One of the star attractions of the Route der Industriekultur (Industrial Heritage Trail) in the Ruhr is the Zeche Zollverein in Essen - a carefully preserved colliery and coking works designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2001. Coal mining on this site goes back to 1851 but the principal shaft and associated buildings date from 1932 and were designed by industrial architects Fritz Schupp and Martin Kremmer in a style that’s often described as Bauhaus, although the term Industrial Rationalism may be more accurate. In its rectilinear brick built forms and its symmetry it seems to have more in common with the functionality of Albert Kahn’s work in Detroit than with the formal purity of Mies van der Rohe although there is some affinity with the Fagus factory design of Walter Gropius. The massive forms of the pit head buildings with its trestle shaped winding gear and coal washery are handled with great confidence and contrasted with the angular presence of enclosed conveyor belts that criss cross the site. Highlights of the coking works include the skeletal remains of cooling towers and spectacular reflections of the coke ovens in the vast cooling reservoir.
In 1937 just under 7,000 workers were employed in the mine and coking works. Almost undamaged by the war, the Zollverein was Germany’s most productive coal mine in the 1950s, yet by the end of 1986 it was closed. Six years later the coking plant closed down after many decades converting waste gases into such delights as ammonia, tar and benzine. Local pride in the region’s industrial past inspired the city of Essen to acquire the site and transform it into a visitor attraction without compromising the ravages of industry - making it accessible while preserving its industrial character. Architects OMA with Rem Koolhaas delivered the masterplan which took a decade to implement, finally concluded in 2010. Included in the plan were museums of local industry and industrial design. It’s an extensive site and a thorough exploration could easily take all day for those with an appetite for the strange and wonderful forms of industrial processes. Those with deep pockets can assemble a scale model of the complex on a table top at home by shopping online at Minitrix and purchasing all 3 components.