A Steel Maze Navigates Belgium’s Coal Mining Past

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Labyrint, a giant steel maze by architects Pieterjan Gijs and Arnout Van Vaerenbergh, helps refuel a former industrial ruin in Genk.

The 1901 discovery of coal in Genk, Belgium, catapulted a sleepy burg into the economic stratosphere. Eight decades later, after the city was stripped of its black gold, prosperity vanished with the same whiplash intensity, forcing thousands out of work and depositing unsightly slag heaps across the landscape.

Industrial ruins were also left behind, including the Winterslag production facility. Now called C-mine, it reopened as a cultural centre in 2010. As it pumps new life into the region, it lends insight into Genk’s past with a giant maze that has been installed in the courtyard. Labyrint – the work of architects of Leuven, Belgium – allows visitors a visceral understanding of the coal mining experience.

Rising five metres, the towering steel grid consists of 186 metric tons of black steel plates. Tunnel-like voids have been cut into the walls, so that adventurers may navigate their journey with the occasional reassuring glimpse of the larger scheme, or of fellow explorers. The path’s uncertainty is reminiscent of the mine shafts, and visitors can climb one of two old hoist frames, which loom over the public square, for another perspective of the obstacle course.

Each journey is different, even for the designers, who were surprised by the impact of light and sound in the dark, metallic corridors. “You try to imagine the impact of the final space, but the actual experience is always more intense,” says Van Vaerenbergh. Both artists perceive the installation as a metaphor for history. “We used the elevator towers as reference points, and we framed specific fragments of the site with our cut-outs, so that Labyrint becomes a tool to examine itself and the mine.” Indeed, tracing one’s way through Labyrint gets the strenuousness, danger and even camaraderie of mining under your skin.

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