Connect to share and comment

How the industrial Ruhr Valley became a Cultural Capital

Long known for its coal mines and steel mills, Essen and the Ruhr have transformed themselves.

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.