Essen is a city in the middle of the "Ruhrgebiet", Germany's traditional centre of mining and heavy industry – but today there is no mining left and not much industry. The main reason for our trip to Essen was an art exhibition at the Museum Folkwang, but as we have never visited the Zollverein Coal Mine it was a welcoming opportunity for the afternoon programme.
The Zollverein Coal Mine used to be one of the largest mines in the area, but none of it has been in use since 1993 when the coking plant was closed for good. The site is being rededicated as a cultural and leisure space, thereby conserving some of the architecture and its historical importance.
Mining at the Zollverein Coal Mine began in the mid-19th century and was in operation until 1986. The coal extracted in Essen was especially suitable for coking, and from the beginning the mining of coal went hand in hand with the production of coke. Therefore a coking plant was also built on the premises. The building is lit up in red after nightfall, and contains exhibition spaces, a book shop and a café instead of coal-black machinery. The permanent exhibition is also located in the coking plant.
The exhibition starts on one of the upper floors with lots of photos of the area; most are series of pictures dealing with issues of structural change, remnants of the miners' history, the density of traffic routes in the densely populated area. We would have appreciated a bit more information about the photographers and perhaps some explanation why he or she chose this particular theme and style.
A term neither of us had heard of before was "industrial nature", which indeed describes nature that owes its existence to industry, or human intervention for industrial reasons. For example, intensive mining produces a lot of waste material. This waste was deposited in the vicinity of the mines and formed characteristic pit heaps, which were then used for recreational purposes by the miners. Conversely, as a result of the underground work the surface sagged and large areas of swamp developed, especially near rivers.
On the lower floors, the exhibition fills in about the historical background on the coal, the mining industry and also the political importance of the Ruhrgebiet industrial zone. Hence the gradual abandonment of mining was a major political issue in our childhood, as it meant the loss of thousands of jobs.
In 2001, several of the old shafts of the Zollverein mine, as well as the remains of the coking plant received UNESCO World Heritage status, because the buildings are outstanding examples of the application of the design concepts of the Modern Movement in architecture in a wholly industrial context. It is also representative of a crucial period in the development of traditional heavy industries in Europe.
Unfortunately, when we visited the weather was quite rainy and so cold that we skipped the outside facilities altogether. As our time was limited we could only visit the permanent exhibition, although there are a number of different museums and special exhibitions on the grounds. If you have the choice it would be best to visit in summer and plan for at least a half day at the site. We have to come back…
How to get there:
From Essen main station, tramway No 107 runs directly to the coal mine in about 20 minutes; the station is called "Zollverein" and it is easily recognizable by its mine head tower.
All practical details can be found at:
The industrial architecture is quite impressive, and the modern exhibition features a fascinating mix of history and design (including a design museum). We also find it remarkable how coal mining, which used to be a crucial industry and was the base of living for many families, turned into history within a few decades. Thus, the Zollverein Coal Mine also makes you think about change in general.
In the café there, you can have an (admittedly not very good) coffee in great architecture.