A cultural topography of the Asturian coalfields

Benjamin Weil


Artistic Director of LABoral Centro de Arte y Creación Industrial

Throughout the past hundred and fifty years, Asturias has undergone significant changes, brought by the industrialization and then, the deindustrialization of its territory. Initially a very rural area with mountainous landscapes and rough weather conditions, Asturias was inhabited by a people of great resilience who has gradually adjusted its lifestyle to the new conditions, while retaining a considerable part of its traditions. Whereas in other parts of the world, the industrial Revolution drastically altered the landscape, Asturias has retained much of its original traits: somehow, the industry and mineshafts have been inserted in the territory in a much less conspicuous fashion. While it has of course affected its appearance, one could say the various layers of its development may somehow compare to the geological strata that often appears in the landscape.

Therefore, the industrial settings and coalfields of Asturias are distinctly different from any other comparable territory. It is also noteworthy that this expansion has taken place in a somehow erratic fashion, and hence, also affected the look and feel of the environment. As with hasty urbanization processes in other parts of the world, the feeling is more of sprawl than carefully planned development. Thus, it is not surprising that Sara Lopez Arraiza and Nacho Ruiz Allén, the two architects who have been scouting and mapping of the region have conceptually grounded their work process in studies carried out in such urban developments as Las Vegas – a town that has grown very fast, and in a completely anarchical fashion. As architects observing the world, they also referred to other studies carried out by local peers in cities such as New York and Tokyo, two cities with a rich history of changes, and whose morphology also enables one to trace their evolution through the course of time.

However, rather than putting a book together, the two architects have elected to develop an interesting form, which appears as a hybrid between a traditional exhibition and a three-dimensional documentary. The projects and objects they present in the exhibition space result from a thorough research that establishes a very dense topography of this unique environment. Photos and maps, artefacts and sound recordings mingle with art installations, film, databases and interactive tools. In that sense, they have taken the job of curator, but also of information architects, setting the grounds for a somewhat exhaustive rendering of the territory, so as to reveal its singularity.

Aprendiendo de Las Cuencas [Learning from the Cuencas] – a title that clearly refers to Learning from Las Vegas, the seminal study carried out by Robert Venturi, Denise Scott Brown and Steven Izenour on the city of Las Vegas – lays the ground for a new understanding of the Asturian realm. It reveals the richness and particularity of its cultural scene; it dissects the unique way its traditional vernacular architecture has creatively been repurposed over the course of time to reflect upon the changes in lifestyle brought by the different waves of change Asturias has seen; it posits a new interpretative framework to understand the dynamics of development of this area. As a form, it also fits remarkably into the ongoing museological research LABoral has had interest in fostering since its founding, so as to explore new ways to foster experience and distribute knowledge.

Altogether, the two exhibitions presented at Exhibitions Hall of SabadellHerrero and LABoral Centro de Arte y Creación Industrial offer a notable perspective on a territory that also epitomizes the changes the world has undergone in a record amount of time. In a little more than a century, what used to be an enclave went from being a booming area to experiencing a severe economic decline, while there are clear signs of a rich culture, and of a potential revival.

LABoral is proud to have been a keen supporter of this process, and to showcase this unique way of presenting information, an interface we hope will provide a rich experience for a wide audience. It is also a pleasure to collaborate for the first time with Fundación Banco Sabadell and SabadellHerrero, without whom this project could not have come to fruition. In closing, I would like to thank the architects/curators for such an exhilarating adventure.