It’s not made by baroque rock carving, nor it’s decorated with amazing paintings, neither it’s part of a stunning landscape, but we wanted to include the Zollverein Coal Mine Industrial Complex in this site because it’s an example to all the tourism industry and the institutions that work for the memory preservation. After the mining complex of Zollverein closed down, the authorities didn’t leave it to rust and fall to the weather inclemency, nor sold the terrains to build new apartment buildings. Instead, the German authorities’ chose to redesign and restore it to a huge memorial complex containing art, historic museums, conventions centers and housing some of the world leading companies in the field of design, without ignore good recreational, sportive and teaching activities. And this approach is what made it to become part of the UNESCO World Heritage List in the year 2001 and one of the neuralgic points of the European Route of Industrial Heritage.
Zollverein Coal Mine Industrial Complex (or Zeche Zollverien Koolhas) is located in the city of Essen, in North Rhine-Westphalia Lander in Western Germany, right in the Ruhr Valley, which is characterized for the huge coal deposits and the mining and steel development during the boom of the industrial revolution in Germany. The first mine began to be drilled and explored in 1847, with the first extraction made in 1851. The last rock that was extracted came out from the underground in 1986, being in 1993 the definitive closing of the mines. From 1950 to the final closing, the two main parts of the site, Zollverein Coal Mine and Zollverein Coking Plant, were ranked among the largest mines in Europe and one of the largest of their kind in the world. And Shaft 12 (Schacht 12 in German), opened in 1932, is considered an architectural and technical masterpiece, often called to be the “most beautiful coal mine in the world”.
But let’s look closer to the history of the place.
The Zollverein Coal Mine was founded by Franz Haniel, an industrial entrepreneur who needed coke in order to satisfy the needs of his steel production. Named after the German Customs Union (Zollverein), the coal deposits around Essen were found to be very rich, and their exploitation began soon after the research in Shaft 1, where a big layer was discovered in 1847 some 130 m under the surface. The first rocks were extracted in 1851 and Shaft 2 was opened in 1952, sharing the machine house with Shaft 1. In 1857, the ovens began to produce coke and by 1890, Shaft 3 was already working, rising the Zollverein production to 1 million tons per year, consolidating it as one of the biggest German mines.
The ending of the 19th century brought the boom of the German industry, specially around the iron and steel industries of the Ruhr Valley, which made the coal demands to grow. The mine was extended and modernized, and by 1914 it had 10 shafts extracting 2.5 tons per year, providing Germany a big part of the power needed to start the World War I.
As some shafts were closing down and coking plants were replaced by modernized ones, other structures were built. Shaft 11 opened in 1927 and Shaft 12 in 1932. Built in Bauhaus style, it was projected by the architects Fritz Schupp and Martin Kremmer, for whom both functionality and aesthetic qualities mattered. Now, Shaft 12 is considered a huge technical innovation for the time and an architectural masterpiece which showed how an industrial equipment could also look good. Its characteristic Doppelbock winding tower became a symbol of the industrial legacy in the Ruhr area, and by extension of the whole German industry.
In 1937, the Zollverein mines had an output of 3.6 milion tones and 6900 workers were employed there. Naturally, it became a key industry during the World War II, overpassing it with only minor damages, and succeed to maintain its leading position after the war. 11 shafts were closed in 1967, leaving Shaft 12 as the only open one, but its expansion and mechanization in the 70s, placed it again among the most productive coking plants in the world.
The last exploited layer was opened in 1980, but in 1983 Zollverein direction decided to completely close the mining complex. Being the last coal industry to close down around Essen, it extracted its last raw material in 1986, while the coking plant closed its doors in June 30, 1993.
A bright idea
Like most of the industrial complexes that close down, Zollverein was supposed to become a wasteland of rust, dirt and dangerous unstable structures until somebody would decide to build over it, making the old mines get forgotten under a new residential district. But just as the center was closed down, the Lander of North Rhine-Westphalia bought the entire complex and took the compromise of providing a good maintenance until some solution was found.
After some failed negotiations with a Chinese company in order to sell the factory, the complex was threatened with demolition, but another project of the North Rhine – Westphalia State emerged. With the aim of making the old mines an official Memorial of the Ruhr industry, an exhibition centre and a recreational area, the project began to take form and remodelings were done.
Enjoying the Masterplan
When Zollverein Coal Mine Industrial Complex was postulated to become an UNESCO World Heritage Site, a Masterplan was projected. Firstly under the direction of Rem Koolhaas, the Masterplan attempted to foster cultural heritage into the site by housing a number of museums, new business corporations and activities generally based on design. But there’s much more.
The more characteristic buildings are maintained to be visited as they were before, with museums explaining the times of the mines and their impact on the territory and people’s life. And apart of it –and what makes this a different place-, a big number of exhibition spaces can be found. Modern design shows are often on display, as well as some buildings allow world leading industrial design studios, artistic studios, cinematography studios and even the Folkang University of Arts, the Institute for Magnetic Resonance Imaging and a solar power plant. Most have been placed in the old buildings, respecting their original architecture and giving a new usage to them. A good example is the Red Dot Museum and Design Center, one of the world’s most influent design exposition centres and a meeting point for industrial designers placed in one of the biggest buildings in Shaft 12.
But Zollverein turned also to a recreation area. The Coal Washing plant is transformed into a leisure area with cafes and restaurants. The former water channel of the Coking Plant has been adapted for ice-skating in wintertime, while in summer it allows swimming facilities. Jogging paths have been marked along the complex and bicycles can be hired to visit it, or if you prefer a cooler mean of transport, the conveyor belts that once were transporting the coal now have been adapted to allow visitors to walk inside them.
You can find a good plan (or map) of the whole complex in its official website.
Located in one of the most populous zones of Germany, getting to Zollverein Coal Mine Complex is not a big challenge. The big cities of Düsseldorf and Köln (Cologne) are well connected by road and railway to Essen.
From Essen, you can take the bus or tram from Essen Main Station to the mines. In the map showed above, you can see the connections to the complex.
If you don’t have enough of monuments about the industrial legacy, in the Ruhr area you have plenty of them. Landschaftspark is a public park located in Duisburg, very close to Essen, that will please your taste with their iron and steel factories. Zollern II/IV Colliery is also a good attraction in Dortmund. And, truly, along the Rhine you can find many more.
If you want something more artistic, Köln (Cologne) is your place. Located some 60 km South from Essen, it houses the Cathedral of Cologne, one of the most impressive UNESCO World Heritage Site that was for a lot of time the highest cathedral of the world. Düsseldorf, with its impressive new era buildings, is not too far, as well as cities like Dortmund, Monchengladbach, Leverkussen or even Bonn. And the city of Brühl, with the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Castles of Augustusburg and Falkenlust at Brühl, is not so difficult to reach.
And what we want to do now is to desire you good luck. Enjoy Germany!