Geek out at Germany’s Industrial Heritage

Music festivals in mines and giant steel installations rewrite the story of post-industrial Germany.  
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Built in 1994 by using steel pipes and cast iron knobs, the Tetraeder was fashioned as a symbol of stability for a Bottrop in flux. Photo courtesy: Wolfgang Christ

When the Tetraeder was built in 1994, many residents of Bottrop, a post-industrial city in western Germany, thought it a waste of public money. But now there is no ignoring the 200-foot-tall, walkable steel pyramid rising out of a mine dump, with 400 stairs leading visitors close to the top. In contrast to this curious structure, the surrounding land is a stark grey, with spots where smoke belches from the coal mines nearby.

Located 10 kilometres northwest of Essen, Bottrop is in the Ruhr region, whose coal and steel industry fuelled Germany’s industrial success between the 1930s and ’80s. Today, coal mining might have screeched to a halt—Ruhr’s last two mines close next month—but the region is spinning new stories around its legacy by repurposing sites into cultural attractions.

Bottrop cannot match with Berlin’s history, Cologne’s magnificent Cathedral or Munich’s bacchanalian revelry during the Oktoberfest. Yet it draws more than 1,00,000 local and international visitors every year—industrial heritage fans who love a good reimagination of Germany’s manufacturing past. This is largely because Ruhr has pride of place on the European Route of Industrial Heritage (www.erih.net), a network of industrial heritage sites that connects 13 countries and 1,768 sites.

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Zollverein Coal Mine Industrial Complex. Photo courtesy: Stiftung Zollverein

When I first glimpsed the Tetraeder—or the Tetrahedron—on a summer morning this June, I didn’t know what to make of the weird and wonderful structure, one that looked like a colossal piece of modern art plucked from a mathematician’s laboratory. The higher I climbed up the staircase within, the more it creaked and swayed. This is not by accident, suggests Wolfgang Christ, the Tetraeder ‘s architect, in an email interview. The feeling of being unsafe is meant to remind visitors what it is like for miners descending deep down into the coal mines. By the time I clambered to the top, I could feel what he meant. The view from the top is worth the climb. The barren moonscape of the mine and the steel and cement structures from the coal plant are in stark contrast to the forest cover beyond.

As Bottrop’s golden days came to an end in the 1980s, with loss of jobs and skilled personnel looming large, the city felt it needed an icon that reflected on the past and looked ahead at the future. “We decided to build something that represented a kind of an anchor in that economically and culturally stormy time,” says Christ. He designed the Tetraeder as a watchtower for the people, a symbol of solidity and stability.

 

Men vs Machines

Day tours, Electronica festivals, and lakeside retreats thrive in post-industrial Germany

Mining Memories

In the mining city of Essen is another significant stop on the ERIH—the Zollverein Coal Mine Industrial Complex, a UNESCO site. Spread over 100 hectares, the Zollverein shut in 1986, and was later fashioned as a hub for art, concerts, festivals and sports. Inside the disused mine are museums, offices, restaurants, an ice rink, a large public pool, and even a university. But most heartening of all are the vast green spaces.

Beside signs of transformation are steadfast remnants of what the mine used to be. Mammoth machines lie intact, and daily tours conducted by retired miners take visitors into the heart of 20th-century structures. Some people visit Zollverein to experience what they’ve never seen before, and some to remember—pits, coking plants, railway lines and miner’s homes from a different era seem untouched. “Former miners get to show their children and grandchildren how hard work was. We often hear people talk family history when they visit us,” says Hanna Lohmann, press and public relations officer for Zollverein, in an email interview. “It was coal that brought the region together.”

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Electronica fest, Melt, at Ferropolis. Photo by: Picture-Alliance/dpa/dpa Picture-Alliance

City of Iron

A significant part of the European Route of Industrial Heritage is the Ferropolis in the town of Gräfenhainichen. The open-air museum features five gigantic excavators that appear to be right out of a sci-fi movie. Ferropolis was an open pit lignite mine in the former German Democratic Republic (East Germany), whose machines were spared the scrapping yard once the mine closed in the 1990s. Its star attraction is the Racehorse, a 500×100-foot excavator. Ferropolis hosts some of Germany’s most popular music festivals, such as the electronic extravaganza Melt. Stages for indie and hip-hop music too are set up next to machines that loom like monsters.

Lakeside Retreat

The most extreme makeover, however, can be seen in Lusatia in the east, where lignite mines have been turned into Europe’s biggest artificial lake district. Lusatia was once known for its barren landscape, with large craters left from mining. In the 1970s, the craters were flooded and turned into lakes. Today, 26 lakes thrive here along with forests and cycling paths. It is common to find buzzing cafés, campsites, and visitors lolling on beaches, or horse riding and quad biking in the region.

  • Sunaina Kumar is an independent journalist who lives in Delhi. She has a bad case of farsickness, and likes to spend a little too much time in museums. When she doesn’t travel, she is a flâneuse in her city.

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