This post was originally composed for polis and is re-posted here with their permission.
“Deep in the West, where the sun is gathering dust,” bellows Herbert Grönemeyer in an ode to his home town, Bochum, “things are better, much better than you think.” Even for the bestselling German pop artist of all time, this was a tough sell. Bochum is located in the middle of the Ruhr region, colloquially known as “der Pott,” or “the coal pit.” Generations of Germans have grown up to think of it as a place filled with coal dust and poisonous fumes, smokestacks and gritty miners’ towns, and the roar and glow of blast furnaces. Like many boom regions of the classic industrial period, from the Yorkshire coal fields to the U.S. Rust Belt, the Ruhr has been hit hard by the decline of mining and heavy industry since the 1960s. The jobs vanished; rusting steel, crumbling bricks, and a heavily polluted landscape remained. How to build a new identity from the industrial ruins of yesteryear in the postindustrial age is a question few have answered convincingly.
No place embodies the Ruhr’s faded industrial glory and recent woes more than the Zollverein mining compound in the city of Essen. The iconic “Doppelbock” winding tower of Zollverein’s central Shaft XII, also known as the “Eiffel Tower of the Ruhr,” has served as a symbol of the region since its completion in 1932.
The complex was known as Europe’s biggest and most modern coal mine. In its heyday, the tower hauled 12,000 tons of soft coal from the depths of the earth each day. An intricate system of conveyor belts transported the coal to Europe’s largest coke ovens, where it was immediately processed to fuel the furnaces of the region’s booming steel industry. Up to 8,000 workers earned their living in the dust, heat, noise, and fumes of the Zollverein complex. At day’s end they went home to their company-built houses and shopped at the company stores.
Aside from record output, Zollverein was also an architectural landmark. The young architects Fritz Schupp and Martin Kremmer, who started planning the shaft in 1927, were strongly influenced by the Bauhaus movement and its “form follows function” style. With the stark symmetry and minimalist geometry of its surface buildings, lined up along two intersecting axes, Zollverein’s Shaft XII soon earned a reputation as the “world’s most beautiful coal mine.” The innovative use of red brick on a steel skeleton construction set the style for a generation of industrial architecture across the region.
When Zollverein closed in 1986, it was the last remaining active mine in Essen. Instead of letting the complex tumble down, the state of North Rhine-Westphalia bought the site and preserved it as a memorial. After a substantial renovation, Zollverein opened to visitors in 1999. Declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2001, it is now a main stop on the German and European Route of Industrial Heritage. Tourists follow the overhead conveyor belts through what is now a dense young forest, or take a walk on the former train tracks, converted into pathways. Visitors can take one of numerous guided tours or learn about the history of coal and steel in the former coal-washing plant, revamped and equipped with a bright orange escalator by Rem Koolhaas’s OMA. The former shower facilities house a Performing Arts and Choreographic Centre (PACT). Numerous concerts, art exhibitions, and performances are scheduled in and around the old industrial structures throughout the year.
The gigantic coking plant, built between 1957 and 1961, has undergone some of the most spectacular transformations. A Ferris wheel was carved into the ovens where coal was baked into coke at 1250°C until 1993. In summer, visitors can take a dip in an outdoor pool, surrounded by a colorful, if slightly rusty maze of pipes and stairways. In winter, an ice skating rink allows you to glide past the steel doors of its 304 ovens.
True to the site’s architectural heritage, design has been a special focus at Zollverein. The old boiler house now accommodates the red dot design museum, displaying products that have won the design award of the same name. In 2006 the Zollverein School of Management and Design opened in a futuristic cube building designed by the Japanese architects SANAA. Together with the ambitiously named “designstadt N°1,” which offers office space for creatives, it was supposed to form the core of a new “design city” in what is still the region’s poorest area. So far, the substantial public investments do not seem to have payed off. The school had to close in 2008 for lack of students, while the designstadt is mostly empty.
Nevertheless, Zollverein has once more become a pace-setter. It is today the prestigious centerpiece of a whole region’s effort to rebrand itself as the “Metropole Ruhr,” a twenty-first-century metropolis open to high tech and high culture, an international tourist destination, and postindustrial economic powerhouse. The region is trying to make the best of the fact that the air has once again become breathable, and even bathing in the rivers is no longer a danger to one’s life and health. Landscape and adventure parks, museums, exhibitions, and cultural venues are springing up left and right. Few of the giant waste rock piles, so characteristic for the area, are without an art installation or walkable landmark. In recognition of these efforts, Essen was named the European Capital of Culture in 2010.
This does not mean that the region’s troubles are over. As economic readjustment progresses, new social tensions are arising. Costly rededication projects have added to the already frighteningly high debt burden of local municipalities, many of which are worse off than equivalents in the formerly communist German East. Tourism and culture cannot themselves replace the hundreds of thousands of lost industrial jobs. Whether it will be possible to attract viable businesses in sufficient numbers remains to be seen. However, to witness the creative and historically sensitive reworking of an industrial past, the Ruhr region is most certainly worth a visit. Things are better than you might think.
Wellterbe Zollverein (official website, in German)
Zollverein Coal Mine Industrial Complex in Essen (UNESCO profile)
Zollverein Industrial Complex (landscape study by Jennifer Chandler)
OMA Masterplan for the Zollverein Mining Complex (Arcspace review)
Written in collaboration with Stefan Esselborn, a doctoral student in the Environment and Society program at LMU Munich with a focus on colonial Africa. In his free time he loves to explore postindustrial landscapes.