Derelict urban landscapes and abandoned spaces have always attracted adventurous explorers, searching for a peek into the world of a fallen industrial dystopia. That desire can be fulfilled by a visit to the Zollverein complex in Essen, Germany: once Europe’s largest coal mine, Zeche Zollverein was transformed over 25 years into an architectural paradise. Contributions by Rem Koolhaas, Norman Foster and SANAA are included in the 100-hectare park; overwhelming in its complexity, the estate includes rusty pipes, colossal coal ovens and tall chimneys, inviting over 500,000 people per day to gain an insight into the golden age of European heavy-industry.
Join us for a photographic journey through this machine-age playground, after the break…
The first coal mine on the site was established in 1847; along with the coking plant, the two developments became the largest and most modern industrial complex in Europe. Over the next 150 years, the estate evolved as new construction and programmatic adjustments took shape; by the 1930s a series of Bauhaus-inspired buildings by German architect Fritz Schupp dominated the view. However, due to a changing economy, the mines and factories were gradually shut down between 1986 and 1993, and were immediately purchased for heritage preservation, maintained by the region’s government until declared as a world heritage site by UNESCO in 2001. Thus began the new stage in the Estate’s life.
Along with Professor Henri Bava, in 2002 The Office for Metropolitan Architecture (OMA) devised a master plan for the redevelopment of the site, retaining its signature cultural qualities. The plan, which was carried out over the next eight years, focused on establishing a central axis along the main rail tracks between the coal mine and the coking plant, where walking paths, cycling trails and playgrounds intertwine with the vast industrial landscape. The new recreational trail is encompassed by the abandoned buildings, on which meadows and grasslands started to grow wild: the result is a bizarre, somewhat post-apocalyptic scene whose silence is interrupted only by wildlife, joggers, or – oddly enough – occasional Bachelorette parties held by the locals.
The winding path ends at the coking factory, the crown of the estate: a rusty mega-structure reflected in a former cooling tank; sky-bridges used for transferring coal and supported pipes hover above while a 1000-meter deep tunnel opens below. To top it all, one can take a ride in one of the 14 gondolas of the “Skywheel”, a futuristic ferris-wheel attraction, which takes passengers deep into the interior of the coking oven then rises high above the Zollverein landscape.
The centerpiece of the coalmine is its former powerhouse, a red-brick and exposed I-beam structure of monumental proportions. In 2007, local architects Heinrich Böll and Hans Krabe collaborated with OMA to transform the powerhouse into the Ruhr Museum, a center for exploration of the region’s rich history through artifacts of geology, archaeology and photography. Leaving the original building completely intact, and nearly 80% of the original machinery in its place, Koolhaas created an impressive monument, making only one visible addition: the iconic red escalators, leading visitors straight into the depths of the vast entry hall.
Prior to OMA’s conversion of the main powerhouse, a similar, ground-breaking project took shape on the other side of the estate; the first leap towards the transformation the site was about to embrace. In the mid 1990s, Foster + Partners transformed one of the mine’s boiler-houses into the world’s largest exhibition of contemporary design – The Red-Dot Museum. One of the complex’s Bauhaus-inspired buildings, the building was restored and cleaned to reveal the functionalist, red-brick facades, followed by a complete alteration of the interior: only one of the five original boilers remained, while the rest were replaced by floating exhibition galleries whose lightness stands in contrast to the severe interior. For the masterful conversion of the space, Sir Norman Foster was awarded the “Knight Commander’s Cross of the Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany,” cited for his ability to achieve “balance in between preserving the old and creating the new.”
While the careful alterations of the various site buildings by star-architects was praised by all, demonstrating the potential of sensible preservation and the importance of ever-lasting architecture, it seems like the latest addition to the estate was a step in the wrong direction. As of 2006, the entrance to the site is dominated by a 35-meter concrete cube: The Zollverein School of Management and Design, by the Pritzker Prize laureate duo SANAA. Unfortunately, The shiny new building with its asymmetrical window composition seems to be misplaced: the university went bankrupt for a lack of students, and even the tourists seem to prefer the rusty factory playgrounds over SANAA’s single, free-standing spectacle.
The Zollverein complex is a unique development within a complex historical context; emblematic of a time of rapid modernization and functionalism, transformed by a leap of faith into a hub of ambitious architecture, design and culture. It is a testament to the qualities of extraordinary design, which can be everlasting, adaptable and reusable for contemporary purposes.
The site is open daily from 10:00 am – 6:00 pm; further information can be found here.