Here was the heartbeat of German industry: the din of the steelworks, the fumes from the blast furnaces and the gigantic mines have left their mark on the Ruhr basin and its inhabitants. After production stopped, the territory was littered with enormous industrial monuments that now seem to spew energy, joie de vivre and culture. The Zeche Zollverein coalmines of Essen, today a UNESCO World Heritage Site, are among the key symbols of this region’s industrial culture. The ex-coking plant has become a cultural and creative center dedicated to architecture and design while representing, at the same time, a fundamental stage in the European itinerary of industrial culture.
What was once a coalmine able to supply the whole of Germany, is today one of Europe’s largest urban agglomerates, with five million inhabitants and one of the richest cultural panoramas of the entire continent. The metropolises of Bochum, Dortmund, Duisburg, Essen and Oberhausen, and many other centers in the Ruhr basin, combine to create an unequalled, constantly surprising, urban space.
All the cities, large and small, have something in common: they have succeeded in transforming themselves successfully from industrial centers to prestigious cultural attractions. In 2010, Essen was named a European Capital of Culture, as part of the RUHR.2010 initiative. This new role thence became official and irreversible. The change is a reality, experienced not only in the five principal cities, Duisburg, Oberhausen, Essen, Bochum and Dortmund, but in the 50-plus other centers of the region as well. The exhibition spaces of the Ruhr combine to offer the highest concentration of museums dedicated to modern art in the world: 20 centers in 15 cities, all just a few kilometers away from each other. Yet these, in their turn, are just a small part of the group of some 200 museums, including the Museum of Art and Cultural History in Dortmund, which opened in 1883 and is the oldest exhibition center in the metropolitan area, and the Museum Folkwang, the largest of the group with around 800,000 visitors per year. All this, however, is part of a still larger and more significant design – the transformation into a cultural region that respects its industrial inheritance and continues to pay homage to it. Industrial plants as new backdrops and inhabitants who embrace this new evolution with enthusiasm: this is the Ruhr basin.
Still standing are the blast furnaces, the gasometers and the cooling towers. They are clearly visible symbols of the region’s industrial heritage. Today they remain a typical sight in the Ruhr basin, but their purpose is no longer that of extracting coal. Rather, they lend their support to theater, music, painting, dance, performance and other artistic forms. The typical features of an era on which the sun has now set can still be seen along the Industrial Heritage Route. This 400-kilometer itinerary crosses the Ruhr basin, from Duisburg to Hamm and Hagen, embracing 54 extraordinary testimonies to the region’s industrial past and present. One of the finest examples is in Duisburg itself: the North Duisburg Landscape Park, a decommissioned industrial complex transformed into a multifunctional area with a wholly new character, including the largest diving center in Europe created inside an ex-gasometer, a wall for climbing and many other attractions that one would not expect to find in an industrial metropolis. Oberhausen, a few kilometers away, has given new life to its oldest symbol. The ex-gasometer, located between the Rhine-Herne canal and the CentrO shopping and leisure area, is a steel giant built in 1929 to store gas for the coking plant. Today, it is one of the most unusual exhibition spaces in the whole of Europe. At Essen, which we may describe as the “headquarters” of the UHR.2010 European Capital of Culture, the Zollverein coal mine is not only a UNESCO World Heritage Site, but also the symbol par excellence of the transformation of the entire region.
Nearby Bochum was once a city of belching chimneys and glaring blast furnaces, as can be seen in the German Museum of the Mining Industry, the largest of its kind in the world. Over 400,000 visitors venture every year into the abysses of the coalmines, before climbing the 63-meter-high cooling tower to enjoy a splendid panorama of Bochum and the surrounding region. The city with the largest number of mines in the Ruhr basin is now the city with the most theatres … and the prime destination in the region for those who love eating-places and festivals. If you want to “see the stars”, the Zeiss Planetarium of Bochum is the place to go. While, as you approach Dortmund, you will see the far horizon lit with an imposing “U”. The Dortmund U-Tower, the former warehouse and fermentation chamber of the Union Brewery, today hosts a new center for art, creativity and economics. Dominating the roof of the 1962 building is the 9-meter-high golden “U”, the symbol of the brewery and the luminous emblem of the city.