Hidden potentials, falsified views, overbuilt history.
The Ruhr area is constantly changing.
It is important to question this change and to draw attention to methods that incorporate the past.
Philipp Valente researches on the aesthetics of the industrial landscape. The materiality and structure of industrial buildings have always attracted and inspired architects and photographers. His work attempts to explore these architectural means and specify their characteristic qualities. It is not just a matter of identifying or preserving these structures but of updating and translating them to the present day in a coherent way. It is about questioning capitalist development of regional structural transformation and developing bold ideas that will effect change
The first real encounter with the coal mining sites in Ruhr took place during the Fall 2020. Although I already knew many of the locations since they are connected to the history of architectural photography, I was extremely surprised and fascinated when I finally found myself there; imagery can never substitute in-situ experience. Despite having spent only four days photographing some of the coal mining sites and streetscapes in Dortmund and Bochum, I was able to get a lasting impression of the unique atmosphere of this former mining world. The original scenes of industrialization have now transformed into public places merging into the surrounding towns and taking on completely new forms. It wasn’t as these sites were standing around in the middle of nowhere. Instead, a contemporary life takes place in the immediate vicinity, which in my eyes brings together the coexistence of these two very different worlds, the past and the present: this is the new landscape of the Ruhr region. This landscape takes many different forms, whether as a park, or UNESCO heritage site-museum or even been left alone like some sort of modern archaeology.
I started out my career as an archaeology and landscape photographer in Greece, Italy and the UK, working in the field for over a decade. During my engagement with the photography of archaeology it was important to relate the archaeological sites to the greater landscape and communities, and to examine these under the sphere of content-context awareness. That is why this relationship between the cultural context and the presence of history in relation to life today in these post-industrial landscapes is so important. However, this contextual dimension that is rarely recognized, and much less photographed as such.
As a photographer of the built environment for the past three decades, my mission has been to reveal relations of man-made structures to the landscape. It is, therefore, very essential to read and understand the industrial and urban landscapes of the Ruhr area in connection with these overused lands. In the past, such places were usually captured and represented photographically from a different point of view and a strongly didactic dimension; not perceived as a landscape in coexistence but purely as having a societal role, or as typological wander, a collection of interesting and historic objects and relics. Nowadays these same sites are shifting into industrial archaeological sites, and a new type of landscape of memory.
For me, landscape and architectural photography is not about looking at one object or another, but rather looking at coexisting situations which allow a greater understanding in depth of a contemporary landscape. These postindustrial sites are no longer associated with the negative image of the profile-oriented industrial sites, but as an important cultural heritage that has powerfully defined the Ruhr area to its present form. Therefore, I would like to research via the photographic medium how they form a new landscape with the existing environment; not by dealing intensively with the difficult, sometimes dark history, but by documenting these places in the present, embedded in a new cultural landscape of the 21st century.
It is important for me to give an international dimension to this work because, despite many efforts, it is still hardly known that these former industries are a living, existing component of a complex contemporary landscape in the heart of Europe. I have seen many photographic works produced by elite globally known German photographers such as Renger-Patzsch, Bernd and Hilla Becher amongst many others who deal with the typologies of these structures or capture the darkness of the coal mining industry; because these landscapes were accompanied by a strong sense of darkness both literal and metaphorical. This atmosphere was overemphasized until the end, so that almost a negative image has been solidified, in which the human being is portrayed as a suffering being which perhaps was the truth. Focus at present time there is a new reality. A reality which I would be interested to show from the perspective of the cityscape in relation with the greater landscape of the region including the layers of contemporary life.
For a photographer like me, who has traveled throughout four continents photographing with a large format film camera man-made structures at the edges of the world, either contemporary or historic, the described approach is somehow natural as well as a great temptation as it’s focusing in an area of the world where somehow, it’s forgotten or very little known about. My intention through this photographic journey and research would be to reveal the atmospheres and characteristics of these sites as an entire landscape embedded in the reality of what Ruhr is and means for Germany.
Over brick walls, past thick brambles, through smashed-in industrial windows into the old warehouses and mine buildings. In the shadow of the sleeping giants, the grounds of old factories became the adventure playground of my childhood. Neglected libraries and rusty switching stations give us an impression of what must have taken place here a long time ago. But first and foremost, these industrial wastelands were places where I could be free and uninhibited.
Today, most of these places I remember have fallen victim to structural change. Instead, faceless housing developments of single-family homes and shopping centres geared to mass consumption have replaced them. How did this development come about? What could have been the driving force behind such massive changes? What might the Ruhr area look like in the future?
As a young architect, I try to understand what happened here, what we can learn from this development and how we can continue to build in the future without denying the history of the Ruhr area.
“The city stretched out infinitely, a big city according to its expansion and population and yet, it still felt like a village!”
The cities in the Ruhr area as such are young, still in their infancy compared to other cities. Even the comparatively young city of Berlin has played its role since the late 15th century. If we were to travel back in time to the Ruhr area of 1840, we would find ourselves in an alluvial meadow landscape, defined by sheep farming and crab fishing. Within less than half a generation, the fields and forests were replaced by steelworks, mines and factories. The sparsely populated territory between the Ruhr, Emscher and Lippe rivers was covered by a patchwork of industrial villages and workers’ settlements. The few historic towns along the Hellweg, a trading route steeped in tradition, were overrun by industry. That is why the Ruhr area was commonly referred to as a “Stadtschaft” (urban landscape) and “Industrieschaft” (industrial landscape), characterised by very few pre-Modern buildings and a correspondingly low-level awareness of tradition. While the ideal, typical European city is shaped by its long history, with ancient to medieval buildings defining the city ensemble, such a constellation is found hardly anywhere in the Ruhr area. And if they do exist, they have almost always been surrounded, swallowed up or overshadowed in other forms by industry or the redevelopment of the inner cities. In Ruhr cities, this loss of aesthetic individual structures and ensembles became a common denominator that steadily kept the level of aesthetic aspiration low. Instead, smoke billowed, the factory smells were overwhelming, and the noise was often deafening. Nevertheless, the numbers of inhabitants multiplied in a very short time because industry needed many hands.
“(…) dark settlements duck in the shadows of shaft towers, coking plants; less ugly settlements are visible, but they have no weight given the darkness of the backdrop. And yet nowhere in Germany do so many people live in such a confined space, nowhere are the people more down-to-earth, straightforward and warm.”
The much-needed workforce was recruited across Europe. The once-native sheepherders had to work shifts, and the hired workers who left their rural homes behind were also scared when faced with the new, unhealthy and dangerous work in heavy industry. The hard labour they experienced and shared, as well as a sense of collective loss, bound strangers together. This is still part of the mentality of the Ruhr area.
“Big cities were created, but ‘big city’ is only a quantitative definition, an administrative concept; the big cities have nothing of the city yet; a city is a landscape. There is neither city nor country, only huge, interconnected, adjoining villages with twenty thousand, sixty thousand or two hundred thousand inhabitants, and villages that still suffer from the barbarity of their youth, that cannot shake off the brutal exploitation of their founding years. Sometimes the rural villages they once were a century ago emerge in fits of alluring coquetry.”
There were no clear boundaries between city and country in terms of space and perception in the Ruhr area. Instead, there were unattractive town centres, heavy industry and the accompanying working-class districts. What was initially an almost entirely unregulated influx of settlements, industry, traffic routes, fields and wasteland turned the Ruhr area into an urban landscape that could neither be understood as urban nor as landscape. There was a lack of open space and urban quality. Rapid and uncontrolled industrialisation led to major environmental impacts, which still affect building to this day. Options to enjoy a prestigious living standard were sought in vain in the city centres, because those who could afford it fled to residential areas far from the centre. This meant that the city centres lacked elegant streets, squares and shops. Instead, they were devoted to mass consumption.
The industrial and post-industrial Ruhr area is generally considered to be ugly. But how should industrialisation be dealt with differently? Farmers were torn from their idyllic meadow landscapes and thrown into heavy industry on a massive scale. Then, when the coal had all been mined, the death of the coal mines followed; then the steelworks died. Chimneys were blown up and shaft towers demolished. And the workers gave up their new home again.
A period of uncertainty followed, when attempts were made to structurally redesign the Ruhr area in such a way that it would finally look like everywhere else. Extensive demolition and construction work was carried out. The concept of urbanity became the guiding principle ‒ embodied in shopping centres. Simulation of urban life became a reality at CentrO in Oberhausen, the largest shopping centre in Europe, built on the former Gutehoffnungshütte steelworks site. Similar setups emerged at the Rhein-Ruhr-Zentrum in Mülheim and the Ruhrpark between Bochum and Dortmund, where the largest shopping centre in terms of size was built in the Italian style on industrial grounds.
“Often, in the mining district, some kind of tower, scaffold or crane we cannot forget soars above the coal debris and barrenness. An evening over Dortmund and Bochum can be just as beautiful as an evening by agaves and cypresses, at least for the eye, not always for the lungs.”
At the beginning of the 1960s, a change in thinking began, sparked at the latest by the International Building Exhibition (IBA), Emscher Park, under the direction of Prof. Karl Ganser. “Is it conceivable to declare the Ruhr area beautiful in its entirety or at least in its characteristic features?” To a certain degree, Albert Renger-Patzsch’s photographs were already part of the efforts to aestheticise a core aspect of the Ruhr area: heavy industry. For eight years, the photographer sought out places in the Ruhr area that had otherwise hardly been given attention or appreciated by an artistic eye.
Decades after the conclusion of the IBA, plans are still based on the assumption that the interaction between art, culture, economics and education turns urban spaces into metropolises. The Ruhrtriennale, a decentralised art festival, was launched in 2002 and, on 11 April 2006, the Ruhr region was officially designated the European Capital of Culture for 2010. As one of the consequences, obsolete industrial areas and mine settings were to be redefined, revalued and repurposed for cultural and leisure activities. But this approach was somehow counteractive at the same time, insofar as such repurposing was also to address the structural and mental obliteration of the industrial past.
“Finally, just like everywhere else”, just as the ongoing search for urbanity competes with the principles of enhancing industrial history through art and culture. It sparked a strident debate. For some, the industrial wastelands are a dark reminder of when workers risked their health for their family’s income. They are places that were considered incredibly dangerous and extremely ugly, and were forbidden zones for wives and children. Others see the importance of preserving these buildings steeped in history and view them as the missing building blocks meant to augment ideal, typical European cities.
The cultural capital RUHR.2010 became a source of hope ‒ the impetus for replacing the self-evident with self-understanding ‒ that pointed toward the future without denying the past. Under the overarching theme of “Change through Culture – Culture through Change”, it was to be more than just a festival but rather a regional development project with a European dimension.
Goals were defined, an extensive programme developed and international artists were invited. But the progressive construction of the cultural capital rejected all forms of centralism. The Ruhr area is decentralised, and nothing represents the feeling of decentralised living as much as the concept of a network. Seven industrial monuments became points of reference, and the 70-kilometre-long Emscher Valley became the link. RUHR.2010 was a complete success. A cultural region that had previously been ridiculed and hardly taken notice of was suddenly considered to be extremely vital, innovative and forward-looking.
However, a monument to the other camp was also erected during RUHR.2010. The man-made Phoenix Lake on the site of the former Hermannshütte steelworks was flooded. The Emscher river had to fill a twenty-four-hectare lake. There were about 2,000 residential units around it, mostly detached and semi-detached houses fulfilling the motto “Finally, just like everywhere else”. Just one year later, the former Dortmund Thier breweries complex was demolished, and a post-Modern shopping centre was built on the site. And with its loss, an important location for Dortmund’s subculture with its unique nightlife also fell victim to structural change.
According to experts, a lack of urbanity, deficient or even impeded urban development are decisive indicators for this development. But urbanity is not created by large-scale investigative projects of this kind. On the contrary, it leads to the breakdown of the community and enormous gentrification.
So how should these developments be handled? Ten years after RUHR.2010, the enthusiasm for industrial culture seems to have faded away. Increasingly faceless residential districts are sprouting up, and this architecture has sunk to its lowest point with few exceptions. Is the architect an agent of major investors? This would seem to have been the case so far and even established architects tend to meet the bold and innovative ideas of younger colleagues with only a shake of the head: “You really can’t find the right developers for such projects here.” But how do supply and demand function again? Exactly. Where there is no supply, there is also no demand. The trend among architects is now increasingly moving away from authorship in architecture toward collective and cooperative associations. It is time to take a coherent stand against meaningless architecture. And by the way, the existing industrial culture should, of course, be examined as part of the basic philosophy of architects. This is not a matter of merely preserving existing industrial wastelands but of consistently updating these architectural languages. By this, I mean not just using bricks and steel as building materials in the future, but by also adopting one’s own position with regard to these buildings.
You can, of course, remember your childhood ‒ that uninhibited time spent between shaft towers and coking plants ‒ or conduct a more comprehensive analysis of existing structures and materiality. The main thing is that we do not blindly follow the motto: “Finally, just like everywhere else”.
In the distance, blast furnaces split the horizon.
Pipelines and bridges form a dense net.
Struts made of steel and rust are omnipresent.
Like the skeletons of huge prehistoric creatures,
the structural legacies of industrialisation shape the Ruhr area.
Despite their high occurrence, there is seldom a direct examination of the structures. For the residents, the structures are relics of a bygone era, when the Ruhr area stood for sweat, dirt and work. As a result, these identity-creating elements are increasingly disappearing and are only tolerated in places consciously intended to be associated with the romantic notion of industrial culture.
Architectural structures rarely provoke a reaction in the region, where an international style following in the Bauhaus tradition continues to be built instead. Simple cubes and white façades are juxtaposed with the industrial ruins.
The Ruhr area is characterised by fallow land ‒ sites on which heavy industry was formerly interconnected with the region’s coal mining. When the coal was thoroughly mined, the collieries died out, followed by the death of steelworks and heavy industries. Due to heavy pollution of the soil and the associated high costs of renovation, these areas were abandoned and have been vacant ever since.
Nature often takes back such locations profoundly influenced by humankind, and what has come to be known as ruderal vegetation is created in its place. Genuses of plants that can cope with nutrient-poor soil are referred to as pioneer plants. They create a multi-layered biotope, which often has a better effect on the environment and preserving the species than man-made green spaces. These ecosystems vary in different locations, according to the specific heavy industry, its remains and secretions in the soil. For example, rare calamine vegetation grows at former zinc industry sites, which requires the heavy metal-containing soil as a basis for growth.
With the increasing structural density of the Ruhr area, municipalities and investors are becoming aware of these areas. And due to rising land prices, they are overcoming their fears of expensive basic reclamation requirements. As a result, residential and commercial properties are being built on these sites again ‒ after the soil has been sealed with a separating layer and new topsoil has been applied.
The ruderal vegetation is being removed and disposed of in any case, as it does not correspond to the ideal of a lucrative green area. This goes hand-in-hand with the final elimination of the historical identity of a place that was derived from industrialisation.
Philipp Valente used his residency to continue his research on the aesthetics of the industrial landscape. The materiality and structure of industrial buildings have always attracted and inspired architects and photographers. His work attempts to explore these architectural means and specify their characteristic qualities. It is not just a matter of identifying or preserving these structures but of updating and translating them to the present day in a coherent way. It is about questioning capitalist development of regional structural transformation and developing bold ideas that will effect change.
Video by Elisabeth Börnicke & Julia Milz
Lives in Dortmund (DE)
Philipp Valente completed his master’s degree in architecture with distinction at the Technischen Universität München in 2019 and founded the architectural practice Less Plus in Dortmund the same year. He has worked with such renowned architecture offices as Nikken Sekkei (Tokyo, Japan), RCR Arquitectes (Olot, Spain), and Peter Haimerl. Architecture (Munich, Germany).
Philipp Valente was awarded the Hans Döllgast Prize, the JSPS Prize, and the Baumeister Academy scholarship, and has done research on Japanese aesthetics with Prof. Kengo Kuma at the University of Tokyo.