A portico with three arches and a cobbled forecourt, followed by another three arches in a brick building: that' s the entrée to the spacious lawn of the Cour ovale, its oval - framed by arched arcades - looking like the arena of a Roman amphitheatre. Yet this is not the case: here, in southwestern Belgium, is the 19th century heart of one of the country's largest coal mines. The founder of this neoclassical complex, which includes a workers' residential area with over 400 houses and the stately mansion of the factory owners, features as a memorial in the centre of the lawn: Henri de Gorge Legrand, setting architectural as well as technological and social standards ever since he acquired the colliery in 1810. Today, Grand Hornu is a true gem of European industrial heritage as well as a UNESCO World Heritage Site and a major attraction for visitors from all over the world thanks to its "Centre for Innovation and Design" (CID) and the Contemporary Art Museum (MACS) of the Federation Wallonia-Brussels.
"To attract strong men by providing hitherto unknown comforts" in order to increase coal production - this is what the Frenchman Henri de Gorge Legrand sets out to achieve when, in 1810, he acquires the Grand Hornu colliery site, founded in 1778 close to Mons, where he starts to build a workers' settlement in the style of an English garden city six years later. The estate consists of 425 dwellings, each with four rooms, an attic and a garden equipped with a shed. In addition, the settlement includes a school, a library, a hospital, green spaces and even a ballroom. As of 1850, gas lamps illuminate the streets, and almost 50 years later, 22 cafés illustrate the modest prosperity and liveliness of the neighbourhood. This development sets forth what the founding of Grand Hornu already predicts: within a decade, the number of workers grows sevenfold and coal production soars. In 1832 Henri de Gorge Legrand employs 15,000 people.
The centre of the industrial complex is a monumental oval brick complex that originally housed the colliery administration, stables and an engine hall, the latter now missing its roof. These buildings are joined by the castle, the Gorge family's mansion, to create a neo-classical ensemble designed by the architect Bruno Renard. Coal production benefits from new extraction techniques and steam engines developed on site and from Belgium's first horse-drawn railway which starts operating in 1830.
In 1954, the colliery is shut down and at risk of being demolished in 1969 by royal decree. However, this did not happen, thanks to a non-profit association founded in 1984 and dedicated to foster heritage, tourism and culture. In 1989, the site is purchased by the provincial government. Today, it is home to a design centre and an art museum and is added to Unesco's World Heritage List in 2012 as one of four major mining sites of Wallonia.
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Tuesday - Sunday 10am-6pm