Repurposed spaces: the disused coal pit

A handful of visionary developers are reclaiming forgotten hinterlands, creating arts venues out of disused factories, churches and coal mines. In the final instalment of our three-part series on unusual spaces that are being repurposed for the arts, Claire Ramtuhul explores the former coal pit that’s found new life as a world class concert hall 

While Hallé St Peter’s and The Goat Farm are privately funded projects powering creative communities, local governments are also recognising the benefits of repurposing spaces for the arts.

Situated in Oignies, a former coal mining town in northwest France, the Métaphone is the crowning glory of a council-led project to regenerate a huge disused pit, which closed in 1990.

Read: Repurposed spaces: the cotton gin factory

The Communauté d’Agglomération d’Hénin Carvin (Hénin Carvin Interdistrict Council) purchased the site last year, and after issuing a bid to architects to put forward their ideas, settled on Herault Arnod Architectes.

‘The region is going through times of great economic hardship,’ says Isabel Herault, associate architect at the firm. ‘The aim of the renovation was to restore its positive image through a cultural project, in order to make it an attraction for both national and international visitors, and to revive economic activity.’

The Métaphone © André Morin
The Métaphone © André Morin

The firm’s vision was to not only restore the site’s original 20th century architecture, but to create an entirely new structure that would reflect the region’s once vibrant folk and contemporary music scene. But the team proposed more than just a usual a concert venue: the Métaphone is also an ‘urban musical instrument’, a world-first in architectural design.

Plates mounted with electroacoustic speaker drivers line the perimeter of the building, creating a huge playing surface, whilst a series of mechanical instruments situated in the porch are about to be completed. Musicians will be invited to compose works using the building as both instrument and inspiration, all paying homage to the musical history of the area.

The Metaphone © André Morin
The Métaphone © André Morin

The Métaphone cost €6.3m, with the total cost of the entire redevelopment of the 9/9bis site at €27.2m. Partially financed by the council, 41.7 per cent was provided by the European Regional Development Fund, which saw how Herault Arnod’s proposal had the potential to transform the area.

At the building’s inaugural festival last summer, local reaction was positive. ‘We could feel a real sympathy for the Métaphone – it was received like a friendly alien,’ says Herault. The area achieved UNESCO world heritage status in 2012, and is attracting international names to its stage – both positive signs of things to come.

Artist's impression of audiences at The Métaphone
Artist’s impression of audiences at The Métaphone

Upcoming concerts include performances from the Algerian-born percussionist Guem, and Franco-American folk group Moriarty.

The entire 9/9bis site is still in development, so the venue’s economic impact has yet to be determined. But the successes of Hallé St Peter’s and The Goat Farm are encouraging signs that repurposing spaces for the arts, and not for commercial initiatives, is both socially rewarding and financially viable.