A list of the top tourist destinations in Flanders includes Bruges, Antwerp, Ghent... and Genk? With the Manifesta European Biennial of Contemporary Art being staged in the little city in Limburg, Genk is poised to become the summer’s big tourist draw to Belgium.
Genk aims high with its creative celebration of Flanders’ mining heritage
Genk aims to sustain that level of renown, and the winning horse in its stable is C-Mine. The business and recreation complex has been built on the site of the old Winterslag coal mine.
The “C” stands for “creativity”, which is central to all aspects of its development. The four components of its mission statement are tourism and recreation, culture, education and creative enterprise. The site’s goal is to bring together creative people, companies and organisations to facilitate the exchange of ideas and stimulate innovation.
The first business partner to open its doors at C-Mine was cinema chain Euroscoop in 2005. Since then, the site has seen the opening of the MAD-Faculty (Media, Arts and Design school), a performing arts centre and a visitor centre. In 2010, renowned Flemish ceramicist Pieter Stockmans (born in nearby Leopoldsburg) opened his studio and showroom in the mine’s former metal warehouse.
The former mine offices now house the Centre for Creative Innovation and Entrepreneurship, which supports creative business development. Digital marketing agency Nascom is based there, and other new media companies may soon follow, thanks to a public-private initiative led by Microsoft and local government. The Microsoft Innovation Centre aims to promote Flanders as a centre of information technology.
From mine to C-Mine
Two years ago, C-Mine received the European Stars Award for best brownfield development, for revitalising a former industrial site that had fallen into disuse. The mining sites of Limburg are a unique part of the region’s cultural heritage: Most of Europe’s former mines have disappeared, so places like Winterslag offer a rare view into Belgium’s mining past.
In 1917, Winterslag became the first mine established in Limburg and was eventually one of several in Genk alone. At its height, it employed 6,250 miners, many of whom came from Italy, Greece and Turkey for the express purpose of working in the mines. Coal production began to decline in the 1960s, and Winterslag finally closed in 1988. In 1993, the remaining buildings were classified as protected monuments.
A chief delight in visiting C-Mine is seeing the original infrastructure preserved just as it was during the mine’s heyday. The main building, called the Energie gebouw (Energy Building), houses the visitor centre, cultural centre, gallery space and a café. All of this is nestled in and among industrial artefacts such as the old compressor room, where huge machines still crouch in a vast tile-floored hall; side rooms housing giant wheels that powered the coal lifts; and the circuit room, full of vintage electrical equipment and 19th-century decorative ironwork.
The garden district
The area around C-Mine preserves an entire neighbourhood (tuinwijk, or garden district) built by the mining company for the workers. Brussels-based architect Adrien Blomme employed a rustic English cottage style in what is regarded as the nicest of such mining residential districts in the Kempen. Separate areas were designed for whitecollar and blue-collar workers, but each group was provided with green spaces, private gardens and community buildings such as churches and schools.
In keeping with the tradition, C-Mine will soon incorporate new living quarters in the middle of the former mine site. Modern townhouses and apartments are under construction across from Stockman’s studio, offering a unique opportunity to live alongside an architectural heritage site.
The site’s newest attraction, C-Mine Expedition, opens on 29 April. Curators hesitate to call it a museum or a simulation, but Expedition will be an interactive experience bringing Genk’s mining past to life. Contemporary Belgian artists and designers have been enlisted to create an atmosphere that lets visitors see, hear and even smell the past.
Cultural Odour Generator
The “experience pathway” starts in the Energy Building, descends underground through old mine shafts and finally ascends to the plaza outside, where visitors can climb to the top of the highest head frame in Belgium. (The head frame was the tall structure above the mine shaft that housed the lift mechanism.)
There they will enjoy spectacular views of the surrounding area from a height of 60 metres. For those who don’t aspire to such heights, there is another viewing platform at 15 metres.
As visitors wend their way through the underground tunnels of Expedition, they will encounter “memory tubes” and hear stories about the mine and its workers. Aspiring recording artists can create their own sound mix using authentic mine sounds, and a panoramic viewer offers a glimpse back in time of the surrounding terrain.
An underground gallery space will house changing art exhibitions. The first of these is an installation created especially for the opening by scent artist Peter Decupere. Visitors will be invited to create their own smell using his Cultural Odour Generator.
During the grand opening, entertainment and live music on the central plaza beneath the mine’s two head frames will add to the festivities.