The Ruhr – from the glass curtain wall to the dancing curtain call

Text and photos Stefania Kenley

The transparency is a relatively new phenomenon in architecture, consequence of the proliferation of large windows for workshops or art studios and of glass curtain wall in industrial buildings : AEG Turbinenhalle by Peter Behrens, (Berlin, 1909), the project of sky scraper for Friedrichstrasse by Mies van der Rohe (Berlin, 1921), the Ozenfant painting studio by Le Corbusier (Paris, 1923), the Bauhaus school by Walter Gropius (Dessau, 1925), etc. The lightness has represented for almost a century the spirit of modern architecture, but also a promise of social justice and of political transparency.

The notion of transparency is in itself ambivalent, describing a material quality but also a metaphysical dimension. “According to the dictionary definition, the quality, or state, of being transparent is both a material condition – that of being pervious to light and air – and the result of an intellectual imperative, of our inherent demand for that which should be easily detected, perfectly evident, and free of dissimulation.”  This definition of Colin Rowe and Robert Slutzky is further exemplified through specific artworks and architectural elements : “Transparency may be an inherent quality of substance, as in a glass curtain wall ; or it may be an inherent quality of organisation. One can, for this reason, distinguish between a literal and a phenomenal transparency.”  Half a century ago, when this article was written, the transparency represented in modern architecture the aspirations of clarity and truthfulness. The gradual implosion of certain industrial activities during the last thirty years has however revealed the limits of this kind of “representation”.  In the most performing industrial zones of Europe, the conditions of a massive industrial development are re-evaluated, together with a gradual reassessment of the territory. For instance, dismantling important coal extraction industry in Germany, and its reorientation towards a cultural or social program, transformed the Ruhr zone in the European Capital of Culture for 2010. In this sense, the initial material qualities are now reinterpreted in a phenomenological perspective.

The coal industry of the Ruhr valley diminished due to the fall in the demand for coke, closing one after the other modern buildings equipped with performing technology. In 1980 the Zollverein coal mine started to shut down, followed shortly by the closure of the steel industry and the coal refinery units. Despite its good productivity, but following the changes of the international market economy, the 100 hectares of land in the north of Essen started to be out of use. The German government bought the site and the industrial complex from its former owners (Gelsenkirchen Bergwerks AG), declared it industrial heritage and invited the Office for Metropolitan Architecture (OMA) to draft a new masterplan for the area. This strategic plan of land use had been developed during a ten-year period, in close collaboration with heritage specialists. (01) As a result of these joined efforts, UNESCO added Zeche Zollverein to the list of World heritage industrial monuments in December 2001. Together with the qualities of the Zollverein Coal Mine Industrial Complex, UNESCO gives also a historical viewpoint on several unfortunate consequences for the ecosystem of the area : “Intensive mining resulted in a number of subsidences, which necessitated clearance of damaged housing and other facilities. Subsidence exacerbated the water problems in the so-called Emscher Zone, where mining adversely affected the gravitational flow and created large areas of swamp.”  As a consequence, the State Government of NorthRhine-Westphalia created in 1989 a regional plan that included the development of the Emscher Park and the International Building Exhibition (IBA) .

The modern building complex at Zeche Zollverein, started in 1930s by Fritz Schupp and Martin Kremmer, is also rejuvenated and linked by new roads system, maintaining however its original industrial character. The former rail tracks and passageways for coal are transformed in public space connecting the main buildings. This pedestrian network floating over the ground forms a first “transparent” layer, generating a dynamic relationship between the industrial site, several new outstanding buildings and the converted industrial heritage. (02) These projects are the result of the fruitful collaboration between the local practice Böll and Krabel and several international architectural practices: Foster + Partners for the Design museum, SANAA for the Zollverein School of design or OMA  for converting the former Kohlenwäsche for the Ruhr Museum and a new Visitor centre. (03-05)

The conversion project for the Ruhr Museum, led by Rem Koolhaas & Floris Alkemade (OMA) kept in place the structure of this fairly modern building of Kohlenwäsche, together with most of its equipment and washing plant. It had been inhabited “as found” by cultural industries, lighter and more flexible, inserting the new circuits for visitors between the knots and bolts of existing mechanisms. (06) The museum is recreating the story of the coal extraction and of the Ruhr zone: collections of fossils, of local plants, of drawings and models of human settlements with all the paraphernalia of their daily life, reconstructing thus the identity of the place and of its inhabitants. Some display cases are transparent, showing pressed species of plants between layers of laminated glass.(a-d) Some other arrangements are set in-between the existing installation of the Kohlenwäsche ; sometimes these displays seem endless in height and depth and escape the logic of septic display. If the transparent cases could be wiped daily for seeing clearly every single object, some other objects arranged in-situ could be seen like in a cross-section of geologic layers, guessed or imagined, inside, underneath, above or beyond, some monstrous installations; they seem to illustrate what Rowe and Slutzky called “phenomenal transparency”.

A similar thing could be said about the recent film Pina of Wim Wenders that adds a spectacular dimension to the site. The film seems to be formed by individual sequences of limited time span but it generates an infinite movement towards a point placed somewhere outside the picture’s frame. This film was finished after the disappearance of Pina Bausch and it engaged a more personal dialogue with this industrial heritage of the Ruhr zone. The language invented by this exceptional choreographer and developed by her faithful dance company unwraps in different location : on stage, in new buildings, but also in old tunnels, on coal clinker, or simply in nature as it is today – sometimes of pure appearance, some other times on a scared landscape of left over coal mines. Staged somewhere between Wuppertal and North of Essen, the overall action escapes in the mysterious zone of the Ruhr’s coal mining. The film opens with a promenade of the dancers performing a simple sequence of gestures on stage, describing the passage of seasons – from the blooming spring to the freezing winter – and it ends with the performance of the same sequence, but this time around a dry conical pit who’s end rests hidden to the spectator’s eye. This curtain call is quietly marking the end of an industrial era from the edge of a dead piece of universe with no trace of vegetation, a place that can no longer be reached by the change of seasons


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