SiSi Chang

Freelance writer. Masters of Arts from Taipei National University of Graduate Institute of Theatre Performance and Playwriting and Graduate Institute of Architecture and Cultural Heritage. Chang sees travel as a discipline and learns to look at things from a different angle each time when she is in a strange place. Published works include Amazing Australia, An In-Depth Guide to Angkor and Lonely Planet IN Series: Taiwan.

From coal fields to green fields: the transformation of Germany’s Ruhr Region

07 2015 | Issue 7

The Ruhr Metropolitan Region (Metropolregion Ruhr) is situated in the northwest part of Germany. After the industrial revolution, the area rapidly developed into one of the most industrialised areas of Europe in just a few decades, due to its rich coal deposits. The dozen or so densely populated cities in the region quickly established themselves as important hubs for coal refining, steel and chemicals. But the region lacked long-term urban planning. It was at once Germany’s industrial heartland but was also heavily polluted and had a poor standard of living. At the end of the 1970s, as cheaper sources of energy started to replace coal, the Ruhr region rapidly deteriorated and left behind masses of abandoned factories, toxic rivers and soil and a high rate of unemployment. How to deal with the Ruhr was a big headache, and lesson, for the German government.

After about a decade of dereliction, the IBA Emscher Park took on the heavy responsibility of regenerating the Ruhr region. Through a tender, it invited architects inside and outside of Germany to submit their ideas for the rejuvenation of the region, based on the goals of cultural, environmental and ecological preservation. All construction plans had to be in accordance with German regulations on energy and environmental protection and had to incorporate the characteristics and histories of the different districts. One particular problem, for example, was the residue leftover from smelting, which had absolutely no use and was dumped in mounds all around the cities where plants could not grow. IBA regenerated these areas to turn them into recreational parks, managing to preserve some of these mounds so that people could learn about the history of the place.

Through a process of creative cooperation, many of the abandoned factories and machines in the Ruhr region have been transferred to civilian management and have found new uses. Some have been turned into spacious film sets. Bathhouses where coal miners formerly bathed are now dance studios. The German Rock Climbing Association now has the most members in the Ruhr region, where factory walls have been converted into indoor climbing facilities. Reusing factories in this way avoids the cost of demolishing buildings and building new ones. With the principle of “minimal interference”, the Ruhr has managed not only to preserve the historical textures of the region but also miraculously construct an arts and culture hub out of abandoned coal mines and factories. It has also found a way to deal with the toxic urban problem of how to deal with waste and at the same time finding spatial solutions for the arts and entertainment industries.

Huge machines posed another problem. Typically once a business closes, the machines need to be dismantled. But bankrupt companies didn’t have money to do that, leaving behind abandoned masses of rubbish. The Zollverein Coal Mine Industrial Complex was one of Europe’s top coal mines. It wasn’t simply a factory, but a huge, towering machine. Built in 1930, it was the world’s largest and most advanced coal mining facility at the time. Its production increased from 300 tons a day to 1,200 tons a day. It ceased production in 1986 and the site was purchased by the government, which drew up plans to turn it into an interactive museum. Visitors can follow the coal mine’s transport line and go deep into the inside of the machinery. The museum isn’t just a record of the coal mine’s hardware, but also its sounds and smells, giving visitors a full sensory experience to really feel what it was like working as a coal miner at a critical juncture of human civilisation. The Zollverein complex is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Coal mining once brought economic wealth and environmental degradation to the region, but now leaves an important legacy for generations to come.

In addition to recycling industrial monuments, there are many other ongoing projects in the Ruhr, such as revitalising residential areas and caring for the disadvantaged, cleaning up its rivers, renewable energy research and so on. The Ruhr region has now become an important hub for green energy and creativity, setting a standard for how humans can live in the future.