Industrial Reuse: Just a Pipe Dream?
Visiting some of the large industrial sites in Germany left quite an impression on me, as many had been converted into parks and museums open to the general public. I was astounded to see these massive, decaying brownfields turned into centers of culture, amusement, and thriving businesses. In the United States, it seems like most of these kinds of places are the exact opposite, unless the existing structures have been completely leveled and remediated.
My first introduction to this kind of redevelopment was at a place called VÃ¶lklinger HÃ¼tte - an old ironworks in southern Germany near the French border. The admission price and the throngs of people turned our attention to finding more derelict places to shoot that day, but it was still a very interesting concept to see (and it looked to be quite popular).
The next encounter was at Landschaftspark Duisburg-Nord - a decaying blast furnace, laden with rust and sitting on top of soil saturated with chemicals and other pollutants. Something of this magnitude would surely be fenced in, patrolled, and subsequently demolished as soon as possible in the USA. But here in Duisburg, children chased each other through the steel underbelly, couples strolled through admiring the art galleries, and families followed tour guides to learn about or remember the history of the mill. We sat down at a cafe table, surrounded by the rusted steel, gears, machinery and trees - and had a beer. It was incredible.
The steel mill closed down in 1985. The redevelopment in 1991 was headed by Peter Latz, and consisted of leaving the polluted soil in place and using vegetation to slowly absorb the chemical (this cleanup process is known as phytoremediation).Â The concept of memory was essential to the design of the park, where it was envisioned that a grandfather who might have worked at the plant could walk through and teach his grandchildren about what he did.
At night, the steel is illuminated with colorful lights, and films are shown in outdoor amphitheaters constructed out of salvaged steel plates that are allowed to rust and transform over time. While sitting at the table, I noticed someone making their way across the tops of the furnaces on a wire - how cool is that?!
I started to wander around, and found some other fantastic examples of reuse. For example, the old gas tanks were filled with water and used for scuba diving. The concrete bunkers which held the raw materials for the furnaces were transformed into secluded gardens, and the walls were used for top-rope rock climbing. I only wish I studied German so I could read everything.
A few places were cordoned off, but I was able to wander into so many great spaces legally; and so there was a strange feeling of not needing to sneak around (I did want to grab some waders and check out the flooded areas a bit though).
Another great thing was that I didn't have to shoot through a chain link fence or any other kind of nonsense. There were many places where you could fall off and get hurt or die, and the fact that no one had to baby-sit each person as they wandered through really appealed to me. I suppose if lawsuits were as rampant as in the U.S. this place might not exist.
It was possible to view the casthouse (it was cleaned up and the process was documented on plaques), and one could even climb up one of the towers for some spectacular views of the digester tanks and the rest of the park.
We also passed by the Zollverein mine that year with amazement, as it was brimming with cultural events, businesses, and even a Ferris wheel spinning amongst the rusted steel. In the winter months, the flooded passages at the coke plant are used as an ice skating rink.
Â I wonder if something like this could really be feasible in the United States, in terms of remediation costs, safety regulations, legal boundaries, and public interest. I could imagine this kind of redevelopment at a few large-scale sites in this country, such as:
Carrie Furnaces, Pittsburgh PA
Bethlehem Steel Furnaces, Bethlehem PA
Bethlehem Steel (Lackawanna), Buffalo NY
Acme Coke Plant, Chicago IL
There are similar preserved industrial ruins in other countries as well. Perhaps these sites can serve as a model to solve some of our current Superfund problems.