The project started several years ago with a competition to design a tourist attraction in the old ventilation tunnels at the Winterslag mine that would draw up to 100,000 visitors a year. The response of NU Architectuuratelier was to suggest a subterranean route in which the old underground areas and new underground elements would be combined with the headframe to create a spatially challenging walk. This ‘C-mine expeditie’ unfolded in, on and under the ‘C-mine’ site. It is by no means intended to be a historical mining museum, but is a route for sensory experiences based on the contrasts between height and depth, broad and narrow, above and below.
One enters by a flight of stairs in a corner of the first floor of the current ‘C-mine’ cultural centre. The stairs taper to a narrow door – the innermost depths of the mine can only be accessed in single file. After a zigzag the ventilation shaft stretches out on the right. A little farther on the left, the enormous ventilator is today motionless, although one can still feel the air currents and the acoustics are unsettling. On the right, at a depth of six metres, is the long, high vaulted air extraction tunnel. Covered in years of dust, this passage is now filled with very simple, recognisablegeometric shapes in white sheet steel, folded and soldered, as fine, and indeed as fragile, as origami creations. They are similar to those on the surface. Placed centrally, like a trail of small white stones, they show the way to the ‘Cmine’ cultural centre. These elements actually create a physical link between the surface and the underground. There is the ‘Periscope’, a light shafts, a light dome and a bench on the surface, which links to the ‘Geluidcel’ underground. The first element in the tunnel is the ‘Geheugen’, an installation made up of five suspended alcoves, each accommodating an interpretation on the history of the miners by writers and artists. This is followed by the ‘Geluidcel’, the ‘Periscope’ and the ‘Echo space’ with light shafts that are situated under the head frame, so one can get one’s bearings and take a breather before entering a poky, low-ceilinged space. This oppressive labyrinth leads to the white and black corridor connecting the two head frames. A corridor of arches echoes with the sound of footsteps and chatter.
The sound installation accompanies the walk leading to a dense forest of struts. It sets the scene, as it were – a take on the space, which acts on the senses to stimulate the memory. However, it does not lead to the cage serving the shafts, but to a huge double helix staircase upwards. So the role of this corridor has been changed: rather than being swallowed by the shafts, the visitors ascend. And not smoothly, but by climbing the concrete steps of the double helix staircase up to 15 meters high plateau. Then, the visitor is lead to a height of 62 meters by a metal spiral staircase encased in metal netting that flaps in the wind. Lastly, a straight metal staircase climbs up to eighty-metre to see the toothed wheels that drive the hoisting cage cable, to take in the whole of the ‘C-mine’ site and the surrounding countryside with Liège and Maastricht in the distance.
Through this project the architects wish to highlight the archetypal value of the site by putting it back in its natural context. The route follows the morphology and materiality of the site, with additions to aid our understanding. The stairs grafted to the head frame are strongly coloured but do not clash with the original architecture, because they employ the same language of the metal architecture that expresses, beyond its use, the logic of construction. Although emptied of its history and repurposed, the site’s essence has been captured and the project arouses feelings in the user, shared by miners and visitors alike. A simple and eternal way to tell a story.
(text: Audrey Contesse)
Sustainability isn’t just a top-down process. It ask everyone’s engagement. An engagement of certain emotion. In our day to day lives, we are connected to the built environment with a certain sentiment. This makes our existing buildings the best example of a sustainable idea. If our European environmental policy has no regards for the emotional connection that people have with existing buildings, we will dash at a cultural destruction of architectural capital.