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Architecture (MA)

Zibo Zhang

Originally from Germany, Zibo is an architectural designer who has been living and working in the UK since 2014. During his undergraduate studies at the University of Bath, he attended Aalto University in Helsinki as part of the Erasmus+ exchange programme where he collaborated with Parsons School of Design on an urban design project.

Prior to joining the RCA, he gained professional experience in the UK, Germany and Switzerland on residential, cultural and masterplan projects. He is also a certified Passivhaus designer. 

Throughout his studies and in practice, he has developed a keen interest in exploring new modes of inhabitation, merging different cultural ideals and rituals with science and technology. His current work at the RCA, Folgelandschaft, investigates the open-pit coal mine in Hambach, Germany. Responding to the contextual conditions of an open-pit mine, his project proposes a new method of reclaiming these vast extraction sites, while experimenting with sand and mechanical processes at scales and timeframes that go beyond the conventional architectural realm.

Photo of the site overlooking the machines that excavate coal

Folgelandschaft (eng: After-Landscape) is a manifesto of caretaking for Europe's largest open-pit coal mine, located in Hambach, Germany.

40 years of extraction have resulted in a 400m deep, 7km wide, and 10km long depression in the landscape — uninhabitable and useless. It is the epitome of our society's ingrained understanding of land as nothing more than a mere commodity. Aggressively used and disposed of, without any consideration for the resulting damages.

This project is about fundamentally challenging this destructive paradigm through the simple act of caretaking, in which the traditional understanding of care is subverted and extended into a form of empathetic reparation to the ground.

In 2030, Germany will officially phase out coal energy. No more coal, humans or machines within these 45sqkm. Leaving behind a barren wasteland that, under German Federal Law, needs to be reclaimed.

This project will intervene in 7 years. The existing infrastructure and machines of extraction will be retained and transformed into tools of reconstruction that will delicately tend to the landscape. They will be recalibrated to become less efficient in coal extraction, but more suitable in reshuffling gargantuan amounts of sand. Creating a 2m deep protective layer that will cover the entire surface of the mine. This layer will not be permanent, it will slowly erode with time until re-excavated and reproduced elsewhere.

This post-extractive approach of tending will gradually change the mine’s image and purpose. Constructed solely through different types of sand, it will form a new spatial condition that is neither architecture nor landscape.

A spatial condition that can host multiple timescales of inhabitation. It will be occupied by seasonal plants that further the sedimentation of the ground, animals that will never leave this site, and machines that will accompany it for at least a century. It will also be suitable for humans staying for a few hours, a couple of days or even a week. Hiking across this tundra-like space, while at the same time compacting the ground with their own weight - acting as voluntary caretakers.

The intervention will attempt to move beyond mere ground remediation. The project’s 100-year timeframe alone suggests that it will not be just for humans, but for everyone and everything.

The Hambach mine will never return to what was there before, nor will it become a useless wasteland. Instead, the landscape will continue to reinvent itself until one day the ground will reach its final composition. Or will it ever?

This proposal puts forward an architectural intervention that bridges extreme scales and timeframes, a project that cannot exist anywhere else but within this coal mine. With caretaking being the sole purpose of the project rather than a function simply applied to spaces, it offers a radical alternative to reclaim Germany’s fading mines.

Perhaps in a distant future, this repaired land will become a new city form, where sand dunes become walls, floors or roofs. Forming the architecture of a post-extraction society committed to caretaking.

Site section drawing
This drawing summarises the ground conditions and machine processes present on-site. Moving from the left-hand side of the drawing: 1: Excavators remove soil from the natural layers of ground. 2: The ground becomes black due to the exposed coal. 3: The excavated soil is dumped on the overburden creating a new artificial ground type.
A plan drawing showing the site of excavation
A plan drawing showing the overburden
Excavator section showing machine limits
Ground Conditions + Machine Limitations at the Excavation Site
Spreader section showing machine limits
Ground Conditions + Machine Trajectories at the Overburden
Photograph of Excavator
Excavator - 100m tall, 200m long and 13500t heavy
Diagram of machines
The excavator (top) in comparison to the spreader (bottom)
Patterns overlapped onto each other
Multiple layers of sand are excavated and dumped on top of each other in a cyclic rhythm - creating an artificial strata that is able to host new life.
A photograph of a model
A sand/plaster cast made to test the machine patterns.
Proposed Site Plan
Proposed Site Plan - Ground Condition in Year 2123
Proposed Site Plan GIF
Diagram still
Recalibrated Machine Patterns
GIF of new machine movements
Machines delicately create a protective layer of sand that covers the entire surface of the mine
Global ground condition plan
Reshuffled ground of the open-pit coal mine Hambach
Visualisation of the proposal
Ground Condition A plan
Detailed Ground Condition - a new type of forest emerges from the soil
Visualisation of the proposal
Ground Condition B plan
Detailed Ground Condition - hikers acting as voluntary caretakers
Visualisation of the proposal
Ground Condition C plan
Detailed Ground Condition - sunbathing and enjoying the vast open space
Visualisation of the proposal
1:20 detailed plan showing possible inhabitation
A 1:20 plan showing the different sized sand aggregates and the geometries of a monomaterial space.
Spatial render of the proposed spaces
1:20 detailed section
A 1:20 section illustrating the ground build-up and structural composition of these inhabitable enclosures.
1:100 detailed drawing of the tool
The tip of the rotating excavation tool effortlessly extracting tonnes of natural ground in minutes. The super small scale vs. the global scale.
Visualisation of project
Visualisation of project
One open space, one material, multiple futures.
physical model showcasing the spatial dimensions of the proposal
Sand, grey card and mild steel
Site photo of coal mine