Wednesday, June 13, 2007

A park like none other

Duisburg is located in the western part of the Ruhr region, the Ruhrgebeit, in north-west Germany. A city well-known for its steel production, Duisburg still has a major working coal mine. Its harbor is a bustling center for the shipping industry. This is a city of a half million people, and is a well-to-do part of the county, reinventing itself as a center for commerce, much like its neighbor, Dusseldorf.

What brings me here is Landschaftspark Duisburg-Nord, a large park that was created on the site of a sleeping mine. The creation of Peter Latz, it serves as a model for the region and the world on reclaiming an industrial site for new purposes, whilst paying homage to its industrial past.

In the mid-80’s there was a growing interest among local and regional government to retain this former steel mine as a site that expressed the history of the region. What was yet to be discovered was how. This early thinking led to an international competition in the early 1990’s to imagine the future of this site. The competition was won by Peter Latz and Annaliese Latz, a German landscape design and planning firm known for its deconstructionist thinking.

I met Peter Latz in Philadelphia when he helped me plan my trip to Germany. When he described his work on this project, what stood out was the concept of ‘revealing the industrial heritage of the region’. It’s intiguing to imagine the application of these concepts in Philadelphia in the context of its industrial heritage.

I arrive at Landschaftspark Nord excited to witness the transformations. An exhibit about the site and its history greets me - high design, great materials, snazzy images. I feel very tiny amidst the enormous industrial infrastructure. The park is 200 hectares, which translates to almost 500 acres. Remnants of the industrial days dot the landscape. Massive overhead ducts, rusted steel infrastructure, enormous gas tanks, rail infrastructure, cooling towers, giant storage bins, and bunker areas used for holding massive amounts of coal make up the existing conditions when Peter Latz started the reclamation process. There were many contaminants to reckon with, unsafe buildings and a polluted open sewer (Yes, OPEN!) to boot!As I walk around I feel the quiet power of times gone by. It must have been such a huge loss for people when production stopped here and the flames were snuffed out for the last time. Jobs were gone, and the economy was in ruins. While much of the landscape must look the same, the transformations are precise, insightful and perfect. Dramatic entrances greet me, I go indoors and outdoors seamlessly and seek out stories on signs along the way that help me understand what used to be. Buildings are repurposed with new uses and in exciting ways for the community to gather – theatres, plazas, performance spaces, and recreation areas. Small garden areas for the community are interspersed amids the industrial artifacts. As I walk around, people are setting up for a number of events – corporate retreats, community theatre, school groups who are visiting to learn about the mine. A storage tank area is now a climbing garden - lessons are available for all levels. Climbing nets strewn along sloped areas wait for the next adventurer. An old gasometer has been turned into a diving tank. Would you believe me if I said that I got a diving lesson here? Theatres with retractable roofs have been integrated into the old production area creating spaces for community movies. The space that I love the most is Piazza Metallica, an outdoor gathering space that marks the center of this mine. Massive steel plates found at the site have been placed in a grid to mark the central area of the complex. Today it serves as a outdoor performance space. New walkways and paths connect spaces beautifully giving me the opportunity to view the site from above and below. The drama is heightened as I climb to the viewing tower and experience the vast landscape around me. The horizon is strikingly green, interrupted by the industrial artifacts. Meadows have become new concert grounds. I see an advertisement for Jethro Tull for later in June!What I appreciate most is the way that Peter Latz weaves the areas together with landscape elements – lines of trees, walkways, native shrub plantings, and stone blocks that give me a chance to sit and look around.

Archways cut into massive walls connect the bunkers. I go from room to room.

Naturalized walkways follow the path of trainlines and old roads, connecting the larger landscapes to each other.
These simple gestures connect the ‘serious’ industrial elements together, making blast furnaces and concrete bunkers accessible and usable. Tree stakes are made from recycled steel posts found on the site. A huge slide hugs the wall of a bunker. I am awed by how the various elements come together, telling its story so beautifully.
Now, about that open sewer! Well, it’s thought to be the old Emscher river and was what the mine used as its outflow. This needed to be addressed before the park could be opened. The sewage now flows underground contained in massive pipes. A new river has returned to the canal above, following its severe straight lines and filled with rainwater. One can see how much water is there when one visits. The deck gives swimmers a place to plunge in. Plant selections across the entire site have been thought through carefully. Based on the soil contents, plants that can colonize effectively were chosen for specific areas. Walled gardens between concrete bunkers have become experimental planting beds and community gardens – my favorite is the fern garden. The park is now managed by a non-profit entity that programs and maintains the site, and brings in approximately 4 million euros each year for its management. The director Dirk Bruesing, is doing great things to diversify programs and activities and broaden the funding base. He has a particular interest in the old trains and machines in the park and is planning to exhibit more of these items in the future.

There are many great publications that describe the conceptual framework for this space with poetry. Check out the official park site at: And its not that this is the only place that reveals industrial culture in this unique way – Seattle’s Gas Works Park was a pioneer on this count. One aspect that Peter Latz describes beautifully is the notion of creating a landscape that lifts up memory – of an individual, a community of workers (a number of steel mine workers now offer tours at the park), of a city and the region. His notions of creating a design where celebrating memory is central to its framework is very captivating.

The highlight of my visit is to see the night sky at this park. Peter Latz worked with British lighting designer Jonathan Park to create the lighting plan. Its just extraordinary when the lights come on – the drama of the industrial relics is amazing! In preparation for this trip, my husband patiently showed me how to use my digital camera. If I had the patience to learn how to use the camera in the night without a flash, I’d have some great photos. Well, I do – their just in my head!


Anonymous said...

I don't think I'd hop into one of those scuba diving tanks either Maitreyi, despite what a great reuse idea that is...or were you serious about taking scuba lessons? If so...that is bold and exciting. Looks like an amazing place. Do you remember Chris from place matters? I think he grew up near Duisburg.

Even the shape of the 'cut throughs' doors into and out of those huge outdoor rooms is intriguing with their pointed tops and rough edges.

Is there a hotel there and do people visit for a couple days or is it a day trip scene?

How much do you pay to visit this compound?

Thanks for sharing your trip so eloquently. Your blog is great. what are you going to blog about when you come home?

Now if only Mellow Veneer could get a gig in that central plaza....


see you soon.


Maitreyi Roy said...

Todd, You are so right about the scuba diving tanks!
Yes, the place is quite amazing, especially because its free to visit. The park makes most of its revenue from events and corporate activities. There is a hostel for overnight stays. Some designers and artists have rented out office space at the park.
And yes, it would be really cool for Mellow Veneer to play at Piazza Metallica!
Best, Maitreyi

Anonymous said...

Hey Maitreyi,

I am really enjoying your blogs.

The pictures are great!

From Dawn

Maitreyi Roy said...

Hi Dawn:
So great to hear from you. I miss you all a great deal, am learning a lot too. Glad you like the pictures - it's thanks to Avik that I can operate my new digital camera! Look forward to seeing you all soon. Best, Maitreyi

Blaine said...

It's thrilling seeing these photos and now I want to visit this park! I'm also thinking that our litigeous American society would bar public access to retrofitted industrial sites.


Maitreyi Roy said...

Blaine - Yes, the park is amazing! Your point about legal issues and accessing industrial sites is right on! Its a question I ask wherever I go, and I don't think there are many lawyers designing landscapes in the Europe! Both the Emscher and the Duisburg parks have had to address access and liability issues. In both cases, massive environmental cleanups preceded the use of the sites, and the ciy assumes liability for the parks. There are signs everywhere that state that one enters at one's own risk - not sure how much that holds up in court!
Best, Maitreyi