How does the biggest industrial hub in Europe transform itself into a capital of culture? Following years of vigilant planning, the Ruhr, a region of 53 towns and cities in western Germany that was once known for its abundance of coal mines and steel mills, is receiving some much needed attention.
After the industry’s big collapse in the 1960s and 70s left thousands jobless, the community got together to form a rebuilding program, and soon the region was celebrating the coveted European Capital of Culture 2010 title alongside Istanbul, Turkey and Pecs, Hungary.
It’s the first time the award has gone to a region, and ample space (Ruhr is five times bigger than Berlin) is being utilized: construction is ongoing and the region is slowly becoming a haven for art and culture.
We’re trying to keep the industrial heritage
“We’re trying to keep the industrial heritage,” says Rainhard de Witt of Regionalverband Ruhr. What little of the coal industry remains will likely die off by 2018. In fact, there are only four operating coal mines left from 150 during WWII, but Ruhr now boasts five visitor centres, 250 festivals, 200 museums, 120 theatres and 100 concert houses – and most are making use of former industrial spaces redesigned through first-rate engineering and efficiency, the epitome of modern Germany.
Ruhr HighlightsZeche Zollverein
Zeche Zollverein - UNESCO World Heritage site - http://whc.unesco.org/en/list/975
Ruhr’s slick 14,000 square metre visitor centre (and the location for January’s opening ceremonies) exists on the site of a former coal mine that closed in 1986, after 135 years of mining operation.
The site was added to the UNESCO World Heritage list in 2001 and has since created over a 1,000 jobs as the creative centre of Ruhr. Ample activities abound: visitors can take the ‘Path of Coal’ - a tour through heat, dust, fire and water using the latest media technology, or view the panorama film “360 degrees Ruhr” in swivel chairs. They can rent a bike and cycle the 3.5 km ring promenade, a site where waste material of coal production was once stored.
“You’ll probably be surprised because it’s so green,” says one staff member. Ride the sun wheel, which - in the course of one spin - allows for broad vistas from atop, and interior views of a coking oven below ground. Explore the Ruhr Museum, watch a theatre performance or listen to world-famous musicians in classic, opera and jazz. For dinner, walk over to the elegant Casino Zollverein where dramatic candelabras greet you in the doorway. “I feel like I’m on the set of Phantom of the Opera,” said one diner.
Deutsches Bergbau-Museum Bochum
A mining museum with Salvador Dali originals? Unusual but true. This museum opened in 1930 and displays the underground world of mining. They claim to be the most important mining museum in the world and it has about 400,000 visitors annually.
A guided tour is a must - request the extroverted Hans-George, whose father worked as a miner for 30 years. Hans-George has passion for coal mining and will enlighten the replicated coal mine 20 metres below the surface with various tunnels and original machinery, spouting Shakespeare verse along the way.
“I think he really loves his job,” said one museum-goer. Visit the three original Dali paintings on the upper level, and then take an elevator to the top of the massive headgear, which provides a viewing platform of the region. Special exhibitions are held throughout the year.
A group of Ruhr artists came together to form this exhibition in a former air-raid shelter. The exhibit, which just opened earlier this year, had a festive biergarten outside, and covers 900 square metres of space between stark cinder blocks. “It is very important to get the region together to cooperate,” said one artist. “A bunker has never been used for anything like this.” Alongside the funky art displays, walk through the original shower/toilet rooms and get a feeling for how a bunker looked during WWII.
MKM Museum Kuppersmuhle
This contemporary art museum takes up residence in a former flourmill and storage silo that was transformed into three floors of exhibit space, therefore allowing art to “breathe”. Located in Duisburg, an up-and-coming city that frames an inland harbor, this museum contains 19 million euros worth of art including famed sculptures by Alberto Giacometti and paintings by Anselm Keifer.
The warm-hued stairwell is a piece of art on its own attracting architectural enthusiasts from all over the world. Look for the banana icon painted near the entrance - a symbol from Cologne artist Thomas Baumgarten who for over 23 years has spray-painted his seal of quality on nearly 4,000 places of art between Moscow and New York City. The banana has become the non-official logo of the arts scene, and the Ruhr district will soon be honoured with the worldwide largest art-banana.
This is a massive industrial wasteland, which has been transformed over a period of ten years into a multifunctional park, open round-the-clock at no charge. At a site where the blast heat was once unbearable, you can now wander amongst young trees and climb old furnaces for views of Ruhr. The rusting buildings and smokestacks of the former Duisburg Meiderich factory turn blue, green and red in a psychedelic display created by the Pink Floyd’s former lighting engineer.
An old gasholder has been made into the biggest artificial diving centre in Europe, and alpine climbing gardens have been created in the former ore storage bunkers. At night, take a torch-lit tour through the illuminated blast furnace plant. When you’ve had your fill of the park, walk over to nearby Hauptschalthaus for dinner – a contemporary restaurant offering daily three-course menus.
This spanking-new museum re-opened in January thanks to a generous 52 million euro donation from steel magnate Berthold Beitz, who financed the construction of the building. It holds a regular collection of modern paintings and sculpture, post-1945 art and photography.
The Museum Folkwang was home to one of the most significant collections of modern and contemporary art worldwide in the 1920s and early 1930s. On his visit to Essen in 1932, Paul J. Sachs, co-founder of the MoMA in New York City, called it “the most beautiful museum in the world”. But the National Socialist regime soon confiscated more than 1400 works of what it considered “degenerate” art. This brought a brutal end to the museum. But in a tremendous comeback, the museum will soon open “The Most Beautiful Museum in the World” exhibit reuniting the Folkwang’s pre-1933 collection for the first time in over 70 years.
Decommissioned in 1988, the future of the Gasometer was sure to end in demolition. What could be done with a giant cylindrical storage tank for gas? But the local community arose to the task, and converted it into exhibition hall which is today the landmark of Oberhausen.
Take an exterior elevator all the way to the top of this gigantic cylinder which is now known for 360-degree views of the region. On the way down, ride the Matrix-like interior elevator overlooking a gigantic 25-metre diameter moon, part of the “out of this world” solar system display.
The exhibition starts in the area below the former gas-pressure disc with enormous replicas of the sun and its planets. Large format images, obtained during the latest American and European space missions, show the solar system and its development over time. The site is also used for major concerts and special events.
2,500 events and 300 projects take place this year. For more information visit:ruhr2010.de/en
How to get there
Air Berlin, and British Airways offer daily flights to Dusseldorf located 35km south of the city.
Where to sleep and eat
Hotels in the RuhrMintrops City Hotel Margarethenhole - http://www.margarethenhoehe.com/ -This design hotel is located near Essen’s historical marketplace
Alte Lohn Halle - http://www.alte-lohnhalle.de/ -This boutique hotel takes over a former coal mine, and offers 16 rooms furnished with chic early 20th century furniture
Sheraton - http://www.sheratonessen.com/ -This is a nice option in Essen, and has rooms overlooking a picturesque park and biergarten
Casino Zollverein - http://www.casino-zollverein.de/
Forsthaus Gysenberg - http://www.forsthaus-gysenberg.de/
Brauhaus Zeche Jacobi - http://www.brauhaus-zeche-jacobi.de/
Hauptschalthaus - http://www.hauptschalthaus.com/
Living Room - http://www.livingroom-bochum.de/