The city of Gargas (“mountain” in Provençal) is located in southern France and is home to the site of Bruoux where the architecture firm DeSo and Christine Dalnoky’s architectural and landscaping project was built.
Development of ochre mines into an organized tour including an open air amphitheater for art festivals
The site is predominantly made up of a natural mineral: ochre, pure clay (kaolinite) combined with ferric rock (iron hydroxide) and used as a coloring pigment since prehistory. The rock makes this region a unique “Provençal Colorado” recognized as a biosphere reserve by UNESCO. It also has a biotope area for rare plants.
It is an unusual location whose unique brightness is due to the colors of the rocks – yellow (goethite), brown (limonite) and red (hematite) – as well as the esthetic power generated by the work of 19th century miners. Looking further back in history, an ancestral past is unearthed, including prehistoric ochre murals. The bedrock of the architectural and landscaping project delivered in January 2009 was built on a plot of land steeped in and shaped by the different historic eras.
The making, shaping and image of the location were not dictated by any intention. It traces back to a mining past and the requirements of exploitation as well as the region’s complex and rich geography and climate. This raw, wild and perennial look was painstakingly preserved by the combined intentions of the architect and landscapist as a tribute to the Past and Nature.
Staging nature and vegetation
Choosing the right way to stage the site in its natural landscape is one of the important features behind the project’s success, whose focus was the relationship between the natural site and mining. The mine is a multi-cavity (galleries) imprint in nature. The cliff was hollowed out in the 19th century for international exploitation. In the 2009 development project, only the exterior soil was worked on without bringing in external materials. The architect and landscapist respected nature by working with the local elements of the site, and with an eye for environmental issues and sustainable development. As the construction proceeded, it was essential to respect the natural topography of the site as well as its ecosystem. The landscaping work that was performed leveraged the existing resources of the ochre landscape. The distinctive characteristic of the ground is that it is a barren and sandy ground unfavorable to lush nature. In order to enable the forest ecosystem to regenerate and shade certain strategic spots of the walking tour, it was necessary to move a few trees and plant new ones. The replanting process respected the biotope and was focused toward pine trees as well as evergreen and white oaks, specifically:
- along the road of Croagnes and on the platform of the parking lot where no vegetation grew;
– on the promenade of the mine where the amphitheater sits;
– all along the path connecting the exit of the mine tour with the reception building.
– to patch up the reshaped embankments in order to accommodate passage.
Today, Gargas is still one of the last few villages in Europe where ochre is still exploited. The transformation of Bruoux’s mines into an organized tour is designed in an effort to enhance a mining heritage bound up with the present. The tremendous heights and depths of the galleries – over 6 meters (19 feet) high – are testimony of the hard toil performed by men.
On visuals and maps, the architect and landscapist decided not to feature any construction, character, dimension, etc. which may give a sense of the scale and height of the site. The objective was to recreate the authenticity of the ochre cliffs by sustaining a surprise and discovery effect when first arriving at the site.
The entrance of the site
Stepping inside the site one gets a view of the entire ochre cliff. The development was designed in such a way that the visitor’s eye can capture a whole range of elements, colors and materials, an immersion intended by the designers. To achieve that effect, the designers built the reception building (ticker booths, cafeteria, etc.) by shifting it leftward to avoid screening the view of the cliff. A power substation in the immediate field of vision, at man size level, and at the entrance of the site, was concealed by a brown wire mesh in order to blend in with the surrounding natural range of colors. The substation was shut in with ochre concrete low walls from the site, thus avoiding importation – a highly environment-friendly commitment.
Miners carved away at the outside walls of the cliffs and were thus able to clear platforms outside the gallery entrances. It is a large slope that sweeps down to the foot of the cliff. The architect and landscapist capitalized on these carvings by building an “amphitheater promenade ” including stair-like layered tiers to accommodate art festivals. The spectators will attend the various shows against a unique stage backdrop: the ochre cliff with the mine entrances.
The parking lot was intentionally built on a basin-like platform to hide cars and bodywork reflections. This was performed with attention to esthetics and the preservation of the natural surroundings.
Visiting the mines
A 30 minute walking tour, uninterrupted, stretching across 650-meter (2130-foot) galleries, was developed. The journey weaves its way through several galleries of various heights ranging from 3 to 6 meters. Two gates built from carved wood were designed as light and air filters and lead to the entrance and exit of the mines. Various gallery entrances made by miners on the façade of the cliffs were shut off to harmonize and secure the site, using Corten steel doors which will take on an orange-brown color as they age and tone in with the color range of the site.
Like the outside developments the inside developments of the mines were also simple, pared-down and free of any pervasive detail effects. Only the distinctive spatial qualities of the location and its history were highlighted by two types of lighting:
– walkway lighting was installed on the ground throughout the walking tour using LEDs.
– this background lighting was complemented with accent lighting to set off the remarkable spaces. Intense light sources were set up to complete it.
Second step in the program: its position on the site keeps away prevailing West winds. The building is a covered courtyard made from carved wood which filters out the rays of sunrise. The main façade, which looks onto the promenade where the amphitheater sits, is also made from carved wood, serving as a natural filter echoing the vertical rhythm of the existing tree trunks. It sits on the edge of a small woody hill thus making for a new horizon line. This dynamic broken line steers the gaze towards the cliffs.
Wood as natural material and filtering skin of the building
The reception building was designed as a covered courtyard. It houses under a wooden mesh with a single covered gallery: the front desk, ticket booth, shop, restrooms and the cafeteria which has a terrace giving a panoramic view of the ochre cliffs. Also, the bar has a storeroom for preparing hot drinks after visiting the mines where temperatures are quite low. The wooden courtyard, through the transparency of its filter wall (wooden and glass interior façades), opens out onto the clearing located at the end of the walking tour and the shade garden protecting against the warming sunrise and the south. The soffit of the building is nail-down flooring, without suspended ceiling and visible from the road.
An ochre light-colored concrete retaining wall built on the hillside makes up an “amenity-based” layer comprising the exterior patios. Those patios give a natural indirect light inside the building. The building has a vegetated roof to:
- achieve a harmonious match and integration of the construction in the natural environment.
– obtain superior thermal inertia of the overall system by providing a climatic amenity area.
– ventilate the building simply and manually (the restrooms are water-tight but not air-tight and do not require maintenance and use).
– use waste water from the vegetated roof and return the runoffs to the site.
Project name: Development of ochre mine