Learning to View "Las Cuencas"

This 27 September sees the opening of Aprendiendo de las cuencas [Learning from Las Cuencas], an exhibition which is aimed at the sensitive recovery of the Asturian coal mining areas with venues at the exhibition hall of Sabadell Herrero in Oviedo and LABoral Centro de Arte y Creación Industrial in Gijón

Published: Aug 19, 2013
Learning to View "Las Cuencas"

Pozo Sotón. El Entrego. Image: LABoral

By Montaña Hurtado Muñoz, (@zapatosrosas), Zapatos Rosas

Nacho Ruiz Allén and Sara López Arraiza, architects from zon-e, are accustomed to working in a studio with their eyes fixed on the computer, but two years ago they embarked on research which took them on a journey around the coal mining areas known as “Las Cuencas” for three months. Previously, in 2006, they had already taken part in various research projects related to mining in Spain, under the supervision of the Cultural Landscape Research Group at the Universidad Politécnica de Madrid [Polytechnic University of Madrid]. Their goal on this occasion was, in their own words, “to locate and catalogue all those architectures that in our view reflected the conflict in landscape characterising this territory. Our initial intention was to exceed the 500 examples. In the end we catalogued 1001, from ‘Las Cuencas’ as well as from other places in the region marked by metallurgical production activity derived from mining. With this number we wish to imply that there still are many more. There came a point when we had the feeling that the identification of all this was becoming an almost impossible, colossal task. The impression we were left with is that in some way every built element manifests to a greater or lesser extent the violent processes that have radically transformed this territory for over little more than a century and a half”.

Learning to View

Pozo San Fernando. Orillés.
Image: Lucía Arias / LABoral

Their interest in the coal mining areas stems from the fact that “they form unique territory within the geography of Spain. In spite of being relatively close to the major Asturian population centres, the Las Cuencas mining areas have maintained a high level of isolation resulting in a landscape which is loaded with a high degree of intrinsic identity. This dual condition of closeness/distance combined with the unstructured and vulgar images of it in our collective consciousness awoke our curiosity”.

Neither of the architects grew up in ‘Las Cuencas’ and perhaps for this reason their approach to the areas steered away from clichés and prejudices, in spite of the severely neglected image that this place traditionally has. The coalfields territory, which is characterised by a complex orography, underwent a rapid and radical transformation in order to adapt to the needs of industry and hard coal extraction giving rise to a unique cultural landscape in Europe, in which natural, industrial and rural life coexist without any kind of planning. In addition to the liberalisation of the sector, undertaken in the sixties, there followed the transfer of industrial activity to the coastal areas in Asturias (mainly Gijón and Avilés) in the seventies, and the start of the closure of some mines, which will be finalised in 2018 with the closing down of all non-profitable mines in accordance with a decision made by the European Union in 2011.

¿Is Asturias aware of the importance of its mining heritage? Nacho and Sara responded to this:In Asturias there is a growing awareness of the value of its mining heritage. One of the greatest satisfactions from conducting this research was to see how there are many people who for quite some time have been concerned about protecting and spreading this heritage”.

In an attempt to recover this area, declared Protected Landscape by the Principality of Asturias, various bodies have launched a number of projects for the rehabilitation and recovery of different industrial elements of the mining areas, but Nacho and Sara point to the lack of an “overall strategy” which would make sense of these activities, citing as an example the Rurh valley in Germany where recovery was made possible thanks to a strategic project carried out twenty years in advance. What these two architects propose with their research is to learn how to look at the coal mining areas as a cultural landscape and, based on this, to start working on the recognition of its value so that the memory of the mining valleys can be integrated into an exchange network of knowledge and experiences at a national and European level promoted by bodies such as The International Committee for the Conservation of the Industrial Heritage, the European Route of Industrial Heritage , the European Federation of Associations of Industrial and Technical Heritage, and INCUNA in Spain with headquarters in Gijón. All these make up initiatives designed to generate a network of experience and knowledge exchange with an internet presence, through the publishing of publications and the organisation of congresses.

Miner Train from Ecomuseo Minero del Pozo de San Luis
Image: @daniel_hervas

Interior of Ecomuseo Minero del Pozo de San Luis
Image: @daniel_hervas

The research by Nacho Allén and Sara López will be presented from 27 September in the exhibition Aprendiendo de las cuencas [Learning from Las Cuencas], with venues in Oviedo and Gijón, which will be curated by them and coproduced by the Sabadell Herrero Bank and LABoral Centro de Arte y Creación Industrial. Aprendiendo de las cuencas starts as an exhibition on architecture. In the exhibition hall of Sabadell Herrero in Oviedo with the title Artefactos de la memoria [Artefacts of Memory], photographs of different architectural elements selected by Allén and López will be on display along with descriptions and documentation. However, this partial architectural view will link up with other perspectives in the Mediateca Expandida at LABoral which will offer a full appreciation of the complexity of the mining regions understood as cultural landscapes and, in particular, its sound memory, through the project La mina y su sonido [The Mine and its Sounds], previously explored by Naiara Valdano in LABlog.

Nacho and Sara consider that “sound memory is another layer of information about a place”and highlight its importance both in the society of image in which we live and also in the interpretation they offer of the mining areas, “given that the distinction of the natural, rural, industrial and urban landscapes have a direct translation into the acoustic arena. In the same way as a strictly visual plane, at sound level it is possible to perceive these four landscapes and see how they co-exist simultaneously in large parts of the territory. We recently heard the narrative made by the artists of the place, trying to explain the different sounds they encountered and this was fascinating. Talking about sound effects alone was subtly describing a large part of the historical, social and cultural aspects that define Las Cuencas”.

Recording of La mina y su sonido at Pozo Espinu
Image: Óscar de Ávila

The recovery of the mining areas is important for Asturias according to the curators of Aprendiendo de las cuencas despite the fact that, “there still remains in society a latent memory of the harshness, drama and conflict which has accompanied mining activity in the last century. This has resulted in a natural inclination to change the subject and forget this past, especially by many of its protagonists. As a consequence, we have detected a certain lack of collective concern for the remains of mining activity which has, in some way, also permeated some important institutions with a high level of responsibility in the guardianship of its own heritage. What Asturian society is possibly not aware of is the fact that Asturias is what it is mainly because of mining. The heavy processes of transformation which started in the middle of the 19th century in the Cuencas regions are primarily responsible for the social, economic and demographic changes the region has undergone in the last century. To some degree, we are all children of the mines. It is very difficult to find an Asturian without an ancestor, even if remote, who hasn´t worked in the mine.

The first step in the regeneration of an environment is its sensitive recovery, to bring about a change in the way of viewing this specific place. This is what Aprendiendo de las cuencas aims to achieve.

  • Information

  • Los Prados, 121
  • 33203 Gijón (Asturias)
  • Spain
  • Phone: +34 985 185 577
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