More than two decades ago, a gigantic coal mine in France shut down, leaving huge industrial buildings abandoned and empty. Now, architects have found a new purpose for the site: music. The old buildings have been transformed into rehearsal rooms and a “sound gallery”, and new buildings have been added, including the Metaphone, an “urban musical instrument” that plays sound using its walls.
Why the focus on music? The inspiration came from the fact that coal mines used to be a major source of noise pollution. “[It’s] a reversal of image from the existing heritage,” the designers, Hérault Arnod Architectes, wrote on their website. “Noise, permanent, obsessive and often intolerable, was an inseparable feature of the history of the place.” Instead of ear-shattering machinery and trucks, visitors now hear something that they might actually want to listen to.
Inside the Metaphone, there’s a concert hall. But the outside of the building is what makes it interesting: A steel frame holds a series of plates, made from wood, metal, and glass, that all transmit sound. Just inside the frame, 24 instruments, from drums to an organ, are connected to the building walls. As musicians play, so does the building.
The inside looks (and sounds) a little like something from an Eames film:
The architects hope that composers will write new music for the building as an instrument. But it’s also a new source of everyday ambient sound– like an old bell tower, it plays music on the hour and at sunset. It plays to signal the beginning of a show. And it also creates what the architects call a “peripheral sound space”– not loud enough to annoy the neighbors, but something that surrounds the building with an extra wall of sound.
It’s all part of a bigger plan to bring some life back to the tiny town of Oignies, which relied on coal mining for over 150 years to sustain the economy. The town basically collapsed when the mine was no longer operating. The buildings on the old coal mine also include office space and housing, and since the concert hall opened earlier this year, people have started coming for shows. It actually isn’t the only old coal town to transform itself through art: Last year, the Louvre opened a new branch in the former coal town of Lens, right on top of another old mine.