Ruhr Museum Is a Great Example of Adaptive Reuse of Industrial Heritage Buildings

credit: Lloyd Alter

Of all the buildings that architectural preservationists try to save, industrial buildings are the hardest sell. They are big, expensive to preserve, heat and maintain, and they are not cute. It's really hard to find good uses for them. In Essen, Germany, there are not too many of them; most of the area was bombed flat in World War II. Somehow the Zollverein Coal Mine complex survived the war intact, only to fall into disuse in the eighties as Germany moved to cleaner fuels and dirty steelmaking was offshored. More surprisingly, the whole complex was preserved and became a world heritage site.

credit: Lloyd Alter

One of the biggest buildings on the site was the coal processing and washing facility. Coal was brought up to the top of the building on giant sloping conveyors for sorting in a bath of water. Dead rock was heavier than coal and would sink to the bottom while the coal would be sieved and separated. Now the coal is gone but the building has been converted into a museum.

credit: Lloyd Alter/ Ruhr Museum, Essen, with what was the longest escalator in Europe

You enter the museum the way the coal did, up a big sloping conveyor, in this case a ThyssenKrupp escalator, that mimics the existing coal conveyors. It's the kind of bold move you get from Rem Koolhaas of OMA, who designed the building with Heinrich Böll + Hans Krabel of Essen. HG Merz did the museum design. It is a very, very long escalator rising to the 24 meter level.

credit: Lloyd Alter

Much of the existing industrial equipment has been left in place, and few concessions are made to people who are afraid of heights; that steel plate leading to the museum entry is on top of a grating that looks straight down. There is industrial archaeology everywhere all around. You then descend through the museum, weirdly going backwards chronologically.

credit: Lloyd Alter

Considering the impact it had on Germany and the rest of the world, there is surprisingly little about the World Wars. Like a scene from Fawlty Towers (“mustn’t mention the war, dear”) they glide over that pretty quickly, then go through the incredibly rapid development of the area after Krupp invented the seamless railroad wheel, which made trains run a lot smoother and were a huge success. Before Krupp, Essen was a village of three thousand people. 30 years later it was many times that. The exhibits are carefully interwoven among the existing industrial equipment and fittings.

credit: Lloyd Alter

It gets really interesting the next level down, where they put ancient objects in this strange, rough industrial setting. They look both incongruous and beautiful; you feel like you might be looking at them in the catacombs where they were stored during the war.

credit: Lloyd Alter

These objects were previously in the local Ruhr museum that was lost in the bombing of Essen. However this minor provincial collection looks absolutely stunning in this setting, with dramatic lighting and no pretence about where it is.

credit: Lloyd Alter

If you have the nerve, you can climb through a whole floor of scary catwalks way above lots of dangerous looking places to fall and reach a panorama viewing platform high above the building. That's where I noticed a building covered on TreeHugger a few years ago, SANAA's Zollverein School of Management and Design.

credit: Lloyd Alter

This is a fascinating building that I had to visit. It has what is called "active thermal insulation" which is in fact no insulation at all. Why bother, when 3,000 feet down, they are pumping hot water out of the mines to keep the walls from collapsing and dumping it into the river. Instead of insulating, hot water is simply pumped through the walls.

credit: Lloyd Alter

The result is clean beautiful concrete inside and out, and a very thin wall for a concrete building.

credit: Lloyd Alter

Nothing, like a common window sill, would be allowed to compromise the minimalist design, so they have designed the sills as troughs with drains so that water doesn't flow over the edge. So there are two complete networks of pipes running along with the reinforcing in that very thin wall. It's a remarkable piece of work.

credit: Lloyd Alter

Other buildings on the site serve different functions; this one has become a high-end restaurant and bar. The space is high and dramatic, the concrete columns about four feet square. It's another example of how old buildings can have new lives, how industrial relics can live again as cultural centers and tourist attractions. What was formerly a derelict mine is now the most popular attraction in the area, drawing thousands each year. There are many lessons here for the American rust belt- these buildings have solid bones and could live on for centuries if put to use. We can't just let them rust.