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Ruhr region of Germany embraces a new and different future by finding uses for shuttered mines and factories

The rocket ship-like Tetrahedron, perched atop a heap of coal-mining waste, captures the optimism and creativity of today's Ruhr region.

GABRIEL POPKIN/THE WASHINGTON POST

By GABRIEL POPKIN | Special to The Washington Post | Published: March 5, 2020

A hill emerges incongruously from the table-flat landscape east of the Rhine River near Bottrop, Germany. I climb a wide, graded path through young birch and cherry trees. The fledgling forest finally gives way to a barren plateau with sweeping views of the Ruhr region: steel foundries, one coal-fired power plant still pumping out smoke amid whirring wind turbines, the Rhine snaking its way northwest toward Rotterdam and the North Sea.

Looming in front of me is a 210-ton, off-kilter modern steel pyramid that looks a bit like a whimsical rocket ship poised for takeoff. It’s one of the region’s largest and most striking interactive public art pieces, visible from just about any other similarly elevated point. Vertigo sufferers beware: Next comes a 150-foot-high clanky metal staircase leading to a tilted circular catwalk in the structure’s interior.

The optimistic yet off-balance structure could be a metaphor for the Ruhr itself: a region careening from an industrial past to a very different future. This hill, like most of the Ruhr’s notable features, is human-made, literally the piled detritus of an industry that once powered much of Europe’s economy. Over five centuries, miners extracted 11 billion tons of coal, sinking the land up to 60 feet. But as the polluting, carbon-heavy fossil fuel has become unprofitable and unfashionable, the region’s mines and power plants have shuttered at a fast clip. Such economic disruption can cause unemployment and breed resentment — see, for example, Appalachia.

The Ruhr is modeling a different path. Instead of seeking a return to the past, the region has turned its industrial heritage into an asset and is inviting the world to enjoy the results. Decommissioned factories and power plants have become public parks and museums, or backdrops for laser shows and rock concerts. Abandoned mines, whose iconic two-legged elevator shafts loom like rusty giants, are reborn as cultural centers, museums and homes to visionary restaurateurs.

There has been an equivalent environmental transformation. Restored rivers and wetlands draw migratory birds, hikers and bikers. The city of Essen, once home to one of the world’s largest coal mines, was named Europe’s cultural capital in 2010 and its green capital in 2017.

Though the flat, solidly middle-class Ruhrgebiet contrasts starkly with Appalachia in both geography and socioeconomics, some think the region could be a model for its American counterpart, struggling to diversify its economy and imagine life after coal. For travelers, meanwhile, the Ruhr offers a unique, off-the-beaten-path window into Europe’s natural, industrial and cultural history.

A land of picturesque castles, classical architecture and pastoral countryside, the Ruhr region is not. The densely populated area was built in a frenzy of industrial development beginning in the mid-1800s along the Ruhr, a Rhine tributary, and expanded northward, with functional but drab worker housing encircling city-size factories and mining complexes. Adding to the region’s aesthetic challenges, heavy World War II bombing demolished many historic city centers. Crucial to national recovery, industry roared back to life quickly and dirtily, soon employing more than a million people.

Yet by the late ’60s, the Ruhr’s coal and heavy industry were approaching their expiration date. As factories and mines shuttered, the impulse was to demolish and forget, says Thomas Machoczek of Ruhr Tourismus, which promotes tourism in the region. “Everything that had to do with industry was dirty and ugly. Everything you could get rid of, you wanted to get rid of.”

Fortunately, an international building exhibition sparked pride in the region’s industrial heritage, and massive public investment began to give rusty factories and mines new life.

On a family holiday in December, I decided to take a more systematic look at the results. I started at the Landschaftspark (Landscape Park), just off the highway in north Duisburg. Until 1985, this 450-acre site was an ironworks owned by Thyssen, one of the few German firms still making steel. Now it’s a public park. It has been listed by the Guardian as one of the Europe’s 10 best public parks and attracts a million people per year.

“This is an open museum,” explains Rainhard de Witt, who leads tours with the Regionalverband Ruhr and says it’s his favorite place to show visitors.

Factory buildings have become an indoor scuba diving center, a rock climbing wall and a discotheque. Those are closed for the season, so we climb more than 150 feet of stairs to a wind-whipped viewing platform atop the monstrous, rust-encrusted blast furnaces, which once brought molten iron to well above 1,832 Fahrenheit and were known to swallow the occasional unfortunate factory worker, according to de Witt. Signs in German and English help me envision the clanking, dirty, dangerous yet prodigiously productive place this must have once been.

Touring the park by night is a different experience entirely. Subtle lighting designed by Jonathan Park of Pink Floyd and Rolling Stones concert fame adorns smokestacks and furnaces with red, blue, purple and green hues but leaves plenty of shadows, yielding an eerie feel. I imagine myself a wanderer among ruins of a civilization that practiced a strange, now-lost religion of metallurgy. The enormity of this enterprise, and its abandonment, feels much weightier at night.

The next day is typical German winter — cold, gray and drizzly. My parents and I drive to the Ruhr’s other crown jewel: the Zollverein. More polished than the Landschaftspark, the expansive complex is a stunning example of Bauhaus architecture — a modernist style that blossomed in Germany in the early 1900s and eschewed ornate design for clean, straight lines and functional buildings to fit the machine age. It’s the Ruhr’s only UNESCO World Heritage Site and has been called the world’s most beautiful coal mine.

A trip up a long escalator brings us to the former coal washing station. Orange lighting along the railings evokes the molten metal that once flowed in places like this. We buy tickets and enter the complex’s prime attraction: the Ruhr Museum.

The museum, which opened in 2008 and attracts some 250,000 visitors per year, has helped the Ruhr’s people feel pride in their industrial heritage, says deputy director Frank Kerner; when mines and factories were shuttering, people looked at the sooty, rusty remains with shame. “In the 1980s a lot of people thought it was only a crisis,” he says. Now, “everybody is proud of the history of the miners.”

What impresses most in the Ruhr is the monumental scale: Coal mines and steel works evoke nature’s creations rather than the more modest structures we encounter in cities today. They represent the human impulse to extract, refine and combine Earth’s raw materials into an endless and ever-changing set of products — an impulse that has, for better and worse, touched nearly every place on Earth. All could learn from one of the first places to make it, mostly successfully, to the other side.

The underrated, understated Ruhr offers real life in abundance, courtesy of an unpretentious people who have been through the best and the worst of industrial capitalism and are embracing rather than shrinking from thwe challenge of figuring out what comes next.

Transformers in the Landschaftspark's cafe are holdovers from the building's former life as an electric power station.
GABRIEL POPKIN/THE WASHINGTON POST