Exploring The Ruhr : Rust, Ruin & Regeneration

As Urban Designers and Landscape Architects, we often deal with post-industrial sites. Whether small inner-city plots or vast swathes of abandoned land, sustainable transformation of these landscapes requires careful planning and imaginative design. With this in mind, the Urban Design team decided to dedicate their annual study trip to the exploration of Germany’s infamous rust-belt: the Ruhr Valley.

The Ruhr region was once the industrial heartland of Germany, synonymous with coal mines, steel mills and blue-collar workers. However, the decline of industry saw the once famous region lose the driving force behind its identity. The area experienced an existential crisis and was in desperate need of a new direction. Today, the Ruhr has forged a new raison d’être; an exciting – if unexpected – identity based more around culture and art than coal and steel. From industrial machine to cultural capital; the Ruhr Valley is undergoing a fascinating transformation.

The first day of our trip to the Ruhrgebiet focused on the post-industrial landscape parks of Duisburg-Nord and Zollverein, whilst the second day was dedicated to the city of Düsseldorf.

Landschaftspark Duisburg-Nord and Zollverein are both former industrial sites that have been transformed into public parks. The former was a coal and metalworks facility which was abandoned in the mid-80s and the latter was once the largest colliery in Europe. Whilst sharing many commonalities, we found the two industrial parks to have surprisingly different characters.

Covering a colossal 100 ha of former colliery land, Zollverein is now a magnificent memorial to industry. Part cultural destination, part ‘ruin porn’; the park features numerous leisure activities, including the impressive Ruhr Valley Museum designed by OMA. To fully appreciate the scale of the park, we hired bikes and peddled from end to end, passing towering abandoned structures, copses of native birch and contemporary concrete follies. The beauty of Zollverein lies in its simplicity. Despite being meticulously designed, much of the park appears to have been barely touched, exuding a beautiful, raw aesthetic. During the summer months, Zollverien usually opens a swimming pool housed in a converted shipping container. Much to our dismay – and despite the 28-degree heat during our visit – the pool was closed. Fortunately for us, the bier garten was not.

In contrast to Zollverein, Landschaftspark Duisburg-Nord feels less like a memorial and more like a fairground – an enormous adventure playground of industrial proportions. Rather than being a passive observer, the visitor is invited to interact with the vast structures – to climb inside the chimneys and scramble up the chutes. Many of the facilities have been repurposed into grand leisure spaces such as a massive concert hall and Europe’s largest indoor dive site. The park’s pièce de résistance appears as night falls; the gigantic structures begin to glow, transforming the brutal landscape into a neon-lit industrial fantasia.

The second day of our trip took us into the heart of Düsseldorf where we walked along the Rhine and towards the MedienHafen. The river front is a bustling linear stretch of shops, bars, restaurants and other leisure activities, including possibly the world’s longest collection of boules pitches.

The MedienHafen covers 3.85km and is predominantly commercial and industrial in nature. This once-dead historic harbour area now has a reputation as an innovative office location and features the ‘architectural mile’. Many internationally recognised architects have played a role in shaping the skyline of the MedienHafen, including Gehry, Chipperfield and Vasconi. Gehry’s ‘Neuer Zollhof’ buildings are a particularly striking element of the harbour’s new form. However, whilst impressive from afar, their interface with the streetscape was a little disappointing.

One unexpected element was an urban beach on the edge of the Rhine. Hidden away from the rest of the city – yet just moments away from the MedienHafen – the sandy beach and cool river water provided a much-needed moment of respite from the sweltering city streets.

Other highlights of Düsseldorf included beautiful corner detailing at ‘New York Village’, glow-in-the-dark benches, and an eclectic mixing of uses including a church, club and brothel stacked on top of one another.

Our trip was an informative and inspiring excursion. Perhaps the greatest lesson to be taken from the Ruhr is the art of layering. Post-industrial sites need not be fenced off or torn down. Nor should they be tidied up and sterilised. Retaining as-found layers where possible allows for new uses to emerge, without dissolving the narrative of the past.

Written by Helen Buckle, Urban Designer