How the industrial Ruhr Valley became a Cultural Capital

ESSEN, Germany — Before the age of globalization rudely consigned its identity to the trash heap, Germany's Ruhr Valley was Germany's industrial heartland, synonymous with coal mines, steel mills and a proud blue-collar work force. When global trade marginalized the region's production, and its labor unions more often found themselves on the dole than on the night shift, the Ruhr's problems were more than economic — they were existential.

Fortunately, the inherited wisdom of generations of coal miners has taught Ruhr natives the power of resilience. Rather than indulge in despair, the Ruhr region has forged from its industrial ruins a new, more sustainable, if unlikely, economic foundation, one that has more to do with theater and art than coal and steel.

A transformation that once earned scoffs has gradually been gaining more attention and praise, culminating in the recent decision by the European Union to designate the entire Ruhr region as one of Europe's official Cultural Capitals for the year 2010. The 53 cities and towns of the region will have 12 months to showcase their new identity to the rest of the continent.

One of the centerpieces of that effort will be the Zollverein coal mining complex in the city of Essen. After the mine was closed some three decades ago, the Zollverein could have been abandoned as a relic of the industrial age and of the Ruhr Valley's heyday. Instead, the area has adapted to new circumstances, serving as a multi-purpose space for residents of Essen and tourists from out of town. Today, visitors come not only to admire the monumental Bauhaus-style architecture of the mining complex, but to visit the design museum newly housed in the former boiler house, or to ice skate on the outdoor channels of the old coking plant.

The newest highlight of the Zollverein is the Ruhr Valley Museum. Under a master plan by Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas, visitors enter the museum by way of a 79-foot-long escalator — flanked by orange lights that evoke the molten metal the region once produced in abundance — that ascends to the top floor of the Zollverein's former coal-washing plant. The museum doesn't only indulge in nostalgia for the region's role in Germany's industrial revolution, but recounts its forgotten early history, as well as its troubled present, incorporating the industrial setting into a mostly nostalgia-free account of the Ruhr valley. The exhibition explains how heavy industry played a role in the region's environmental degradation, how prolonged exposure to coal dust and sulfur gas cut short workers' lives and damaged their lungs, and how the region was punished for supplying Germany's armaments during the first and second world wars.

Best of all, the museum offers not only information about the culture of the Ruhr Valley, but also provides exposure to it. The museum is staffed, to a large extent, by residents of housing projects in local neighborhoods — the very people who in decades past would have worked the mines. The security guards confirm the museum's description of the Ruhr blue-collar worker as a breed apart — open, confident, proud, pragmatic. The guards initiate conversations with visitors to add context to the exhibition, correct mistakes or append footnotes. One museum worker didn't hesitate to interrupt a tour group to discuss a safety hazard he had just noticed on the path they were walking on. Their faces might not be blackened by soot at the end of the day, and women may have finally joined their ranks, but the idiom and attitude of the Ruhr Valley worker have manifestly survived to the present day.

Several high-profile architects have ongoing projects in the Ruhr region to re-fashion old buildings for new purposes, including David Chipperfield's addition to the Folkwang museum in Essen; and the work on the Kuppersmuehle museum in Duisburg being overseen by Swiss architectural firm Herzog and de Meuron. Other industrial sites have proven not to require major renovations. The 390-foot-tall Gasometer gas silo in the city of Oberhausen has been hosting exhibitions for more than 10 years. Its vast empty space has allowed it to accommodate and encourage projects that would otherwise not have a home. The Gasometer is currently showing an exhibition on the solar system that features a model of the moon that is nearly 90 feet in diameter.

Along with developing new functions for old industrial buildings, the Cultural Capital’s coordinators will focus on encouraging the Ruhr region’s 53 independent municipalities to increasingly think and work together as a single metropolis. The EU's selection committee made an exception in designating the Ruhr Valley as Cultural Capital, rather than a single city.

Germans often think of the region as a single entity, and taken together, it would in fact be the country's biggest city, with more than 5 million inhabitants. But the valley has less the feel of a city than a small, densely populated island: In some areas of the region, cities bleed into each other, while in other places there are wide stretches of agriculture that act as buffers between municipalities. Residents often have attachments to their local towns and develop rivalries against their neighbors. “When there's a soccer game between Dortmund and Bochum, you should probably stay off the local trains,” Willi Kaiser, a resident of Essen, said.

The organizers of the Cultural Capital year have decided to overcome those difficulties by focusing on the ties that bind the region — most visibly, the A40 highway, which serves as the valley’s main artery and is the most heavily trafficked and notoriously jammed highway in the country. July 18 has been set aside for what is being called an “autobahn still-life”: The 40-mile stretch of the A40 that spans the Ruhr Valley will be shut to traffic and lined end-to-end with 20,000 picnic tables. It's a performance that's meant to symbolically tie the region together and highlight its common culture and traditions.

Of course, it's an open question whether the increased attention of this year will translate to long-term success in re-making the Ruhr Valley. Most Germans still hesitate to associate the Ruhr region with a vibrant cultural life, at least outside the context of soccer games and political rallies for the Social Democratic party.

But, as the most sentimentalized, underdog region of the country — home to Germany's favorite, blue-collar regional accent and the country's most beloved, law-bending television police commissioner, Horst Schimanski — the Ruhr Valley won't lack for moral support. And the region has earned a reputation for beating the odds.

It was only 50 years ago, after all, that pollution had become such a normal part of life in the Ruhr Valley that Willy Brandt, candidate for chancellor of West Germany in 1961, was criticized for even suggesting that the sky over its cities might one day be blue. Today, the sun shines regularly over the Ruhr — something to keep in mind when people say that the region can't realistically become a capital for the arts.