Beyond Buildings


Mining the Past

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Earlier this week, I wrote about the past as something that grounds and frames not only the vivacity of our present lives, but also the sense that all this, too, will pass, in art. I did so in Berlin, which is the capital not only of unified Germany, but also of angst over the past and its meanings. From Berlin, I took a short hop to Duesseldorf and the Ruhr Valley, where the past is transforming from a burden into an opportunity at an amazing pace.

This was once the headquarters of the industrial revolution in Europe. Home to the largest coal mines and steel works in the world, it fueled the emergence of Germany, as a leading economy and power, much as China is today. After World War II, as the era of production gave way to that of consumption, this sprawling complex of interrelated and competing mills, mines, and factories became largely a wasteland, leaving behind a polluted landscape and poverty. Realizing the danger, the local governments (both the state, or province, of Nordrhein-Westphalen, and local municipalities such as Duisburg Essen, Wuppertal, Gelsenkirchen, and Dortmund) banded together to reclaim these ruins-in-the-making for that world of experience.


Photos: Aaron Betsky


When we approached the area of the Zollverein, once Europe's largest deep mine, through the narrow and still poor streets of Essen, we found ourselves in a traffic jam. The massive grids of red-painted steel-containing brick panels that once housed the mine shaft, the washers, the breakers, and all the other mining paraphernalia in a composition of rectangular volumes that would have done any Bauhaus architect proud (it was actually designed by Fritz Schupp and Martin Kremmer starting in 1930), stood fresh and clean, while thousands of people milled about drinking beer and eating sausages. There were art galleries where vats of coal once stood, a dance studio in pristine splendor under giant beams, and a design museum along the giant machinery in a renovation by Norman Foster.


More than anything else, though, the Zollverein had become a place to gather. It was designated a Unesco World Heritage Site in 1986, at which point the Zollverein Redevelopment Authority commissioned an OMA-designed Master Plan for its regeneration. A single escalator that is one of the few modern additions that OMA created leapt up more than 150 feet from the ground to the top of the largest structure, bringing people up and down at right angles to what had been the movement of the coal among similar conveyors. At the top, you could explore the history of mining and of the complex, but more important and attractive to most visitors is the panorama that takes in the surprisingly verdant vistas all around, including the ways in which the more than 200-acre area has turned into a public park, its trees, bushes and flowers pushing up between tracks and sheds in a combination of carefully planned grids and gardens, and luxuriant weeds and blow-ins filling in as they see fit. A few new implants, such as a concrete cube with eccentric windows, designed by SANAA and containing a business school, sprouts among the monuments of the past and the meandering paths for current enjoyment.

I have to admit that our visit found a non-normal situation: it was a beautiful fall Sunday, and the area is celebrating its status as this year’s European Capitol of Culture with a continual array of events that helped draw those huge crowds, but even on a normal workdays these industrial anchors have become cultural centers that attract thousands of people to—well, to have experiences, to consume, to understand the industrial past and to enjoy a greener present.

My little group of mainly American businesspeople wondered who paid for all this, and shook their heads over the fact that the government would invest so much in a ruin, but we could all not help but be charmed by the intensity of use and pleasure that investment has produced. We could all see that the original buildings were beautiful, both because of their scale and the abstraction that came from their function, and because of the intentions of the designer. We could enjoy the unintentional attractions of the old equipment, enhanced by the patina of use and the romance of disuse. We could wander through green and we could see art and design. It is hard to imagine a better way to use give these engines of production a second life as anchors to communities grounded in creativity, research, and experience. 

The only question, of course, is who will enjoy all this. Most of the local inhabitants are undereducated and out of work. This is a mecca for tourists and for visitors from the more wealthy surroundings. Whether all this will regenerate the immediate surroundings is very much in question, and this certainly will be the next task for the NRW Industrial Heritage project. 




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About the Blogger

Aaron Betsky

thumbnail image Aaron Betsky is the director of the Cincinnati Art Museum, and in 2008 he was director of the 11th Venice International Architecture Biennale. Trained as an architect at Yale, he has published more than a dozen books on art, architecture, and design and teaches and lectures about design around the world. Aaron worked for Frank O. Gehry and Associates and Hodgetts & Fung Design Associates as a designer, taught for many years at the Southern California Institute of Architecture, and between 1995 and 2001 was curator of architecture and design at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. From 2001 to 2006 he was director of the Netherlands Architecture Institute in Rotterdam, the Netherlands.