LE PASS

The waste that make up the heaps is still burning.

I was struck by how Le Pass, a former coal mine in the Belgian town of Frameries, is a project  mired in contradiction. It is a site which simultaneously aims to ease its affiliation with its mono-industrial history while preserving its unremitting connection to its thorny past. The project is optimistic (a science center designed to spawn enthusiasm for research and education) and wistful (leaving a traces of the industrial past practically untouched)  confirming that the coal mining industry is an uncomfortable recollection from which the town of Frameries cannot escape.

The entire province of Hainaut, Belgium relied on this one industry for over seven hundred and fifty years. When the mines closed in the sixties, the region was left with nothing to break its fall. Today, the province’s unemployment rate is at a staggering, official thirty percent. It is not uncommon for children in the vicinity of Le Pass to have never seen their parents or grandparents employed. Not surprisingly, these children have often never had the opportunity to visit a science museum.

Le Pass was first conceived of by the Belgian government with help from cultural engineer, Jean Marc Providence, as an educational catalyst. In 1997 the abandoned coal mine, Crachet Piquery, was chosen- because of its scale and geographic location, but above all because the town of Frameries was in dire need of economic stimulation. With funding from the European Commission, Le Pass officially opened in 2001 as a scientific adventure park. From the get go a palatable tension was present between the new program and the site’s weighty historical past. This was apparent during our site visit as well as in conversation with Laurent Niget, the project’s main architect.

Laurence Muller, the director of Le Pass explained that the project was designed to be a way for the local community to move beyond its historical burden and Laurent Niget took on this challenge, while remaining sensitive to the inevitability of memorial associations. Judging from the treatment of the collection of building preserved and reused on the site, Niget, was less interested in thinking of the original purposes of these buildings, but instead tested new, fantastic ideas of how they could act in a contemporary public landscape. He transformed the Neighborhood Silo into a visual marker, opting out of using the existing coal head as signage. He conceived of the coal mines tremmies as ethereal lighting fixtures, utility-free but invaluable for atmospherics during parties. He stabilized and sealed the conveyor belts morphing them into a series of linear exhibition spaces.

But the history of Crachet Piquery looms unremittingly, with the monster- sized slagheap at the edge of the site as the most tangible reminder of the scale and intensity of the former use.

A slagheap is a hill made from the waste material of a coalmine. Slagheaps like the one at Le Pass pop up throughout Belgium’s landscape and have transformed the otherwise flat terrain into an a manufactured artifice. When we climbed the coal slagheap early one morning, we were astonished to discover that the earth was warm. Even some smoke was visible .

The waste that make up the heaps is still burning, which allows for plants from the Mediterranean and other non-native, southern species to thrive on these hills.

Tension between moving forward and remembering the past is very strong at Le Pass. Perhaps certain memories of a place, and even an industry, are so strong that they become unavoidable. Industry (be it coal in Belgium or automobiles in Detroit) becomes so ingrained in the collective consciousness that even as a community attempts to move forward, the remnants can never be erased.

– Kayla Lim