra cost of an architect into perspective.

"Does it put the price up? Well, you wouldn't be able to get planning permission without the design," he says.
A paint job comes cheaper than an architect. Industrial artist Friedrich-Ernst von Garnier, for example, says he asked for only 80,000 to 90,000 marks ($45,000 to $51,000) to design the artwork for the new waste-treatment plant in Furth, in southern Germany. He compares his blue and green composition on the plant's outer walls to the turn-of-the-century pointillist school of painting, in which complex pictures were built up by small points of color.
It isn't just what the building looks like from the outside that counts in winning local support. Many of these new plants, including the Furth plant, encourage people to stop by at the regular "open days. " "It's like going to a museum. We give out sweets and wooden pencils and coffee," says Renate Kapune, an official in the local-government office of Neustadt/Aisch, which commissioned the plant.
In Chartres, local deputy and former mayor Georges Lemoine reckons the new garbage site is going to become an integral part of the city's life for generations to come. That is why, working with architect Jean-Marie Schimpff on the site, he came up with some really long-term plans for the incinerator.
In 30 years, he says, the city will have completely surrounded the plant, today in a wheat field 2% miles from the cathedral. Incinerator technology will have moved on, he predicts. So then his successor at City Hall will be able to empty the vast garbage pit outside the plant and turn it into an Olympic-size swimming pool.
And Mr. Schimpff's fine building, which Mr. Lemoine says reminds him of a ship, a wave or an aircraft wing soaring over the wheat fields? Easy. Rip out the incinerators and turn the structure into a grand new municipal theater.

This is no ordinary waste dump. When it opens next year, the new garbage plant will have an artist-in-residence, an exhibition hall, a teak sun deck, a view of the cathedral, even catering facilities for receptions. But when it came to including a rock'n' roll rehearsal studio, Mr. Nottin felt he had to, well, refuse.
The gentrification of garbage isn't confined to Chartres. Unlike the U.S., which enjoys enough space to dump most of its garbage in landfill sites, Europe burns a lot of its waste. Now tough new European laws against landfill, combined with a clampdown on older, polluting incinerators, mean that even more such plants are expected to be built in coming years. No one wants an industrial eyesore in their backyard, so town planners and municipalities across Europe are turning to architects and artists in an attempt to make garbage look good.
SOMETHING NOBLE
"A community won't accept a site unless it's beautiful. It has to look like a ship or a wave," says Herve Guichaoua, a project director for Foster Wheeler Corp., an engineering concern based in Clinton, N.J.
A dash of color helps, too, as on the new incineration plant Foster Wheeler is building on the banks of the Tagus River outside Lisbon. "For the roof, we chose a gray paint with a slight blue-and-mauve tint to blend in with the sky and the river on the horizon," says architect and engineer Ray Spano, a colleague of Mr. Guichaoua.
But don't be fooled into thinking that one can just slap a coat of paint on an incinerator to make it beautiful. Something deeper and altogether more noble is taking place there. "The philosophy with regard to garbage has changed," says Jean-Robert Mazaud, a French architect who specializes in industrial plants. "A garbage plant can be as fine as a university building," he says.
Literally. One of Mr. Mazaud's plants completed in 1995 in Cergy-Pontoise, near Paris, includes university laboratories and classrooms, separated from the vast, fetid garbage-sorting pit only by one door down the hall. So far, however, the local university hasn't deigned to take up the plant operator's offer of using the labs and classrooms for its students.

For some people, a garbage plant remains a garbage plant. Take Michel Perrouse, a forester in Bellegarde, on France's eastern border, who recently lost a 10-year battle against a futuristic new incinerator that today stands a few hundred yards from his house. "The architect told us that the factory was like a blue seashell floating in the air. I say it's the first seashell I've ever seen with a chimney," he says.
Incineration opponents such as Mr. Perrouse have a long list of reasons to contest the burning of waste. Given improvements in air filters and scrubbing techniques, it isn't necessarily the threat of smells or dioxins spewing out of the chimney-although that is a major problem in the older plants. More seriously, they argue, it is the fact that once a municipality has invested in an incineration plant, it then has to produce enough garbage to keep it operating efficiently.
Local authorities, however, feel they have little choice. Recycling remains expensive, the amounts of trash keep growing and, within five years, strict new European environmental rules mean they will no longer be allowed to resort to landfill for everyday household garbage.
Richard Read, responsible for dealing with 1.5 million people's garbage in Britain's Hampshire County, has been trying for the past six years to find a solution to the problem after initial plans for a huge waste-to-energy incinerator in a Portsmouth industrial zone were rejected by residents. "The difficulty is finding sites for the incinerators because of their size and the controversy," he says.
A PAINT JOB
This time, as he prepares to obtain planning permission for a new plant, Mr. Read and the Hampshire County Council have called in Mr. Mazaud, the French architect, to help win over local opinion. "I think it would be fair to call his designs elegant, " Mr. Read says.
But all this dressing up costs money.

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