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Words:
Jan-Carlos Kucharek

Young practice Gijs Van Vaerenbergh uses thick sheets of mild steel to create a mind-bending experience on a former mining site

The site is a former mine whose old headstocks offer an excellent view of the meanderings beneat
The site is a former mine whose old headstocks offer an excellent view of the meanderings beneat Credit: Filip Dujardin

Website DesignCurial’s recent global ranking gives the UK three of the best mazes in the world. The top accolade, however, goes to Hawaii’s Dole Plantation, whose pineapple-shaped offering is also the world’s biggest.

While strangely shaped fruit may not have been the inspiration for Belgian firm Gijs Van Vaerenbergh’s large, pop-up installation in the former industrial city of Genk, the fruit of their labours – ‘Labyrint’ – is definitely strangely shaped, certainly as mazes go.

Formed out of thick sheets of mild steel, echoing the primary industries that turned the quiet Flanders village into a town of 70,000 people within 60 years, the mind-bending convolutions occur not just in plan but in section. Installed in the central square of C-mine, a new arts complex carved out of the old mine buildings by architect 51N4E,  Gijs Van Vaerenbergh’s rusting temporary edifice is as much an art piece as it is architecture.

‘The labyrinth is well known trope, like a house or a dome, and is based on the idea that everything is identical,’ says partner Arnout Van Vaerenbergh. ‘But we liked the idea of transforming the closed box form and opening it out to the square, or of making some parts closed and others open; of introducing ideas not only of confusion, but also clarity or surprise.'

  • Labyrint is a maze not just in plan but in section.
    Labyrint is a maze not just in plan but in section. Credit: Filip Dujardin
  • The site is a former mine whose old headstocks offer an excellent view of the meanderings beneath.
    The site is a former mine whose old headstocks offer an excellent view of the meanderings beneath. Credit: Filip Dujardin
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The result is a maze form with subtended arcs carving great swathes out of its 5m high walls, creating mini-plazas within the space or concentric viewing holes through whole planes of the 73mx 73m square. On entering, tensions become apparent between what is expected and what is presented, between the courtyard and installation, between the idea of a toy puzzle and a piece of urban design.

In Belgium the young firm has developed a reputation for installation design and a penchant for experimental architecture. It came to international prominence with its 2011 ‘Reading Between the Lines’ project in rural Limburg, a chapel form built of horizontal plates of steel that looks solid or dissolves according to where you view it from. Van Vaerenbergh says: ‘It picked up on how we like to transform formal tropes, but abstracted to give it room for interpretation.’ It is a mere landscape intervention but some saw it as a critique of Christianity or a comment on the emptiness at the core of a secular society. Like the perception of the installation itself, it could be both or neither of these.

 

The architect resisted lighting the structure as technical requirements would have compromised its raw simplicity

Van Vaerenbergh refuses to be drawn on readings for this latest work but you exit where you enter (so go nowhere) and there is no centre point or goal, so the whole thing becomes an experiential study on the idea of a journey without purpose. But you can still lose yourself within its 1km of steel wall; something that could be considered a health and safety concern, being in a public square and effectively unpoliced. It turns out the firm did all the risk assessments and the decision was made to keep it open 24 hours a day, despite being unlit. People are apparently negotiating it at night with no damage done. The architect resisted lighting the structure as they were averse to  the idea of turning it into an evening ‘event’ and technical requirements would have compromised the design’s raw simplicity.

The structure will sit in the square until the year’s end or until runoff starts to taint the cobbles with rust, whichever’s sooner. Viewed from the top of the old mine headstocks, visitors will continue to mill about below, but only those at this vantage point will be able to make sense of their meanderings. ‘It’s like the Great Architect,’ thinks Van Vaerenbergh in conclusion. ‘We all just want to play God.’


 

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