How Petrila turned into a Planet. From activism to a culturally-based heritage regeneration programme

How Petrila turned into a Planet.
From activism to a culturally-based heritage regeneration programme

text: Mihai DANCIU, Loredana GAIŢĂ


Like the entire Jiu Valley region and most postindustrial towns, Petrila is currently undergoing a process of recuperating its reason for being. Beyond resignation or predestination, two attitudes chiefly pervading the collective discourse, the town keeps on slowly shrinking as a result of a decrease in the economic activities originally determining its birth. Given this specific postindustrial context seen from a socio-economic and cultural perspective, the interventions on industrial heritage are closely linked to assuming a general programme of regeneration through culture.

T1: foundation

The reconversion of Petrila Mining Exploitation was the main goal of an initiative launched as early as 2012, bearing significance on the contemporary Romanian scene. „Petrila – The Regeneration of an Industrial Landscape. An International Architecture Workshop” was organized in the autumn of the same year at the initiative of ADERF – The Association of Romanian University and Doctoral Students in France and the Cultural Association Romanian Condition. The envisaged outcome of the workshop consisted in finding strategic development directions for the town of Petrila in relation to a scenario for the reuse of its industrial heritage – Petrila Coal Mine. The completion of this initial initiative brought about a radiography of the town and its relationship with the mine. The workshop was held again in 2013, during its second and third editions, eventually resulting in a pre-feasibility study entitled „The conservation, safeguarding and functional reconversion of the heritage valued structures within Petrila Mining Exploitation”, a preliminary phase to the inclusion of the ensemble in the National Register of Historic Monuments. During the same year, the pre-feasibility study elaborated during the urban postindustrial regeneration workshop was unanimously voted by the Petrila Local Council. Consequently, this decision of the Local Council puts pressure on the planner forcing him to modify the solution of demolition.
It is in 2014 that Petrila Coal Mine experiences the first participatory intervention: StartUp Petrila, as its name suggests, gives the start as a concrete action, a small-scale representation of the existing potential: the former pump station inside the mine is valorized by way of a publicly available temporary intervention (which became permanent in the meantime). The space remained to this day in the management of the local association Romanian Condition, whose representative is the already well known artist Ion Barbu. Also, a set of urban interventions have temporarily revived the banks of East Jiu River, separating the mine from the town. Organized by PlusMinus Association, the project takes on a concrete, real result, that is, the reconversion of a building with no patrimonial value made available by Petrila Town Hall. The initiators decided to open the building to the public through a project conceived and executed together with the town’s inhabitants, a participatory experiment implemented under the supervision of Romanian and German architects and artists. Hence, the inauguration of Pompadou Centre, a cultural centre dedicated to the inhabitants of Petrila and meant to host the community’s cultural events. In January 2015, the initiation of the official listing procedure was formally announced through a note issued by the Hunedoara County Cultural Council to the Jiu Valley National Society for Mine Closure (SNIM VJ) and Petrila Town Hall. As a result of the document, the demolition of the buildings was ceased. The same year, in August, Petrila hosted „The Industrial Heritage Days” organized by the Cultural Society Romanian Condition, ADERF and PlusMinus. During the event, the identification plaque certifying the historical monument status of Petrila Coal Mine Ensemble was unveiled; there was also a cycling tour, a workshop on refurbishing a segment of Jiu River banks and a collective dinner held on the bridge overlooking the road to the mine, an action symbolically linking the industrial ensemble to the town.

The motto „Petrila Mine is not here, but then”, written by Ion Barbu on the bank of East Jiu river. Photo credit: Gabriel Amza

T2: listing and promotion

It is in 2016 that Petrila Mining Exploitation and its subcomponents are included in the National Register of Historic Monuments, category ensemble, class A: the building sheltering the old compressors, the funnel power plant and Deak mine (class A), the mechanic workrooms, the new mine skip shaft, the central mine shaft (the tower and the hall) and the old mining preparation (class B). The same year in November, the documentary Planet Petrila was released at the International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam – IDFA 2016. Following the national preview in Petrila on 4th June, 2017 was dedicated to itinerant screenings of the documentary both in the country and abroad. The public screenings of Planet Petrila, its frequent showing both on television and the silver screen paired with large-scale appreciation generated a change of perception and eventually a positive community reaction regarding the reconversion process of the patrimonial ensemble. What was initially seen as an initiative of different professionals coming from environments less familiar with Petrila, episodic occurrences in the reality of the town, has gradually turned into a general discourse valued across the entire region of Jiu Valley. A category of values too little specific to the local community or, better said, too little specific to the local decision makers and informal leaders actively engaged in public life was brought forward. These values refer to a positive attitude towards the proximate built environment and its patrimonial value, documented in all its phases and illustrated through film.

The main founding members of Planet Petrila Association: representatives of local NGOs and of the professionals involved in the listing procedure and the local public administration. For four days, Mine Street became a pedestrian area. Photo credit: Rolland Szedlacsek

T3: reconversion

At the end of 2017, „The Regeneration Programme through Cultural Initiatives” (PRIC) was launched – an action-coordinated process whose final goal was the development of a new administrative, economic and cultural centre in Petrila and an active and open local community. The enterprise was grounded on a research into the existing and potential needs and opportunities, a mapping of local, regional and national resources and the facilitation of the inhabitants’ public participation. The first phase of PRIC consists in generating and implementing cultural events under the form of tactical actions triggering visible short-term and medium-term results winning the trust of the administration and the locals, testing and validating the lines of actions proposed by PRIC and helping increase local cultural consumption, the gradual development of a new public and eventually the reinsertion of the mine in the collective subconscious as well as an increasing pressure with a view to reconversion. The short-term objectives aimed at developing the coordinating administrative structure necessary for the reconversion process of the patrimonial ensemble, organizing cultural events meant to maintain high levels of public interest on the topic Petrila (engaging an ever-increasing number of locals), transferring the ensemble from the ownership of Jiu Valley National Society for Mine Closure to that of Petrila and listing the objective in the catalogue of members of the association ERIH-European Route of Industrial Heritage.

The start of Open Mines Day accompanied by brass band music, the intonation of the mine workers’ hymn and festive speeches. Photo credit: Gabriel Amza

Following the natural process and according to the agreed action plan, in January 2018 the initiative group comprising professionals in the field of heritage and cultural interventions organized a meeting on the future of Petrila Coal Mine, with the participation of representatives from Petrila Town Hall, Jiu Valley National Society for Mine Closure, the planning coordinator from the Romanian Register of Urban Planners, representatives of the civil society at local and national level as well as European funds experts. Several hours of constructive dialogue led to the signature of an engagement declaration concerning the four fundamental aspects in the evolution of the initiative, including the foundation of Planet Petrila association by all the above-mentioned actors and the financial contribution of Petrila Town Hall to the short-term action plan.
From an administrative point of view, the foundation of „Planet Petrila Association” reached its completion in August, with the following founding members: Petrila Town Hall – the local public authorities, PlusMinus Association – the representative of the professionals working together for the listing of the ensemble, Ideilagram Association through the artist Ion Barbu – the initiator of the call for saving the mine, ACV Petroşani (Happy Colony Association) – the representative of the local NGO environment. The next steps consisted in applying for listing in ERIH and launching formal partnerships with similar bodies in Europe. The decision to start the organization was paralleled by establishing contacts during the European Mining Heritage meeting in Beringen (Belgium) in April, joining the International Workshop on Urban Regeneration in Cluj-Napoca in June and partaking in TICCIH Congress in Chile in September.
Transferring the ensemble to the ownership of Petrila is a fundamental prerequisite for initiating the concrete reconversion interventions. Yet the procedure stagnates on two grounds: first, the works required by Petrila Town Hall (asphalt-paving the connecting road and enclosing the entire ensemble) have not been yet completed, with the realistic deadline this current November; secondly, the legislative procedure for property transfer depends on issuing a government decision given that the total value of the buildings and lots, according to the last evaluation, amounts to 2.6 million lei – a sum well above the financial possibilities of the local administration. The deadline for carrying out the operation is 31st December 2019 and it is impossible for Jiu Valley National Society for Mine Closure to allot a budget for the objective Petrila Mining Exploitation.

Heritage Revival Actions. A New Identity

The most consistent actions carried out so far were also the most visible: Open Mines Day (1st May) and Petrila Cultural Exploitation (10th-12th August). Both events involved a re-conception of the buildings, ensembles or heritage objects with a view to asserting a new post-mining identity drawing its creative energies from the relationships emerging inside the community as well as between people and places. Besides the clear-cut goal of opening the mine for locals and tourists alike, the two events encouraged content creation by refining and extracting the past through artistic interventions while promoting a sustainable approach by engaging the local administration and the inhabitants of Petrila in the development and implementation process.

The varnishing of the itinerant exhibition Shrinking Cities in Romania, located in „Ladislau Schmidt” conference room. Curator: Ilinca Păun Constantinescu, Ideilagram. Photo credit: Rolland Szedlacsek
Two guardians are visiting the exhibition Shrinking Cities in Romania prior to its opening. Photo credit: Ovidiu Zimcea

Open Mines Day, an event organized precisely on Labour Day, centred on the creation of a new urban scenography through a series of tactical interventions focusing on participatory design, signaletics and fittings for the coal mine and Mine Street. Mixed teams of local or external volunteers joined forces to refit the mine spaces and Mine Street, a monumental street providing access from the main avenue (Republicii) to the mining exploitation. The route was modelled by artist Ion Barbu through a partly agreed, partly guerrilla intervention which turned Mine Street into the main vector attracting the inhabitants to the mine.
As it took place on 1st May, the event suggested the insertion of local cultural elements reminiscent of the activities carried out by the former labour unions: the locals and the visitors took part at a brass band concert, theatrical plays for children featuring characters wearing mine worker overalls, a reading from Ion D. Sîrbu accompanied by piano play, several sports competitions and a proletarian-like picnic. There was also an architecture tour dwelling on the heritage elements characteristic of each historical period of the town and a second screening of the documentary Planet Petrila.

Guided tour at the mine held by Sergiu Crişan. Former engineer at Petrila Coal Mine, he accepted to act as a guide during the event. Photo credit: Ovidiu Zimcea
The guided tours covered the whole site, including the mechanic workroom, one of the oldest witnesses to the activity carried out on a permanent basis at Petrila Mine for over 15 decades. Photo credit: Ovidiu Zimcea

Shrinking Cities in Romania

The activities held on the site of the former mining exploitation drew attention to undeveloped spaces awaiting revitalization. This led to the itineration of the exhibition Shrinking Cities in Romania located in „Ladislau Schmidt” conference room of the administrative building. The interior and exterior spaces of the mine were visited by the participants during the guided tours held by locals who had a close connection with the mine: a former director, a former mining rescue worker, a mechanic fitter, a former sector chief and a former brigadier. There were also spontaneous personal tours during which the former mine workers showed families the mine in its entirety, the mode of operation as well as the role of each building in the mining process. This section was video recorded and the montages were screened at the following event and shall form an integral part of an exhibition space set up at the mine.
The actions carried out on 1st May under the aegis of this event gathered almost 1.000 participants throughout the entire day and approximately 10% were people outside Jiu Valley, therefore tourists interested in industrial mining heritage.

Theatrical performance held by the children from Les Amis de la France, one of the few local cultural associations. Photo credit: Gabriel Amza
The screening of the documentary Planet Petrila at Pompidou Centre, Petrila Coal Mine. It was the first screening in Petrila after the preview in June 2017. Photo Credit: Gabriel Amza

Petrila Cultural Exploitation

Through this multidisciplinary event, we set out to attract artists, experts, authorities and local audience in an attempt to re-imagine the Petrila Coal Mine Ensemble. The town’s inhabitants, the students and the external volunteers collaborated with the artists’ community, the architects and the planners with a view to envisaging a possible future grounded on the reinteration of the industrial past. From a thematic point of view, Petrila Cultural Exploitation acted as a radiography of the locals’ expectations and the possible predictions regarding the functional reconfiguration of Petrila Coal Mine and the outline of a new local identity.

Artists Ion Barbu, Suzana Dan, Renée Renard, Ciprian Chirileanu, Ovidiu Zimcea, Auăleu Theatre, with the participation of the local community, have temporarily transformed a mine area into a trail provided with exhibition halls and research and experiment laboratories. In addition, the event included a theoretical section hosted by architects Ilinca Constantinescu and Augustin Ioan and historian Ioan Piso. The intersecting themes addressed by both the public conferences and the artistic interventions were: (1) shrinking cities – presenting the effects of urban contraction and how we can identify resources for revitalization; (2) built and natural heritage as resources for revitalization; (3) identity – the principles enabling the creation of a new urban identity. The conclusions drawn from the public debates underlined the need for assuming the status of a shrinking city based on the cooperation of all interested parties in order to identify the elements able to support specialized training with a view to stopping the contraction the moment the community proves to be resilient. Certainly, those elements are the ones that are assigned the status of heritage, be it material or immaterial, mobile or immobile, by the involved parties. All these corroborated aspects aim at defining the identity of a community grounded on strictly economic arguments, based on a pre-existent rural community currently in search of its elements of urbanity, common values and consequently, new reasons for being.

From a methodological point of view, the first edition of the project „Petrila Cultural Exploitation” combines, in an interdisciplinary manner, techniques for analyzing an industrial heritage site, anthropologically based artistic research, audience development methodologies and public engagement techniques with a view to assessing the existing potential and developing a local community around the process of regenerating through culture.


Other similar activities will arise by the end of 2018 because of the progressive increase of the local, national and international interest for the approach named nowadays “Planet Petrila”, which is triggering an organic proliferation of the initiatives. The outlined evolution shows only the first phases of a vast reconversion process which is being gradually built and is influencing the future of the entire community. The fact that Petrila Coal Mine is turning into a new town centre represents the chance for a shift in the general discourse, from resignation to optimism and from predestination to the common values shaping the community of Petrila at the dusk of mining.

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