Grappling with the familiar dilemma of how to shape a post-industrial future, this former powerhouse in the mining town of Genk has metamorphosed into a new cultural centre
C-Mine, by Brussels-based architects 51N4E, establishes a regional cultural centre in the Flemish town of Genk. The project, completed in 2010, reworks the powerhouse buildings of a former coalmining complex to provide a pair of multipurpose auditoria of different scales, meeting rooms and spaces for flexible cultural programming, and accommodation for technical support and administration.
Genk is, quite literally, at the end of the line: at the eastern edge of the Province of Limburg, Belgium’s border with the Netherlands. Hasselt − the neighbouring city and regional capital of Limburg − is a much more urban proposition, but Genk sits at the heart of Belgium’s Kempen coalfield, part of a coal deposit stretching to the Ruhr Valley, which was exploited at an industrial scale from the close of the First World War to the end of the last century. Over this period Genk grew from a village to become one of Belgium’s most important industrial centres.
Quite unlike British coal-mining districts, Limburg does not seem poor: perhaps because it is located not on the margins of the country, but in a strategic border position between Belgium, the Netherlands and Germany, and has benefited from continuous government investment. Coal was discovered in the region at the beginning of the 20th century, and extensive deep mines were dug at Winterslag, Zwartberg and Waterschei from 1917. Winterslag is a suburb of Genk: a company town built largely by the mine, at the head of a mine system that extends over a vast area, with galleries up to a kilometre deep. The Winterslag pit closed in 1988 − the last of the great mines of the Limburg coalfield.
Flanders seems to have a culturally intimate relationship with topography. So many of the establishing narratives of the country are played out at a grand scale over a subtle landscape, from the defensive topographic connoisseurship of the Western Front (or its prequel, Vauban’s fortress system, for example), to the colonial exploitation of Congolese rubber, with its concomitant built riches in Brussels and Antwerp, commissioned by the ‘Builder King’ Leopold II. In all these narratives, the landscape is seen as something wholeheartedly purposeful.
The familiar patchwork landscape of central Belgium gives way to orhards in Limburg, and then with a dramatic shift, to a mix of forest and heavy infrastructure around Genk. The discovery of coal brought all the accoutrements of a carbon economy to the region: power stations, high-voltage power lines and the huge Albert Canal, connecting Liège with Antwerp, characteristically establishing both defensive line and European trade artery.
Slagheaps from the mines are prominent in what was originally a heath landscape which was reminiscent of the Norfolk Breckland. From the vantage point of the top of the Winterslag pit’s winding tower, this whole landscape is revealed as an instrumental one: shaped by the process of coal extraction. Even the extensive forest − part of Hoge Kempen, Flanders’ only National Park − turns out to have been planted to supply timber supports and props for the mine workings, and is largely a species of pine that groans under excessive compressive load, so warning those underground of imminent collapse.
Against the background of this immense landscape drama is a more intense, but interrelated narrative: the two-decade conundrum of what to do with the former mine buildings and landscapes, and the economic void left by their closure. When a culture ceases to operate at this grand scale, the anxiety of what replaces the lost activity of extensive industry is palpable.
Devising a masterplan
The mine complex established itself on a high terrace, commanding the remnants of the settlement of Winterslag to the south. From 1988 a series of masterplans have attempted to posit a means of locating the surface buildings of the Winterslag pit in a new economic reality, largely supported by European ‘conversion funds’. Two masterplans from this period represent the poles of a possible development approach for this post-industrial landscape, on which structures were set out according to a Fordist diagram, but then robbed of the very process that gave them form.
The first masterplan from 1991 was commissioned from architects BOB 361 by the Kempische Steenkoolmijnen company, working with the town council of Genk. This early plan proposed embedding the industrial remnants in an orthogonal plot-based field, allowing sequential speculative additions of new programme, allied to the process of de-industrialisation and conversion to a more urban condition. This responsive masterplan was replaced by a more formalised approach, designed by De Gregorio & Partners, setting buildings around a formal square created at the front of the mine buildings with parking behind formally arranged institutional buildings, including a fire station, a design faculty and a multiscreen cinema.
‘Against the background of this immense landscape drama is a more intense, but interrelated narrative: the two-decade conundrum of what to do with the former mine buildings and landscapes, and the economic void left by their closure’
C-Mine diverges from the masterplan in a way that gives an interesting critique of the urban-scaled project, while establishing the overall theme for the new cultural centre. Rather than retain the T shape of the mine building, with the required new programme of the cultural centre added as a side extension (as envisaged by the De Gregorio masterplan), 51N4E chose to superimpose these new volumes onto the existing, completing the T to form a rectangle in plan. The trinity emerging from this includes the superscaled mine machinery, the pragmatic but beautifully wrought and inventive industrial shell, and
the new cultural programme. The result is much closer in spirit to the previous BOB 361 masterplan of negotiative urbanism in the way that it avoids the mere adjacency of ‘heritage industrial’ and ‘new culture’, but establishes a more compressed and spatially active exchange between the two.
The hubristic masterplan’s formal figure-field relationships are subverted into something much more spatially rich. A terracotta-coloured concrete flank wall that creates the overall quadrilateral is used to unite the various components of the project, and the plan for the cultural spaces is worked out to develop a logic of relationships with a discipline as tough as the original industrial planning. Here the formality of the masterplan helps by establishing a clear ‘back’, allowing separate servicing of both stages and a wing of administrative and artists’ spaces.
The ground-floor former machine hall is used as the foyer from which to access all other spaces; the plan discipline helps to hold a dense collection of fragments in a unified field, creating an introverted order. This field includes elements left over from the industrial process, the original fabric, together with subsequent pragmatic interventions in the powerhouse (huge concrete piers punch down through earlier brick fabric to support pieces of machinery). Each space has a relationship to the next, arranged in an enfilade or through jump-cut splices, with clever use of borrowed light and framed sequential views.
‘The plan for the cultural spaces is worked out to develop a logic of relationships with a discipline as tough as the original industrial planning’
The lower realm is highly practical, densely containing all the defined programme required by the cultural centre. 51N4E’s coup de grâce comes in the creation of an upper realm, structured around the volumes of the compressor hall, the halls of the pit winding gear, and the upper horizons of the new auditoria and terraces.
In contrast with the ground floor, with its aestheticised clutter of pipes and ducts, and the bar and the stages and seating of the new auditoria, where all is purposeful, the piano nobile is quite different in character, with very little programme. Here the found red-and-white chequered tiling of the machine hall is matched and extended to create a field that unites fragments of new and old space, creating a Euclidian abstraction between spaces, composed like a piece of Donald Judd’s Marfa, and keyed more to the aura of loss and doubt.
This upper realm is open to a more speculative, questioning idea of the role of culture in the regeneration of a place like Genk. The complex’s original function creates a surplus mirroring the slackness of the post-industrial surrounding landscape. As 51N4E’s director Peter Swinnen notes, C-Mine’s raw material is the excess of space, converting a problem into an opportunity: ‘At C-Mine … an infrastructure that had been severed from its industrial context was used to give structure to new city fabric. Perhaps it’s no longer possible today to build industrial structures of this scale in an urban context. Everything about them seems just too large … The unrefined materials allow users to appropriate the building in a rough way. The dimensions of the interior space are pushed to the limits, as if in anticipation of continually new transformations and conversions. These buildings are made out of “surplus space”.’
The architecture brings into play a conversation pertinent to the regional problem of industrial conversion: if the 20th century could conjure a whole landscape out of a single physical process, what can replace that? How do you recover meaning from that landscape?
Craft and industry
The powerhouse buildings stem from a period in industrial history when craft skills were more fully integrated with manufacturing and industry. This cultural manifestation of industry is evident in many structures from this period in Belgium, particularly in public infrastructure: structures for the railway for example. It illustrates a sensitivity to making, decoration and materiality that seems far removed from our present cultural condition, and again it has a scalar dimension.
On the day of my visit, the auditoria and the switch-house (the Barenzaal) were preparing for a trade show by General Electric, a company deeply implicated in the shaping of the northern European landscape, through involvement in power generation and other critical infrastructure (for example, the Port of Rotterdam). At one end of the Barenzaal is the mine’s original switchgear, each dial and switch lovingly made and mounted into a screen wall of sheet marble, occupying the entire end of the hall like a Roman scaenae frons. At the other end of the space was the manufacturer’s latest switch module presented on a table: engineered with great skill, and probably containing in miniaturised form the capability of much of the marble switch-wall.
‘When a culture ceases to operate at this grand scale, retreat does not seem to be an option, but the anxiety of what replaces the lost activity of extensive industry is palpable’
While the earlier approach mediates with architecture − as part of the creation of a fine room for example, now popular for wedding receptions and events of all kinds − the contemporary manifestation, while impressive, is hard to locate in cultural terms beyond its technical utility. 51N4E encountered these issues of craft limitation in building the work. The project architect related the problem of matching the ‘found’ red and white tiling used to finish the upper floors.
The contractor could only offer tiles pre-laid in 16 tile modules, as it would now be uneconomic to lay tiles individually. 51N4E find modes of resistance against this coarseness: an example would be the use of ready-made profiled sheets of aluminium to clad the auditoria, but to create the corners using a ‘special’ which increases the number of folds, achieving a form of entasisacross the whole elevation and turning the corners elegantly. This delicacy is extended to create subtle means of introducing different degrees of luminance to the auditoria through layered clerestories, with the ability to turn a technically efficient ‘black box’ into a room flooded with daylight.
C-Mine represents an important attempt to reconnect the immediate scale of making and creativity with more extensive problems of landscape and urbanity. Through an extensive and painful re-imagining of its post industrial context, Genk now has a significant forum to consider this contemporary cultural dilemma.