Turda, Romania, would be a rather unremarkable town in a generally little known area if it wasn’t for one recent development – it has been newly rebranded as home to one of the world’s largest salt mining museums, which three years after its completion, attracts a steady flow of visitors year-round. This is the story of the Turda Salt Mine Museum.
Salt has been a vital asset in the area around Turda since Roman times, when the first mining operations started. This continued throughout the Middle Ages up until the nineteeth century when the last large expansion of the mine took place under the Austrian-Hungarian Empire. Following abandonment in 1932 due to outdated extraction techniques, the mine reopened as a tourist attraction in 1992 but was little known until 2010, when a multi-million European Union-funded regeneration scheme shed new light on its huge unexplored potential.
Descending the shaft of the former mine reveals breathtaking subterranean worlds resembling deep-sea landscapes, lined with clear-cut salt deposits as a reminder of its origins. Complementing the natural terrain is an architecture of skeletal machinery and structures that evoke the previous use of the mine, with lighting playing an important role, defining virtual boundaries in the space and creating new dialogues with the faceted blocks of salt.
In a society that witnessed, post-1989, the withdrawal of public authority-led city development and the chaotic growth of an opportunistic private sector rarely concerned with community infrastructure, the project seems like a breath of fresh air – but is it all too much of a fairytale?
Initiated through one of the first EU funding schemes in 2005 the Turda Salt Mine Museum certainly remains one of the best examples of new public authority-led development in the country. The architects, Ecopolis, a group of practices who collaborate together, were unusually offered carte-blanche in developing a business plan for the mine, and suggested both internal and external uses and functions for the complex. The result is that it is a dynamic multi-purpose public space, bringing together health treatment areas, an amphitheatre, sport courts, a panoramic ferris wheel, an underground river pontoon and a number of outdoor swimming pools.
As it is, its design could very well compensate for the lack of high quality public spaces in the entire surrounding town, which makes you wonder if this does indeed perhaps function as a utopian underground community space. However, although the Turda Salt Mine is a bold architectural statement of genuine civic value, its connection to the surrounding community is limited to the purely economic benefits that it offers to local residents, be these significant, from jobs and tourism. So the mine remains a somewhat detached and independent development, without any connection to the city for which it now serves as a landmark: providing the cover page of the local tourism leaflet. There has been no investment in the pedestrian infrastructure leading up to the entrance closest to the city centre, and this has now inevitably become an ad hoc hub for local entrepreneurs trying to earn easy money selling the usual beverages and postcards in a large gravel parking lot. There are also no fee reductions or programmes laid on to encourage locals to use the mine on a more regular basis and adopt it as a community amenity.
So how will this newly-rediscovered jewel influence the future development of Turda? Tourist attractions can quickly become a mixed blessing, as the development it triggers often runs the risk of producing a wave of rushed, ill-considered tourist infrastructure to accommodate visitors. Badly planned development could damage the so far untouched natural landscape around the former mine, without necessarily resulting in buildings of any architectural merit or that provide any useful public amenity to residents.
Quality architecture doesn’t always make quality places, but here it could.