Zollverein: the World's Most Beautiful Colliery

Last week the 2013 Think Brick awards were announced.

Brick has been undergoing somewhat of a renaissance here amongst designers. Perhaps it’s a simple case of today’s generation of architects discovering and appreciating the many super stylin’ brick houses created by great Australian architects at the peak of their game in the 1960s and 70s. (Treat yourself to a flick through Living and Partly Living if you need refreshing or convincing).

Whatever the reason, brick is suddenly ‘in’ again.

All this thinking about brick got me musing about the astonishing collection of buildings that make up the Zollverein World Heritage Site in Essen, Germany.

Essen is in the country’s central far west, part of the Emscher and Ruhr valleys that were the epicenter of Germany industrialisation.

Fuelled by extensive coal deposits, the collieries and steelworks of the region were critical to wartime armament production, and then to the post-war economic boom of the 1950s and 60s.  As settlements and people followed industry and employment, this became the most densely populated area in the Ruhr valley.

Zollverein was established in 1847, when Franz Haniel bought and amalgamated 14 coalfields north of Essen. By the late 1920s the Haniel family company had been through several mergers, eventually becoming part of the largest steel group in Europe.

 Looking across part of the complex at Zollverein.

As tends to happen in these situations, hugely ambitious production and cost saving goals were set for Zollverein, and the plant underwent a major redevelopment.

Here’s where it starts to get interesting

Architects Fritz Schupp and Martin Kremmer were engaged to design all the above-ground structures.  Yes, even though the company was pursuing cost savings. Brilliant!

Working closely with the mine’s engineers, Schupp and Kremmer replanned the site, with a ‘production axis’ and an ‘energy axis’ intersecting at a large court in front of the main shaft building and pithead. 

The functions of the site also influenced the architectural design. A system of steel framed structures, with brick and glass weather screens, was developed for the pit buildings, which, despite their different functions, all had to provide long clear spans and bear heavy vertical loads. 

A refined and austere collection of steel framed and brick clad buildings was the result. 

Adapting this system to each building gave a strong sense of order to to the site.

Contrasting the simple cubic forms was the mighty pit head itself, expressed in an open steel structure of great elegance. 

When the new Zollverein opened in 1932 it quickly earned the title of ‘The Most Beautiful Colliery in The World’. I think that was a pretty fair call.

In the 1970s Germany started to become less competitive in the global coal market.  By the late-1980s it was all over: mines, smelters, refineries, coking plants and blast furnaces all closed their doors and were silent. The last shift went down the Zollverein pit shaft in 1986. The coking plant closed in 1993.

The owners planned to clear the site. Many others fought to save it, and at the end of 1986 the entire shaft site was heritage listed. The state of Rhine-Westphalia bought the site from the city of Essen and from 1989 to 1999 it was rehabilitated and redeveloped.

Today Zollverein is the cultural and artistic centerpiece of the Ruhr region, with the 55 metre high former pit head standing sentinel over the place.

Rem Koolhaas’s office, OMA, completed a master plan for the site in 2002.  The landscape master plan was the work of Agence Ter.

The coal washing plant, the largest building on the site, was converted into a Visitor Centre and houses the Ruhr Museum. Details in the loooong stair and escalator are inspired by flowing molten steel.

The Zollverein School of Design and Management occupies a building designed by Saanaa. Its pristine sugarcube form is inspired by the existing cubic structures.

Nearby parts of the site look to have run wild.

Many of the older buildings are still off limits, awaiting their appointment with the makeover squad. 

Just across the road (ie: take a packed lunch for your walk) is the former coking plant, a stupendous, 400 metre long affair trailing tentacles of pipes and gangways. 

Visitors are dwarfed by the [insert superlative of choice here] structure. 

At ground level, old machinery and equipment has been replaced by a Versaille-scale water body. 

In winter there is skating! 

In summer you can take a dip in the pool... 

...or peek into the shipping containers holding the water below. 

The rebirth of Zollverein coincided with the International Building Exhibition Emscher Park (the IBA), a ten year state government initiative tasked with achieving the ecological, economic, and urban revitalization of the Emscher River and Ruhr Valley.

One of the IBA’s radical development philosophy was the proposal that everything from the predominantly industrial past was worth preserving.

Visiting Zollverein today doesn't just bring you face-to-face with beautiful architecture, fine landscape architecture, and evocative ruins. It reveals a hugely important site of economic production that was previously off-limits except to its workers. It shows the power of vision and commitment to work with existing redundant infrastructure, and create viable new uses. And it works not just as a stand-along monument, but as a vital, and extraordinary link in a vast regional industrial landscape.

Now it’s over to you.

What do you think of the steel, brick and glass building treatment at Zollverein? Do you think Zollverein provides any clues for how we might think about mining and industrial sites here in Australia? Are there any that have been designed as proud civic buildings, or as part of a deliberate assemblage? What are our plans for our extractive industry sites once mining finishes?

I’d love to know your thoughts – join the conversation in the comments section below.

If you know someone who’d enjoy reading this article be sure to share it, and check back soon for more from the wonderful world of landscape, architecture and design.


Image credits:

Aerial view showing pit head and Saanaa building beyond

Image by Victor Bayon

File licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Image retrieved from http://www.flickr.com/photos/formalfallacy/3641897195/sizes/l/in/photolist-6xPF9X-6xPfHt-6xPg5x-6xTPCN-6xT5nq-6xTPaL-6xT4JQ-6xPdAx-8yeLeV-8yeLJR-8yhNNy-8yhQ19-8yhQKN-8yhQpN-8yhN25-cqAaWm-9BbSDL-9BbR9u-9B8Yht-9B8YD2-5hDy4q-6y3o58-7HxSB2-5hzbNx-eAUc6r-eAUcEv-eAXky7-arKUrd-arKUEU-bkvTiK-4bumjE-7MYTn1-9saLzd-9s7MMR-9saLAG-aCaTKJ-7VKS4w-4bpqCi-8Gzqvy-8Gsvng-8GvG5Y-8GvBr5-a7krWL-5hzaXe-8rSi74-dkhf64-8rSebH-3uMKpW-3uMKNN-8EyfWg-4bq2fV/ on 10.08.13

Night skating

Image by Felix Montino

File licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)

Image retrieved from http://www.flickr.com/photos/felixmontino/5305887665/sizes/l/in/photolist-95S4xP-gmH1L-5tKoXS-8seasf-apzPuZ-3uHgZH-9nw1ka-dRE3ZR-dKryhL-dJgCxw-6xPF9X-6xPfHt-6xPgpR-6xPg5x-6xTPCN-6xT5nq-6xTPaL-6xT4JQ-6xPdAx-8yeLeV-8yeLJR-8yhNNy-8yhQ19-8yhQKN-8yhQpN-8yhN25-cqAaWm-9BbSDL-9BbR9u-9B8Yht-9B8YD2-5hDy4q-6y3o58-6h6Q1U-7HxSB2-5hzbNx-eAUc6r-eAUcEv-eAXky7-arKUrd-arKUEU-bkvTiK-7zY15z-7zY15V-rAm9x-8MaSHK-8Gzqvy-8Gsvng-8GvG5Y-8GvBr5-a7krWL/ on 10.08.13

All other images by A. J. Wright and R. A. Buchanan.

Find out more about Zollverein:

Zollverein is located at Gelsenkirchener Straße 181, 45309 Essen, Germany. Its English-version website is currently being updated, but there is still some good basic info available. The German site is available at the same link.