Germany's Ruhr Valley - From Coal to Culture

Germany's Ruhr Valley - From Coal to Culture
Germany's industrial Ruhr Valley had 750 years of industrial history, an image of smoking furnaces, polluted rivers and slag heaps, but became West Germany’s hottest cultural hub.

It is in Nord Rhein Westphalia, a North Western region of the country, and the Ruhrgebiet, also known as Kohlpott (coal mine), has everything from medieval castles, palaces, green oasis, and highlands, to volcanic Eifel region and the beauty that surrounds the lower River Rhine.

A metamorphosis has transformed its "raison d'etre" from coal to culture, and from an iron jungle to nature.

Enough industry was retained to remain Europe's largest economic area, but the region's mining, and much of its heavy industry, collapsed.

Abandoned industrial sites, mines and steel works have been redeveloped to house culture, from the arts, entertainment and education to artificial lakes, as well as provide homes, stores and offices. The Völklingen Ironworks became the first industrial UNESCO World Heritage Site, while what was an environmentally damaged and scarred countryside and woodland is being reclaimed and returned to nature.

The annual "European Capital of Culture" title is usually awarded to one city, which puts together a program of events connected to the culture of Europe, but in 2010 the European Union Council of Ministers didn't choose a single city.

Instead an entire area, the rejuvenated Ruhr metropolis with its 53 towns and cities.

"Change Through Culture, Culture Through Change" became its motto.

An idealistic concept, first known as "European City of Culture", the idea came to the late Greek singer and actress Melina Mercouri, then Minister of Culture for Greece, and her French equivalent Jack Lang in 1985, as they sat in an airport lounge. They hoped that, within the framework of cultural policy of the European Union, their scheme would contribute towards bringing Europeans together by emphasizing the range and brilliance of their cultures; as well as mutual values and history.

The Ruhr's time in the spotlight began in a January snowstorm, with over 2,500 cultural and artistic activities, events and projects, included a "Wonders of the Solar System" exhibition, in what in a previous life had been a gas tank.

Decommissioned in 1988 the Gasometer is an exhibition hall and anchor point of the "Route of industrial culture", one of Germany's tourist routes, as well as part of the European Route of Industrial Heritage, and it links the region's most important and attractive industrial monuments.

One is the Essen "Zeche Zollverein", known as the most beautiful colliery in the world until closing in 1986 and a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 2001, it was a "Bauhaus" inspired coal mine, a German design concept combining art and technology with craft, and is one of the Ruhrgebiet's regenerated industrial sites.

Now it is world renowned: as a design center, art gallery, exhibition and concert halls.

The former coke oven is a summer swimming pool, in winter the pressure machine platform frozen into an ice skating rink, while the old coal wash plant is home to the new three level Ruhr Museum.

Its museums ranging from natural history to archaeological and historical.

Mine shafts and coal faces, where miners worked in dangerous unhealthy conditions, echo to the sound of art and culture enthusiasts.

A major project and symbol of European co-operation was opened by its joint patrons; Angela Merkel the Chancellor of Germany and Nicolas Sarkozy, at the time President of France, during the Ruhr Capital of Culture year.

Images of a Capital - The Impressionists in Paris, was an art exhibition held in Essen's new Euro 55 million Museum Folkwang funded by the Alfried Krupp von Bohlen und Halbach Foundation.

Paris was the first modern European metropolis, and in much the same way that the face of the Ruhr continues to be revitalized, Paris had gone through a similar transformation after 1850.

Industrial sites were moved to the edge of the city and with its newly constructed buildings, railway stations, boulevards, bridges and squares Paris became the capital of the modern world.

So this was a symbolic exhibition that included masterpieces by Renoir, Monet, Degas, Manet, Caillebotte and Pissarro. Paris's era of change had helped inspire the innovative artistic painting techniques of these "Impressionists", a development that succeeded in capturing and communicating character and atmosphere.

For the first time forming "impressions" of a scene rather than a painted record on canvas.

Change through Culture, Culture through Change.

The Ruhr region. High-tech has replaced blast furnaces, an academic center known as "Helicon Valley", there is a multifaceted cultural life with theaters, museums, art galleries, festivals, international fairs and concerts, from classic to cult.

A European Metropolis of the 21st century. Visual testament to the Ruhrgebiet's successful regeneration, and cooperation between its cities with their ability and continuing willingness to change.

Photo credit: Alt Stadt Werden by Jan 400 - Vorburg der Burg Vondern, Oberhausen by Sir Gawain via de.Wikipedia - Zollverein, Essen via bildung+ - Gustave Caillebotte: "Le pont de l'Europe", The Europe Bridge, 1876, The Association des Amis du Petit Palais, Geneva, Foto: Studio Monique Bernaz, Geneva

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