Voyage: The Zinc Identity of Maastricht

The invisible material made visible

5 September till 12 December 2021

For those who know where to look, Maastricht houses a wealth of zinc. Follow in the footsteps of the striking zinc oxide workers and encounter surprising zinc architecture, both new and old, and on and off the beaten track.

Here we border on the most important area of Europe’s zinc industry. Once upon a time, in the 19th and 20th centuries, the strip of Belgium that extends from Liege along the border to the town of Kelmis was entirely devoted to zinc mining and processing. Maastricht benefited from this industry and had its own infamous Zinc Oxide Company (Zinkwit Maatschappij) with inhuman working conditions. But zinc can also be found in unexpected places in Maastricht’s streets – unnoticed but distinctive nonetheless.

Distance: 6.5 km
Walking time: 2 hours

1.We start at Bureau Europa, where you can see the exhibition Power, Lust and Zinc. The exhibition tells the curious stories of the zinc from Kelmis, how it furnished the roofs of a metropolis, how a whole new country was built around the mines, and how the unique history of Vieille Montagne and Neutral Moresnet continues to affect our country and communities to this day.

2. Walk along Boschstraat towards Markt. Turn right into Maagdendries. Walk past the new self-build projects by architectural firms Humblé Martens Willems and Mathieu Bruls, and head to where Frontensingel becomes Statensingel. In 1929, this was where the largest strike that Maastricht has ever witnessed came to a tragic climax. The workers of the Maastricht Zinc Oxide Company (Zinkwit Maatschappij) had been on strike for weeks. They had the support of much of the city. Demonstrations were widespread, especially around the workers’ strongholds of the Stokstraat neighbourhood and here at Statensingel. On 16 October, the police lost control of the crowd. A group of officers at the end of the Capucijnenstraat try to quell the mob but are pelted with projectiles thrown from the houses. A small group of officers with weapons drawn splits off and tries to get to the other side of the crowd via the Maagdendries, where shots are fired. The mob, armed only with sticks and clubs, cannot properly defend itself, and panic ensues. People are hurt, some with life-threatening injuries. Two people are killed. The worker Hubert Beckers, a passer-by who rushes to the rescue after a major incident, is shot in the back of the neck. Plainclothes officer Matthias Houben is shot in the chest. The strike then enters a new phase.

3. We continue walking to and then along the Capucijnenstraat. A bit further down, on your left hand, is the old Brandweerkantine (Fire Department), now a nice restaurant. Opposite there’s a little archway. If you go underneath it, you’ll discover an interesting little courtyard: the Charles Vos Cour. This housing block from 1993 is one of the hidden gems in the Maastricht city centre. The Liege architect Charles Vandenhove designed a postmodernist imitation of St Peter’s Square in Rome. When you’re standing at the ‘obelisk’, take a look around: you’ll clearly notice the two column arcades that embrace the little square and the central main building with its ‘cupola’ (a semi-circular roof, really). Characteristic of his style in the 1980s and 90s are the many references to classical architecture: the stern use of Doric columns, architraves, and pediments make for a clean aesthetic; the sober application of brick, concrete, and wood (Roman construction materials!) all show an ageless finesse. Clearly demonstrated here is Vandenhove’s love of zinc cladded roofs: nowhere else in the city are zinc roofs this prominent. Now you’ve seen the zinc here, you’ll be able to recognise it easily anywhere else in the city.

4. Now, walk back into Capucijnengang, turning right. Just past the Brandweerkantine there’s a little path, Apostelengang. Follow it to the end and turn right. You’re now standing on Misericordeplein: traverse the square into Uitbelderstraat. On the corner of this street and Bogaardenstraat, named after the old residents’ bountiful orchards and vegetable gardens, you find an intriguing corner house right across the street. In the first half of the 20th century, this corner building, called Het Volkshuis, was the headquarters of Maastricht’s socialist movement. On 16 October 1929, a Social Democratic Workers’ Party (SDAP) meeting was startled by noise outside. Shots ring out on Statensingel where the military police (Marechaussee) and the striking zinc oxide workers clash. The strike leader, Caspar Pieters, later meets some SDAP members on Vrijthof, where he is suddenly aggressively arrested in a brutal show of force. The fact that three SDAP councillors and even party leader Hubert Paris are present makes no difference to the police. They accuse Pieters of having fired the deadly shots at the crowd from the Sphinx factory’s roof. Later, however, some workers at the crime scene find shot in the factory walls. With some prying, they manage to pull the rounds out of the wall. The bullets turn out to be from military rifles.

5. Walk all the way down Uitbelderstraat then Sint Catharinastraat until you reach Boschstraat, opposite St. Matthiaskerk. Turn right and walk to City Hall (Stadhuis) on Markt. The 17th-century Dutch classicist building project by architect Pieter Post is impressive for its sober but stately style. However, in 1664, when the city council moved in, the building is unfinished because there is no money. The original design is eventually completed in 1684 by architect Adam Wynandts from Aachen. Its majestic tower has to be built out of wood due to the lack of funds. (Something of an urban legend because, ridge turrets are made of wood anyway as the roof cannot hold them up otherwise!) The octagonal turret should be covered with a material that looks like stone, just like the rest of the building. Lead and slates offer a solution. When the city hall is restored in 1861, new materials improve the roof’s drainage; it is given a zinc roof in a standing seam construction, and the tower is also clad in zinc. New ornaments are also made from the new material, including eight satyr masks on the tower. In 1997, the zinc is again replaced during a major renovation: it is considered more historically authentic to reline the turret with lead. The zinc satyrs are now removed, with one decapitated head preserved behind glass as a memory somewhere in the city hall.

6. Head across Markt to Nieuwstraat and follow this street to Grote Staat and turn left. The attentive eye immediately sees where we want to go: the zinc facade to the left on the corner of Vijfharingenstraat. In 2001, the Bijenkorf department store arrived in Maastricht. The large building, which was home to the now-closed V&D department store, was to be completely renovated, whereby Bijenkorf would get a part of the building on Kersenmarkt. Architectenbureau Rijnboutt executes the project and designs an extension on the other side of the building in 2003, including a La Place (a Dutch restaurant chain) and a winter garden. A dilapidated section of the building dating from the 1960s is restored for this purpose with a striking north and west façade clad entirely with zinc lozenges. The existing brickwork on Vijfharingenstraat is also restored. The crowning of the ground floor, the winter garden on the roof, and the roof itself are finished with zinc plates in a seamed system where the edges of two sheets can be folded into each other. The sidewall’s combination of diamond-shaped, overlapping zinc slabs and authentic masonry evoke the detached houses and farms in the Limburg and Walloon countryside, where the west facades are often zinc-clad and are typical of this area.

7. Walk along Vijfharingenstraat to get a good look at the zinc sidewall and the masonry. Then walk through the Stokstraat quarter or via Onze Lieve Vrouweplein to the Hoge Brug. From the bridge, you have a good view of the new Céramique district. The most striking features of this district, planned by architect Jo Coenen, are the Bonnefantenmuseum at its southerly point and the Tower of Siza at the northern end. These two zinc-clad buildings literally sparkle. Aldo Rossi’s design for the Bonnefantenmuseum (1995), with its sleek layout of viewing rooms, takes its inspiration from factory buildings, referencing the location’s former industrial estate of the Société Céramique. Its highlight is the eye-catching, rocket-shaped tower, or cupola, where two metals reign supreme. The copper green of the buttresses is prominent in Maastricht’s skyline when viewed from Sint-Pietersberg. The tower cupola consists of a skeleton of concrete and steel, and the cladding is made of natural stone and zinc. The reflection of the sunlight marks the spot where past and present converge through art, urban planning and architecture.

8. If you walk a little further down the bridge, you will see some high-rise buildings. At the head of Plein 1992 stands Álvaro Siza’s 17-storey, 53-metre-high residential tower (2013), one of Maastricht’s tallest buildings. This is where the historical Wyck district meets the new Céramique neighbourhood, and this building echoes this temporal merging. The building consists of two towers, which seem to rotate away from each other but are nevertheless connected. The east tower faces the old quarters. Its white marble tiles refer to a bygone building tradition and symbolise the past. The west tower faces the new Céramique district and overlooks Plein 1992. The new is referenced through a modern material, titanium zinc cladding with subtle seams. It reflects the austere greyness of the nearby Centre Céramique by architect Jo Coenen, the chromatic unity of the Plein 1992, and the zinc used for the museum on the other side of the district.

9. More buildings in Céramique are clad with zinc on the roof and facade, such as the apartment blocks Sonneville (bOb van Reeth, 1997) and the Patio Sevilla (Cruz y Ortiz, 2002). It is also poetic that two modern zinc landmarks embrace the entire district. But there is also some historically significant zinc in Céramique. Walk to the end of the bridge. To the left of the bridge is the Villa Jaunez. You will see the Bordenhal on your right. Villa Jaunez is the former villa of the Société Céramique’s director. Factory director Victor Jaunez lived in this Art Nouveau building. Jo Coenen renovated the house in 1998 as part of the Plein 1992 project. The Meuse Offices (Maaskantoren) are built to complement the historical building, one of the last physical remnants of the industrial past in this part of the city. The house overlooking the Meuse has a zinc roof. As part of the extension of Hotel Maastricht (Arno Meijs, 1977; 1998), a garden pavilion, which also has a zinc roof, was built next to the director’s villa. Zinc also adorns the historical Bordenhal on the other side of Plein 1992. Bordenhal was built around 1880 and, for many years, was a factory for hand-painted tableware. In 1999, Jo Coenen renovated the building into a theatre that today is home to Toneelgroep Maastricht. Though the renovation lowers the floor and heightens the roof, he manages to preserve the building’s original appearance. The renovation also echoes the zinc roof on the other side of the square.

10. We leave Céramique and walk to Stationsstraat. One possible route is via the Wilhelminasingel, but it is more enjoyable to walk a short distance from Plein 1992 along the Meuse River. Once past the medieval Wyck Watergate (Waterpoortje), turn right into a tiny alley called Kaleminkstraat. Presumably, this was once a place for storing zinc from Liege or zinc oxide from Eijsden: kalemink is the Maastricht corruption of calamine, the mineral from which zinc is extracted and to which the Belgian town of Kelmis owes its name. Once in Stationsstraat, keep your eyes peeled. The street’s construction began in 1882, right through the old fortifications of Wyck, and is Maastricht’s first large-scale urban expansion. The street was a flagship project to connect the centre with the station along one straight passage. Therefore, it is also called the Percée (French: breakthrough), and there are several important landmark buildings, such as the Hotel de l’Empereur. Zinc was used extensively, as befits its modern, 19th-century monumental architecture. (Especially when Liege and Paris are just around the corner!) You can still see zinc cladding and zinc dormer windows on many of the roofs. But the most striking piece of zinc is the extension of Hotel Alex on the corner of Alexander Battalaan. This 1896 building was extended with extra rooms by the architectural firm SATIJNplus in 2018. Just as the original building was an eclectic mix of styles, its modern-day reimagining is an exciting fusion of old and new. The extension is distinctive and contemporary. Its use of zinc lozenges on the facades refers to the local zinc workers’ wealth of craftsmanship.

11. To conclude our walk, walk to the station and take a seat on the square. Maastricht was an industrial city. The Sphinx potteries were prominent on the west bank. In the east was the Zinkwit iron oxide plant. Under the autocratic rule of its director, Fernand Pisart, and the inhumane circumstances, pittance wages, and life-threatening working conditions, unrest arose among the zinc oxide workers. One day, when six young men working the night shift were fired for collecting their belongings and heading home a little too early, the tense situation quickly intensifies. On 21 July 1929, the zinc oxide workers stop work, demanding higher wages and the right to unionise. The management decides to recognise the St. Willibrordus Roman Catholic association, and most Catholics go back to work. Animosity develops between the socialists (the reds) and the Catholics (the blues). When the catholic workers walk from the St. Martin’s parish in Wyck to the Zinkwit plant, they do so while reciting prayers and accompanied by escorts armed with clubs. The socialists jeer them along the way. Revolutionary strongholds such as the Stokstraat and Boschstraat districts and Het Volkshuis in Bogaardenstraat become the headquarters of the socialist strikes, which grow increasingly bigger. The police no longer dare to enter these areas. The people of Maastricht show solidarity and donate generously to the workers’ cause. The strike escalates into deadly military police action on 16 October 1929. The funeral of the slain worker Hubert Beckers ends in a mass demonstration led by the socialist leader Willem Vliegen. The strikes go on till 14 November of that year. Wages are raised and working conditions improved, yet the socialists cannot think of this as a victory. There never should have been people killed.

Our walk ends here. You can hire an OV bike at the station and explore more places in the city. You can visit the Zinkwitterrein on the Franciscus Romanusweg in Limmel. Apart from one chimney, nothing of the factories of the Maastricht Iron Oxide Company (Zinkwit Maatschappij) remains. The site was destroyed during a bombing raid in 1944 and was never rebuilt. The ground still lies empty. The industry caused enormous pollution, not only here but also in the entire area, especially in Limmel. In fact, the soil here is so bad that average house prices are much lower, and the ground must be thoroughly cleaned when building new houses. However, the zinc violet grows here because of the polluted soil, a unique but unfortunately endangered flower that can only live where many other plants cannot. In 2021, there are several plans to bring this so-called Trega site back into use. Whether as a parking space, a residential area or a solar park, Limmel’s residents are determined to have their say.


Texts Remco Beckers | Graphic design Janneke Janssen and Lyanne Polderman