Follow the Dirt: Worlding Soils in post-mining Minett
Can something as microscopic in scale as soil show us how to build? In Luxembourg, Marija Marić, César Reyes Nájera and David Peleman have been troubling their students and the local architectural community with just such questions.

For an architectural programme to focus on post-industrial rubble might seem — perhaps literally — reductive. Can something as microscopic in scale as soil show us how to build? In Luxembourg, Marija Marić, César Reyes Nájera and David Peleman have been troubling their students and the local architectural community with just such questions, claiming that soil can indeed reveal the vicissitudes of planetary evolution and the way we might remediate, rather than work against it.

This interview is part of KoozArch’s Issue #03 | New Rules for School.

Mine, blast, dump, crush, extract, exhaust: the syntax of modernity, as noted by Lewis Mumford, forms a visceral vocabulary describing the destructive and creative power of capitalism over the soil.1 Mine, referring both to the physical site and a property relation, sums up this power perfectly. While mines are just the starting point of a commodity chain that understands soil as a mere resource, this chain extends across vast distances, resulting in the transformation of economies related to minerals into a truly planetary phenomenon, as noted by political geographer Martín Arboleda. Such landscapes of extraction — whether former or active — continue to shape material conditions of territories, soils, and communities who inhabit them.2 Operating both as an archive to the industrial dreams of extraction and growth, and a living environment inhabited by humans and non-humans alike, soil could thus be seen as a tool for rethinking the scale, scope, temporalities, and role of planning and design.

"While mines are just the starting point of a commodity chain that understands soil as a mere resource, this chain extends across vast distances."

The design studio Worlding Soils,taught by Marija Marić, César Reyes Nájera, and David Peleman at the Master in Architecture Programme, University of Luxembourg in Fall 2023, explored mining territories in the south of Luxembourg, known also as Minett, through the perspective of soil. Understanding the underground not only as a passive recipient of political, economic, and social processes above, but as a space of resistance, as “somewhere to (dig and) plot,” the studio framed soil beyond its resourcefulness and productivity for humans, trying instead to think what could be the role of design in building soil communities.3 Extending the notion of soil communities from microbes, plants and animals constituting earth eco-systems to include humans, Maria Puig de la Bellacasa noted that “caring for soil communities involves making a speculative effort toward the acknowledgement that the (human) carer also depends on soil’s capacity to “take care” of a number of processes that are vital to more than her existence,” arguing also that “affirming humans as being soil entangles them in substantial commonness.”4 Following this line of argument, we could ask: what might the role of architectural design and urban planning be, in building interdependencies between all those who have been shaped by the same conditions of extraction and who share life in the ruins of environmental destruction? “What does the history of toxics reveal about the history of architecture, and vice versa?”5 Worlding Soils. Caring for Soil Communities in Minett is a call for what Hélène Frichot outlined as dirty theory, theory that “helps architecture think about the ordinary gestures of care, repair and maintenance that can form part of its mandate.”6 Following on her call to “follow the dirt,” we could ask: what are the strategies of repair and protocols of care needed for the building of the soil communities in the south of Luxembourg?


KOOZ Marija, César, thank you for making time. Let me start by asking you to lay out your context. You’re both talking to me from Luxembourg, where your project Worlding Soils has gone through its first teaching cycle.

MARIJA MARIĆ Thank you for inviting us to be part of this conversation. Actually, there are three of us: our colleague David Peleman was also part of the design studio taught in Fall 2023 at the Master in Architecture Programme of the University of Luxembourg. The studio looked into the post-mining territory in the south of Luxembourg, asking: how can we, by centering soil as a subject, matter, archive, and a site for the analysis of histories and presents of capitalist extraction, create conditions for speculative futures of co-existence? To give a bit of a context, the southern territory of Luxembourg — called Minett — was a former mining area and with the 19th century industrialisation and opening of the new resource markets in the 20th century, Minett appeared as an economically important region for Luxembourg, but also an important part of the broader political project of the European Coal and Steel Community founded in 1950 between France, Germany, Belgium, Italy, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg (which set the foundation of what will later become the European Union). With the decline of the mining industry from the 1970s onward, the exhausted soil of Minett was joined by forgotten infrastructures and communities of former steel workers, leaving the entire region in the shadow of new markets and frontiers of economic growth. There have been several attempts to "revitalise" the region. Some of the projects, focused on new construction and development have set focus on the immediate economic value of land instead of slow regeneration of the soil, instead opting to displace or seal the polluted earth. Other projects, such as Minett UNESCO Biosphere, which granted the region the status of the protected area, focused on the preservation of the feral ecosystems which managed to survive or grow in the landscapes of former mining sites. Driven by the Anthropocentric paradigm of construction and economic development on one side, and legal tools of the preservation of nature on the other, these strategies equally overlooked what care and repair of soil — as a common ground for the coexistence of humans and non-humans — would look like.

"Understanding scale as a set of lenses for engaging with the world, the goal of such a task was to challenge given scales we work with in architecture, and thus the views they enable, as well as those they oversee."

- Marija Marić

Starting from there, we decided to look into soil as a site and a living environment, but also as a method of working with the speculative. We asked ourselves: can working with soil serve as a way to challenge the power of visibility which often serves as a tool of appropriation? How can working with soil become a tool to think about speculative practices of architectural and urban design, which imply that thinking of the "invisible" underground must go hand-in-hand with the processes which cut different scales, both spatially and temporally. It was a difficult task, but a very important one for us. The decision not to give a scale of design to work with, but rather to design the scale itself, was one of the most important tasks of the studio. Understanding scale as a set of lenses for engaging with the world, the goal of such a task was to challenge given scales we work with in architecture (building, urban, landscape, territorial), and thus the views they enable, as well as those they oversee. Our goal was to allow for different voices and positions to be taken to unpack the complex matter of soil environments and 'soil communities' — a situation in which the scales of the microscopic, body, landscape, urban, territorial, and even planetary, stand next to each other, allowing us to see the interconnectedness of different processes, stakeholders, and temporalities. Students worked with different scales: from taking the scale of the body of the miner, lungs, and human metabolism as a site to understand processes of mineral extraction, to looking through the scale of a slag — a pile of post-extraction soil waste, unpacking the construction of value, resources, and global mining industries, and so on.


So soil, for us, seemed to provide a method to challenge the way we think about architectural design. Next to the design studio teaching, we have put together a series of public lectures with brilliant guest lecturers who shared their work with soil: Mio Tsuneyama who discussed her projects of slow repair and regeneration; Paulo Tavares, who talked about the legal and political projects around the questions of land and plantation in South America; Maria Puig de la Bellacasa who shared her work on 'soil communities,' practices of archiving and building knowledge on soil from the perspective of feminist scholarship, and Marina Otero Verzier, who opened up a debate on soil through her research on lithium extraction. The lecture series was hosted by the Luxembourg Centre for Architecture, our partner in the project, and also the location for an exhibition of student works.

CÉSAR REYES NÁJERA Marija has made an excellent summary; as she was pointing out all the aspects that we cover, I was thinking, wow, that was so intense — the whole exercise was running just for four months. We were also aware of the pedagogical challenge of dealing with the unknown, those things that neither students nor even tutors are really aware of, in strictly pedagogical terms; it was a big challenge to get a metaphorical view into that which we cannot really see. In all these events, there is the intention to build alternate stories, different stories of what soil means—but both for the students and for us, I think it was like doubling the analysis on the site work.

"I think we are still exploring and willing to push these pedagogical challenges a bit further. Another academy is possible."

- César Reyes Nájera

In the end, it was really fruitful for both sides: asking students to find a way to deal with soil and witnessing various approaches from the most practical to philosophical. We were exposing them to different ways of telling the stories about soil that maybe they haven't been exposed to before. And the results were so amazing. When some of the students brought these stories, positing miners as embodied archives; or all the care shown when dealing with slag — something often perceived as a by-product, or a contaminant — they approached this with a level of care that I was not expecting. For all of us, it was a nice lesson in how an ‘open pedagogy’ can lead to incredible results. In some way, this will be reflected in the coming design studios; it also reflects the philosophy of the team here. We are a really small team, but some of us have been interested in challenging canonical academic practice for a long time. That will be reflected in the studios we are setting up right now, and it would be interesting to share more ideas and cross-pollinations with other practices... I think it’s beneficial for the larger academic world, to know that things can be taught differently.

We witnessed the students progress from the very first exercise when we asked them to represent soil in the freest possible way, through to the end result at their exhibition. These results will be pushed even further, but what we produced together with the students, in the time that we had was really inspiring. I think we are still exploring and willing to push these pedagogical challenges a bit further. Another academy is possible.


KOOZ The freedom and sheer exhilaration that you're both transmitting is inspiring, as a teacher and also, as I’m sure, to your students. But what was the reaction of the University—was there any resistance? Or even from your students: did anyone ask, when are we going to design a building?

CRN That's exactly the kind of a question they did ask — somewhat shyly — after the first or second session. But as we kept going, they shifted to a different kind of question. One of the most revelatory things for me is that just graduated professionals are more trained to do things and less in asking why they do such things. We try to challenge this attitude, encouraging the students to think critically about the nature and meaning of their work. Regarding the school, we are in a particular context: there is no Faculty of Architecture in Luxembourg. People wishing to study for a Bachelor’s degree in Architecture must travel either to France, Germany, or Belgium; here, we just have a small Masters unit.

"The critical understanding of how the built and non-built environment is being produced is one of the most important focuses of our teaching work."

- Marija Marić

MM It is an interesting position. We are a Masters course, situated not in the engineering context, also not in the context of the art academy, but at the Department of Geography and Spatial Planning. This immediate proximity to humanities and teachers and students coming from the domains of geography, sociology, urban studies, political theory, to name just some, has also been shaping the direction of the Programme. As Cesar mentioned, the critical understanding of how the built and non-built environment is being produced is one of the most important focuses of our teaching work, but also the idea that the work of an architect is not only in designing buildings, but instead involves a much broader set of spatial practices which involve political, social, environmental questions.

KOOZ That freedom must be extremely meaningful.

MM We are lucky to be in such an incredible position: to have a small group of students we can work with in a dedicated way, and for the curiosity, political awareness, and hard-work our students bring to the table. It is not always easy to work in a way that does not conform with the institution of a brief, and which does not always result with the design of buildings. Working in an environment in which architectural discourse is in constant flux and a project-in-the-making involves a lot of patience, and also conscious making of the publics to which this kind of design approach could be directed.

"Who has the right to dig? Why these and not these other agents? Who is responsible for restoring what has been damaged? Are we measuring damage with anthropocentric gaze?"

- César Reyes Nájera

CRN The question of making the publics — in plural — is quite important. Firstly, because our project falls outside of what is considered conventional architectural practice. And then because through architecture we are inquiring the very economic and political dynamics that historically have created the conditions for architecture to thrive.We have challenged that social totem, which is how mining is linked to the financial richness of Luxembourg. We are critically questioning it, posing some questions like: Who has the right to dig? Why these and not these other agents? Who is responsible for restoring what has been damaged? Are we measuring damage with anthropocentric gaze? What if we assume breakdown as part of the remediation process? These kind questions are challenging why we humans do the things we do.

As you can see, we are not addressing architecture per se, but architecture within historical, political, and environmental contexts. So at first, conventional practice might ignore you, but at some point, you will provoke a reaction. And I think that if there is a task for research, it is really to provoke reactions through critical questions. Otherwise, what we are doing here is just public relations. We're questioning how things are done, not just for the sake of criticism. We see ourselves as being part of a network of comrades and practices that think things can be done differently. I see this as a seeding task, let's see what pops-up. We are lucky to have this room for experimentation, and especially in opening up spaces for discussion.


KOOZ I tend to agree; it is about building capacity in students to develop their own praxis. Leaving some things open and allowing decisions to be made is a critical part of the learning process.

CRN One difference is that we're able to discuss and develop things in the academy at a different pace to conventional private practice. In terms of professional interest, I imagine it's harder for those who are thinking about revitalisation and regeneration in quite traditional terms to take on the research, findings, and discoveries in any applicable way, as they challenge the growth paradigm.I think that’s why long-term care and sustainability — as understood in a social and cultural sense, as well as in a technical-material sense — is perhaps unclear in terms of its utility. I think it’s also that the role of architectural studies itself is changing. Don't you think so? It's not anymore merely based on this exchange of technocratic skills anymore.

Somehow this moment connects with the critical attitude I mentioned at the very beginning. Also, the intention was to take this critical experiment out of academia’s ivory tower and find a means by which the results could be discussed publicly. Students also saw how the architectural tools they had may not be enough to deal with the complexity of the world they are facing. For us, it was important that they felt confident to depart from those tools, but also that they were able to bring other means of expression to address a wider audience. They are now more ambitious in confronting other layers of action for architects, as well as using their tools in an expanded meaningful way, not only focused on the construction site. We’ve also been trying to address the violence of the architecture studio review process. Really, we’re trying to find ways — and we’re not there yet — to keep advancing research without subjecting individuals to suffering in the design process; most of us have been trained in that way.

KOOZ When did you gain this conviction — through your own experiences in education and practice?

MM In my case, both in my own experience as a student, but also as a teacher. I think it is important to consider the classroom itself as a form of social and political space; not only to work on speculative, fictional scenarios of design, but to take the classroom and our own historical specificities as students and teachers as the site of design and repair itself, one that cannot be separated from the topics we are dealing with.

"If we let commodification take over this space, then we can close up and go."

- César Reyes Nájera

CRN I would add that this is an act of resistance that comes from very own personal and professional experiences. Nowadays, it also involves pointing out to students that academia might be one of the last spaces where we can think autonomously. If we let commodification take over this space, then we can close up and go; that’s why we insist on keeping that autonomy. We are aware that in practical terms, students have to go out and work. Maybe that combination of contents dealing with more practical themes — like construction management — are important; it’s true, you will have to face that reality. But it is one thing to give accreditation, it’s another thing to educate. These are completely different things.

At some point, graduates might be confronted, in their professional lives, with some of the things — maybe not in full — that have been discussed here. It’s precisely for that moment, that we wouldpreserve this space for critical thinking. Otherwise, we would be just preparing good workers.

KOOZ Indeed. Thank you so much César and Marija —

MM Thank you so much; the pleasure is ours.


Marija Marić is an architect, researcher and postdoctoral research associate at the Master in Architecture programme, University of Luxembourg. In 2023, she co-curated Luxembourg Pavilion at the Venice Architecture Biennale with an exhibition that critically unpacked the project of space mining. Marija completed her doctoral studies at ETH Zurich in 2020 with a thesis that examined the role of real estate communication strategists in the design, mediation and globalisation of the built environment. Her work has been organised around the questions of property, media, and the production of the built environment and urban imaginaries in the context of global capitalism and global flow of information.

David Peleman is a post-doctoral researcher and lecturer in the Master in Architecture at the University of Luxembourg. He graduated as a civil engineer-architect with a particular interest in theory and history of urbanism and urbanisation. As postdoctoral researcher he has lectured on the course ‘Theory of Urban Design’; his research 'The Laborious Landscape' dealt with the historical interaction between, industrialisation, urbanisation and labour in Belgium. Since 2018 he is a member of the editorial board of OASE Journal for Architecture.

César Reyes Nájera is an architect, co-founder and editor of, and postdoctoral researcher in the field of Urban Regeneration at the University of Luxembourg, as part of the chair of the City of Esch with Prof. Dr. Markus Miessen. He is currently researching urban social dynamics and degrowth strategies to critically update the notion of sustainable development. His editorial work specialises in critical books on architecture and its intersection with social sciences.

Shumi Bose is chief editor at KoozArch. She is an educator, curator and editor in the field of architecture and architectural history. Shumi is a Senior Lecturer in architectural history at Central Saint Martins and also teaches at the Royal College of Art, the Architectural Association and the School of Architecture at Syracuse University in London. She has curated widely, including exhibitions at the Venice Biennale of Architecture, the Victoria and Albert Museum and the Royal Institute of British Architects. In 2020 she founded Holdspace, a digital platform for extracurricular discussions in architectural education, and currently serves as trustee for the Architecture Foundation.


1 Mumford, Lewis. Technics and Civilization. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1934, 2010.
2 Arboleda, Martín. Planetary Mine. Territories of Extraction under Late Capitalism. Kindle Edition. London: Verso, 2020.
3 Yusoff, Kathryn. “Mine as Paradigm.” E-Flux Architecture, June 2021.
4 Puig de la Bellacasa, Maria. “Re-Animating Soils: Transforming Human–Soil Affections through Science, Culture and Community.” The Sociological Review 67,no. 2 (2019): 391–407: 396.
5 TenHoor, Meredith, and Jessica Varner. “Mattering Toxics and Making Toxics Matter in Architecture and Landscape Histories.” Aggregate, 2023.
6 Frichot, Hélène. Dirty Theory: Troubling Architecture. AADR, 2019: 6.

03 Apr 2024
Reading time
20 minutes
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