After Zwartberg and Waterschei, on 30 March 1988 the mine at Winterslag also closed; this was the last mine in the eastern coal basin in Belgian Limburg. This company town of about 12,000 inhabitants, also a major suburb of the town of Genk, thereby lost the reason for its existence. About sixty buildings – offices, washhouses, storehouses, pithead machinery, machine halls, generator buildings, coal bunkers, laundries, catwalks, cooling towers – and 180 hectares of mine land were added to the ever-growing stock of vacant post-industrial land in Flanders.
51N4E concentrated on openness, accessibility and generosity. These were fulfilled by three design choices. The architects let the large scale of the former powerhouse and the site speak for themselves. Rather than entering into competition with the historical mine buildings, 51N4E opted to emphasise the oversized scale – the scale of machines, not people. Two cubic volumes that contain the large and small theatres were inserted into the angles of the T-shaped complex of the power buildings.
The position of these boxes makes for a second possible move: the whole ground floor – previously a largely inaccessible technical space with valves and pipes of industrial size – is used to the full as an entrance level. This extra, reclaimed, level provides room for a lobby, a brasserie, meeting and exhibition rooms and contains the entrances to both theatres. Where possible, the industrial piping systems were retained. They match the rough brick and concrete structure that, where necessary, changes into a polished and refined finish for the meeting and exhibition rooms.
The entrance level that is gained enables the third design move to yield the best results: the whole design seems to be constantly creating new space. The machine hall on the first floor was not given any specific use and so provides an incredible spatial surplus, with the powerful industrial character conspiring with great flexibility and an invitation to use it for the most varied purposes. Full use was made of the spatial qualities of what had, for years, been the most presentable storey, which was clad with wooden panelling and ceramic tiles in a red and white chessboard pattern and which profited from abundant daylight.
On the outside, a continuous wall of coloured concrete – in a brown that relates to the industrial brick – gives shape to the base that indicates the additionally acquired entrance level. On the square, steel funnels draw the visitors into the cultural centre. Strategically chosen perforations in the base allow carefully measured doses of light to fall, sometimes theatrically, sometimes indirectly, upon the otherwise fairly dark lower floor.
Free of any imitation and over-design, the C-Mine Cultural Centre has been designed as a real art factory.
This text is based on an article by André Loeckx en Els Vervloesem, published in Architecture Review Flanders N°10. Radical Commonplaces. European Architectures from Flanders.