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.

How I Visited Colombia and Ended Up With a Book Deal

Remember what you were doing on the 8th of June 2008?

I was leaving Colombia, having visited Bogota (the capital), Medellin (the city you’ve seen on the news), and Bucaramanga (the city you may never have heard of, high in the mountains).

My visit to this fascinating country was possible because I’d been fortunate to win a travel bursary, awarded by the Centre for Subtropical Design here in Brisbane.

In my bursary application I'd proposed visiting Medellin, a city that had been brought to its knees by cocaine, but was fighting back with a determined vision to re-engage its people with their hometown.

A public transport system of metro, buses and cable cars was in place. New public parks and plazas had been built all across the city: high quality, well-designed places, nearly all paired with public buildings such as libraries, museums, council offices and schools.

The Orchideorama, at the Medellin Botanic Gardens

The Orchideorama, at the Medellin Botanic Gardens

Plaza de Cisneros (known also as Plaza de las Luces or Plaza de la Luz- Light Plaza) with the EPM Library in the background.

Plaza de Cisneros (known also as Plaza de las Luces or Plaza de la Luz- Light Plaza) with the EPM Library in the background.

In Medellin, parks were being used as agents of social change.

Bucaramanga was different. I wanted to visit Parque del Agua, a public park built by the local water authority on its grounds. The water treatment plant had operated here for many years, with locals using the land around as an informal park.  This eventually stopped as the plant grew, and the authority moved its headquarters into town.
 In 2001, the manager moved his operations back to the original site, and with support from the mayor, proposed a public park for the site.

Administrative and treatment functions are co-located with public parkland at the Parque del Agua.

Administrative and treatment functions are co-located with public parkland at the Parque del Agua.

The park is lush, cool, and incredibly popular.

The park is lush, cool, and incredibly popular.

In Bucaramanga, Parque del Agua showed one way to co-locate a park with another public utility.

From Colombia I travelled to the United States, where I'd arranged to meet with Friends of the High Line.  At the time, work had just begun on transforming the disused, elevated rail line into a park, but there was already a buzz about the project.

Renovating the structure of the High Line in 2008, prior to its reinvention as a park. The Standard Hotel is under construction over and above the rail line.

Renovating the structure of the High Line in 2008, prior to its reinvention as a park. The Standard Hotel is under construction over and above the rail line.

The same section of the High Line in 2010, a year after opening. The Standard had also enjoyed its first year of encouraging guests to wear robes when standing adjacent the full height windows, lest they startle park strollers below.

The same section of the High Line in 2010, a year after opening. The Standard had also enjoyed its first year of encouraging guests to wear robes when standing adjacent the full height windows, lest they startle park strollers below.

In New York, the High Line was showing how a park could link and reveal previously disconnected places.

From each of these places the germ of an idea was born.

On my return to Australia I was interviewed for ABC Radio's long-running weekly radio show, By Design. And that interview was heard by the fabulous Mr Ted Hamilton at CSIRO Publishing, who presented me with an opportunity to develop my fledgling ideas into a book.

Three years later I had visited many more inspiring parks, and read about the work of visionary designers, researchers, artists, managers, governments and communities around the world.  All of them had the courage to address the urban challenges they were facing, and to think differently about the ways public parks and people places could provide solutions.

It's been a long time coming, but finally, this week, Future Park: imagining tomorrow's urban parks has left home to be printed.

One of the hardest things has been stopping: with new, creative approaches to making city parks emerging every week, it’s been a constant temptation to include ‘just one more’.  Now, when I find projects that look interesting and relevant I share them on Twitter.

One of the most amazing things has been the encouragement and contributions of so many brilliant people.  There may just be one person tapping at the keyboard, but the human infrastructure supporting this project has been extraordinary. In particular, I had the extreme pleasure to collaborate with Nicole Phillips as my book designer.  When you see how great the final product looks, I think you'll agree that she has done a damn fine job.  It’s a cliché to say it wouldn’t have happened without all of you, but it’s true nonetheless.

So there you have it.  For everyone who has asked how it all came about…now you know!

There’s usually only one final question - now what?

The book is due for release in September.  If you’re in Brisbane, there’s going to be a launch event at Avid Reader bookstore in West End on Wednesday, 25th September. 

Come along and say hi!

Serenity...in the Least Likely Location

What’s the least likely place for a park that you can imagine?

Next to a busy freeway perhaps? On top of a rubbish dump?

How about next door to a sewage treatment plant?

The Newtown Creek Nature Walk in Brooklyn not only ekes out a sliver of public access to a contested waterfront, but brings visitors face-to-face with the biggest sewage treatment plant in New York City.

George Trakas was engaged to bring an artful approach to developing the nature walk.  A distinguished artist with significant experience working in complex waterfront sites, Trakas has twice received National Endowment for the Arts Fellowships, and is a medal winner for sculpture from the American Society of Arts and Letters, which honoured his unique “vision of landscape”.

Newtown Creek Wastewater Treatment Plant is a dramatic and exciting assembly of pipes and tubes and shiny things, lit an otherwordly purple at night, and all dominated by four enormous pieces of industrial-Faberge-chic. These are the symbolic and literal centrepiece of the plant: referred to in the industry as ‘digestor eggs’ this is where the business end of sewage treatment takes place.  They loom over the waterway, linked together at the top with a glass-walled walkway, like a setting from Metropolis, or Gattaca, and the public applies in droves to see the eggs up close whenever the plant advertises tours.

Image by joevar. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-ND 2.0). Retrieved from  http://www.flickr.com/photos/57462257@N00/4006853382/in/photolist-775aV1-775aME-7758U7-775bso-775867-775ba3-771c1n-771eAv-771gYz-771cfX-771eVX-7758p9-771dFX

Image by joevar. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-ND 2.0). Retrieved from http://www.flickr.com/photos/57462257@N00/4006853382/in/photolist-775aV1-775aME-7758U7-775bso-775867-775ba3-771c1n-771eAv-771gYz-771cfX-771eVX-7758p9-771dFX

If the treatment plant looks like a vision from the future, the park opposite references a time past, one where Newtown Creek flowed fresh and clear, as it did when the indigenous Lenape people made their home here.  Trakas’s artwork is multilayered and comprehensive.  Particular plant species were chosen for their cultural or historic significance, which is relayed on small plaques. 

Other interpretive signage informs visitors that rubbish bins are made in the shape of old water barrels, steps down to the water reference geological epochs... 

...as do rocks placed amongst the planting.

Newtown Creek Nature Walk is tough and robust, like the gritty waterfront precinct it fronts.  Yes, there are some trees in place now, but the overwhelming view is of industry:  big barges with cranes on them moving crushed up metal onto smaller barges with old tyres round their waterlines; big light towers, the undersides of big bridges, big billboards, big warehouse buildings - everything big and muscular. 

The detailing of the Nature Walk responds to this muscularity, with big concrete steps, sheet piling and massive bench seats. 

Within this tough exoskeleton, moments of delight are to be found.  A circular gathering point invites groups to stop by the edge...

...planting creates tall green tunnels...

...and flowers and foliage appear more brilliant against the grey stone and concrete. 

Retracing their path to the entry visitors pass through the swollen concrete walls of George Trakas’s 51 metre-long Vessel. Holes punched through the walls allow glimpses of the mechanical equipment and processes going on behind. The view straight down the centre of Vessel aligns with the Empire State Building, seemingly a world away from the unexpected tranquillity of this park-like space next to the sewage treatment plant. 

Now it’s over to you.

What do you think of the idea of public parkland in such an unusual location? Do you think the artistic overlay has resulted in a more engaging space? Leave a comment below letting me know.

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 parks, gardens and landscapes.


This article is an edited extract from my book Future Park: imagining tomorrow’s urban parks, released this September by CSIRO Publishing.

The Newtown Creek Alliance is a "community-based organisation dedicated to restoring, revealing, and revitalising Newtown Creek".

The Visitor Centre at the  Newtown Creek Wastewater Treatment Plant is open by appointment.

The Treatment Plant was open as a part of Open House New York 2012.  Listings for OHNY 2013 will be released at the start of October.