Catedral de Sal: Industrial Reuse
I saw that the famous Battersea Power Station in London has finally been opened, a stunning industrial reuse on a massive scale. As of ten days ago, it is a collection of apartments, shops, restaurants, offices and parks. It is a city within a city. The Art Deco masterpiece by G.G. Scott sat unused for nearly 40 years and went through a plethora of potential redevelopments, including demolition for housing. The rehabilitation discussion has been going on so long I admit I thought it had already happened! The present industrial reuse took nearly a decade. The building was listed (landmarked) in 1980 while it was still operating.
Yesterday here in Bogotá, Colombia where I am a Fulbright Specialist with Ean Universidad, I toured the Catedral de Sal in Zipaquirá and it occurred to me that this was an industrial reuse as well. It is a historic salt mine used since before Europeans arrived and in the early 20th century the idea of building a chapel in the mine emerged from the miners’ devotional traditions. Conceived in the 1930s and built in the 1950s, the chapel was succeeded in the 1990s by the new cathedral, a massive series of tunnels and sculptures that the Colombians have ranked as their greatest Maravilla (wonder). Designed by Roswell Garavita Pearl, the new cathedral is some 500m underground, beneath the level of the now-closed 1950s chapel.
The impression one gets upon entering is that of a mine and the long corridors known as drifts that allowed the extraction of salt. The architecture and sculpture for the most part allows the seams of salt and rock to speak more eloquently than the occasional realist sculpture – indeed sometimes the inserted angels look out of place.
The tour begins with the Stations of the Cross, all fourteen done in an abstract manner whereby a stone cross is set within or without the rock. Here the absence of literal interpretation is a blessing, and the sculptures emerge from the seams of minerals with emphasis and empathy.
The main nave of the Cathedral is actually a triple nave and is preceded by a smaller chapel to the Virgin that includes salt chandeliers.
What makes the main space so effective is again the use of a massive cross above the altar that has the height (50 feet) and depth to carry the colossal space. What struck me most were the massive round columns dug from the salt rock to support the main nave. Again, the most effective aesthetic interventions are those than reference and resonate with the natural mineral forms and patterns.
The only downside (and it didn’t bother me that much) was the fairly extensive collection of shops and concessions down in the salt mine after your complete the tour. Some were obvious, like selling salt sculptures or emeralds or bath salts, but some were almost comically irrelevant, like the King Tut museum.
So what do we have? At the end of the day a very impressive salt mine that is one of the only ones you can visit outside of Poland. It is an industrial reuse that takes advantage of the historic use to create some pretty persuasive artworks that successfully illuminate the heritage of the miners and the religious devotions they brought with them beneath the earth.
This is a creative reuse and has become a massive tourist attraction. I like the latitude given to the intervention. While I loved Falun (a World Heritage strip mine in Sweden) when I saw it in 2007, I find this site a bit more alive, with constant living heritage additions, like the various Virgin icons that continue to be added to the chapel, as noted by my friend and colleague Juan Camilo Chaves.
Disclaimer: The blog of Dr. Vincent L. Michael, Time Tells, is not an official Department of State site. The views expressed here are entirely those of Dr. Michael and do not represent the views of the U.S. Department of State or its partners.