There is no escaping mishaps and missed trains on the Die Bahn for those of us with very little experience with complex and highly efficient public transportation systems! Well, I mistakenly get on a super-duper high speed train to Amsterdam, and just as I revel in how much train comfort four euros can buy, I am unceremoniously booted off at a stop that is luckily just 50 miles away! (Actually the conductor is very nice and makes sure that I get on the right train!) Having given myself some time for such misadventures, I arrive at the Essen train station just in time to meet Michael Schwarze Rodrian, my guide for the day.
Today’s plan is to visit a few highlights within the Emscher Regional Park. My previous entry - the Duisburg Landschaft Park is part of the Emscher Regional Park. Actually, it’s a small part of a massive effort to revive a region devastated by hundreds of years of industrialization – specifically steel and coal. Flowing through this region is the Emscher River receiving industrial effluents for centuries until just twenty years ago. The image of this region is that of powerstations, smokestacks, huge pylons and massive powerworks.
Yet, the region is no longer the engine it used to be, and what was left are the industrial artifacts in the landscape.
To start, I would like to introduce you to Michael Swarze Rodrian. As a landcape architect and planner, Michael has worked on landscape design and ecology issues in the Ruhrgebiet since the early 80’s. As I get to know his background, I realize that he has been a key collaborator in creating the vision for the Emscher Regional Park project and has been patiently negotiated many political administrations, economic ups and downs, and career changes, holding onto the idea of the regional park. Its very impressive to see the level of dedication and perseverance, and I could not have asked for a more knowledgeable guide. Michael views the industrial remains in the Ruhr region as the greatest assets that can drive the regeneration of the area. To this end, he explains that ecology and environmental restoration are the key organizing principles behind renaturalizing the Emscher River, bringing positive use to the riverbanks, and reusing the industrial buildings with new and sustainable uses. Today this regional partnership includes three counties and 23 large cities. Each city or town takes on its own projects based on the agreed upon master plan (I mailed a copy back for us.) Check the project website at http://elp2010.de/. As I absorb the extent of the efforts made, I realize that this region is possibly the largest such interpretation and reuse of an industrial landscape ever!
We stop at a small mark – an ‘XE’ at the start of a trail at Bottrop, our first stop. Michael shares that in the first few years of the project, a group of local environmentalists started a hiking group marking the trails with an X, followed by an E for Emscher. That is how it all started. Today, the trails run in a circle around the region for more than 250 kilometers.
Bottrop is the location of the Tetrahedron, a massive steel sculpture that captures the ridge on a slag heap. As we get to the middle of the circle next to which the structure rises, I notice that there is a gentle and steady drop in grade to the middle. Michael explains that the designers intended for the person in the middle to view nothing else except the rim of the slag heap, the tetrahedron and the sky. I pause to stand in the middle of this vast circle of stone and view the sky all around me. In the far distance, I see a solitary figure crouching over the stones. When I ask Michael what the man is doing, he says, ‘You’ll find out when you climb to the top’. The Tetrahedron was built to reveal the landscape of the region to its people, and has become something that everyone is proud to visit and show off. The pictures illustrate this project much better than I ever will in words. In the night, the steel bars are lit in a special way and can be seen for miles around. As I start to climb, the landscape of the region emerges – smokestacks - some working and others not, train lines, massive steel structures, coal mines. It’s quite extraordinary.
Then, I look down at the stone circle below and the mystery of the solitary figure reveals itself! Giant martians and other terrestrial beings stare up at me!
Michael mentions that the man picks out the lighter colored stones to create these figures and has been doing so for five years now. When we descend from the tetrahedron, we stop to talk to him - I am curious about the future. Michael says that he’s interested in expanding the martian family!
Our next stop is the Nordstern, a former Colliery that is now a fully functional office, housing, retail complex with many acres of a landscaped park that was created by the National Garden Show in 1997. (Flower Shows here are outdoors, run for six months and are in the process of design and actual implementation for a couple years before the show opens – interesting model.) The main administration building of the office complex is housed in the factory, and new bridges and pedestrian walkways connect various parts of the site together. There are open air theatres, rose gardens, a small daycare center, water fountains and large plazas, all used now by the office goers and nearby residents. A beautiful riverfront amphitheatre is being set up for today's concert. The remaining wall of an old factory building has been retained, and the landscape that has colonized next to it is fascinating to see. An old coal shaft is now the new entrance to the museum. I am taken by the harsh angles in the landscape, the vast meadows and sharply sloped walkways. The grades make for dramatic views of the old industrial infrastructure! The environmental issues in this area continue to pose huge challenges. I’m shocked to view the open sewer that still runs the length of the region. Its presence is a knife cut in the landscape, right adjacent to the clean waters of the Ruhr. Our next stop is at Zollverien, the best known site along this industrial landscape. The plant was closed in 1986, and today it is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. In its heydays, This colliery and coking plant produced 12,000 tons of coal and turned it into coke. Today, it’s a meeting point for cultural activities, and design professionals. The largest boiler house has been transformed into the Red Dot Design Museum by Sir Norman Foster. This museum is all about products that have been tested and given the ‘red dot of approval’ celebrating contemporary industrial, product, furniture and home designers. The site also houses local architects and designers in studios integrated into the old storage houses. A reflecting pool becomes a skating rink in the winter. When I look around I understand that there is an eco-exhibit and a meeting of the German Environment Ministry being held - there are lots of men and women in black suits and headphones buzzing around. Apparently it’s also an exhibition and conference center! I travel up the huge orange escalator to the main museum space – a Rem Koolhas signature piece.