A massive block of a book - 640 pages of colour photographs of heavy industry in the Ruhr, mostly relics of the past but a few from the present. Deindustrialisation wiped out an enormous amount of industrial structures in the region. Some of the more viable plant was exported to China but much of what remained was repurposed as spectacular heritage visitor attractions. More than 70 sites have been combined into a 400 kilometre heritage trail that reaches from Duisburg in the east to Hamm in the west. Co-ordinating the scheme depended on a level of regional organisation that seems to be impossible in Britain where such sites are numerous but rarely work together. Another factor that is less common in Germany is the British tendency to eliminate all traces of defunct industrial activity at the earliest opportunity. In part this reflects the shortage of development land in Britain and a pattern of land ownership that is always looking to extract maximum value from land assets. The same forces are at work in Germany but they are subject to stronger regulation in terms of public interest.
There’s long been a sense in Britain that industrial relics are intrinsically unsightly and unworthy of preservation and often the best examples get swept away with the worst. In the north-east of England an enormous amount of industrial heritage was lost after the deindustrialisation of the region in the 60s and 70s as the ship yards, coal mines and steel works disappeared - it was left to Beamish Museum to salvage what it could but a regionally planned scheme would have been much more comprehensive. It sometimes felt as if a Ground Zero policy was unofficially sanctioned as if removing the visual evidence of past industry would smooth the transition to a post-industrial future of low-wage insecure employment by breaking the links with lost occupations and the cultural traditions that sustained them. It’s a process that still goes on - the Mayor of Tees Valley recently posed with indecent pride in front of the closed steelworks at Redcar and proudly announced its total demolition, having rejected all proposals for preservation as a visitor attraction. The need for regeneration land is held to be paramount despite the vast amount that already exists.
Back to the book - each section has a map or plan, some historic images and explanatory text in English (as well as German and French). Stylistically the photography is primarily intended to record but without the studied neutrality of tone and compositional uniformity found in the work of Bernd and Hilla Becher. There’s a sense of frontality emphasised by rigorous perspective correction. An interesting comparison is with the photographs of Albert Renger-Patzsch who recorded several of these sites soon after construction in pristine condition before the stresses of intensive operation and the ravages of fire, water, steam and oxidisation brought them to their present state. Photographs make clear the tension that exists between the architecture of industrial buildings (admin blocks, pit-head enclosures, turbine halls) and the anti-architecture of industrial structures (blast furnaces, smelters, coke ovens, gas tanks, overhead conveyors, cooling towers). While the buildings are often sensitively proportioned and detailed to incorporate contemporary idioms (Jugendstil, Gründerzeit, Brick Gothic), the industrial plant, despite being meticulously planned in terms of operational requirements, often has an improvisational, bricolage-like appearance, as if random forms have been welded together, as much in hope as expectation. Functionality is the only consideration whereas architects like to set their sights on higher things in the pursuit of artistic expression.
So what’s the appeal of the industrial landscape - why is it endlessly fascinating for some while others respond with indifference or outright hostility? Mine is the last generation to be born and raised in a world where the industrial landscape was commonplace, especially so in the north-east where I lived. Every journey to and from school would pass collieries, shipyards and factories - an unceasing spectacle where welding torches flashed in smoke filled gloom while overhead cranes and hoists propelled massive components in a display of perpetual motion. Pit-head winding gear could be seen spinning at speed, hauling cage-loads of coal to the surface where it was washed, graded and tipped into railway wagons around the clock. All this industrial activity was so deeply embedded into the locality that to the eyes of a child it seemed it would continue unchanged, for ever. This is the power of the industrial sublime - to induce nostalgia for jobs that were massively physically demanding and ruinous to health in an environment where water courses were lethally polluted, where the sea was stained charcoal grey from colliery waste and the air quality was laden with toxic fumes. Despite this, displaced industrial workers can often be heard waxing lyrical on the lost camaraderie of the workplace where unions enjoyed 100% support and stood together to resist management’s unreasonable demands. They often recall taking pride in the finished article as the embodiment of their skills and expertise. The continuing appeal of the industrial landscape has cultural, social and aesthetic elements of which the last may prove the most enduring - there’s nothing else in the man-made environment that’s left behind so many extraordinary physical structures enhanced by the patina of ageing and replete with formal repetition wrapped in complex networks of contrasting forms (tubes, cones, pipes, cylinders, grids, filters) on such a vast scale.