Once a Coal Mine, Now a Solar-Powered Music Hall

The Metaphone is part musical venue and part musical instrument.

The Metaphone, Once a Coal Mine, Now a Solar-Powered Music Hall
(Photo: Herault Arnod Architectes)
A Bay Area native, Andri Antoniades has previously worked as a fashion industry journalist and a medical writer.

The green renovation of a onetime coal complex in northern France has produced a building that is alive with the sound of music.

Twenty years after officials shuttered coal-mining operations in the town of Oignies, an architectural firm has given its old factories a much needed makeover and added a structure, the Metaphone—a solar-powered concert hall that can play music using its own walls.

The building’s exterior is sheathed in a steel structure made up of a mosaic of tiles that includes frosted glass, steel, and wood—all of which transmit sound. Photovoltaic panels line its roof and are built into the frame that runs along the building’s back porch. Twenty-four musical instruments are integrated into the walls, making the building itself a playable instrument. 

The decision by Herault Arnod Architectes to redesign Oignies into a center for music wasn’t an arbitrary one. Coal mining is notorious for, among other environmental ills, the amount of noise pollution it creates. According to the designers’ website, the Oignies project is “a reversal of image from the existing heritage. Noise, permanent, obsessive, and often intolerable, was an inseparable feature of the history of the place.” 

Both the mining and the burning of coal present their own set of problems.

Coal-mining accidents, often caused by gas explosions or cave-ins, are an ever-present threat to miners. In the U.S., for instance, more than 100,000 people have been killed in coal-mining accidents over the last century. In China, a country whose mines have been characterized as the "deadliest in the world," more than 250,000 mining deaths have been recorded since 1949.

A third of all global carbon emissions are the result of burning coal. In addition to CO2, the combustion of coal releases millions of tons of sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides into the air, creating acid rain. Another by-product of burning coal is mercury, which infiltrates the food chain and attacks the human nervous system. Young children, whose nervous systems are still developing, are particularly at risk. Despite all this, coal-industry lobbyists continue to promote the idea of “clean coal,” even though no such thing exists.

The Telegraph reports that France was the first of the large industrial powers in the world to abandon coal mining, and while communities that had subsisted on it were reportedly saddened to see that era come to an end, not a single protest in the country was staged because of it. 

According to the paper, miners who lost their jobs were provided with lengthy compensation packages, though many former mining communities struggled with increased rates of alcoholism, suicide, and divorce once the industry shut down. 

Oignies is not the only former mining town in France to get an artistic makeover. 

In December 2012, the financially strapped town of Lens partnered with celebrated Paris museum the Louvre to erect Louvre-Lens, an outpost of the museum built on top of the town’s old coal mine. Some of the Louvre’s top pieces are on display in the town, which is so tiny it doesn’t have a movie theater. 

Nonetheless, The Guardian called the opening of Louvre-Lens France’s “most important arts event of the decade,” with local politicians heralding it as nothing short of “a miracle.”

The art on display at the Metaphone, however, is decidedly less highbrow. Since its opening earlier this year, the venue has hosted a variety of musical groups, including rock, rap, and reggae acts and American hardcore punk band Suicidal Tendencies.

The path from coal-mining community to musical mecca may have been a long one, but thanks to the Metaphone, the town of Oignies will never be the same again.  

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