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01 Sep 2009
Transforming Industrial Landscapes in Lusatia
Germany
The landscape of East Germany is scarred from the change in ideologies following the end of the Cold War.

In the aftermath of the lignite (brown coal) mining, a symbol of GDR Industrial pride and a behemoth of its economic power, vast tracts of barren land and deep gorges have been left. East from Berlin, edging up to the border of Poland, the landscape has endured decades of abuse and upheaval. However this is all changing.

Under the direction of the IBA Fürst-Pükler-Land, SEE is a ten year project and the largest landscape design and earthmoving site in Europe. There are 25 projects currently being undertaken in the Lusatia area, each one addressing environmental renewal, landscape architecture and industrial heritage. To be completed by 2010, it is the first IBA (International Building Exhibition) to focus solely on the landscape instead of built projects.

I visited the area to see this transformation first hand. While I did not visit all the 25 sites, the area is certainly one of paradoxes and an inspiration for the revitalization and creative activation of former industrial areas. It has even more relevance as the history revolves around the cycle that is mining coal for energy, and then creating energy to mine the coal.

Legacy

In the 1800’s, Fürst Pükler had grand and eccentric visions of transforming this same countryside into a garden. After his extensive travels, the passionate prince brought the English tradition of landscape gardening back to his castle in the area that is now the German-Polish border. It was his life’s work to make nature and art as one and was finally laid to rest in a green pyramid at Branitz. Continuing the Pückler legacy is the IBA director and Director of the Bauhaus Foundation , Prof Dr Ralph Kuhn.

The Lakes

One key rehabilitative idea is to transform the huge holes left by the open-cast coal mining into manmade lake-lands, attracting tourists and leisure seeking urbanites to a future aquatic paradise offering floating architecture, water sports and nature reserves. The lakes will all have their own identity.

My first stop is the Ferdinand Heide designed IBA Terraces on the shore of the new Ilse Lake. This is to be the first completed manmade lake as part of the SEE project, an open cast mine that is slowly filling with water from the underground streams. The sun chooses to radiate this vast place for me, and it takes on another image. Here this once barren landscape is alive and in flux, as it was before. It’s a strange kind of time travel. Green shoots sprout after the rain, and the blue sky is reflected in the waters.

There is still one abandoned house on the edge of the lost village, a silent witness to its life, death and life again. A chilling reminder of the full impact of mining in the area are the memorial rocks in front of the lakes bearing the names of the villages, and the year of their evacuation, that had to be cleared for the mines.

We walk up to the “viktoriahohe”, a lookout point shaped like a boat, and witness the sun shining on the spectacular view of this surreal and ever changing landscape. It is strange juxtaposition, having tourist lookouts over the flooded mines.

Industrial Heritage as tourist attraction

An idea held strongly by Dr Prof Kuhn is to remember the area’s industrial heritage by retaining some of the structures, and not to demolish and forget them like so many other GDR buildings. And like alchemy, transforming these heavy metals into another force, one of culture and spectacle.

The F60 is one such monument to the past. Referred to locally as the horizontal Eiffel Tower (it does look remarkably like the Parisian landmark lying on its side) this overburden conveyer bridge is 502 meters long. It is the largest machine ever created and only one of five ever to be built. Now it stands as a monument to the past. Silent. Except for the audiovisual spectaculars that happen every weekend, one of the cultural projects developed for the site. And the birds that nest in its corners.

In the old Builders workhouse I watch an education film about the history of the F60, and see how these huge beasts operated. There is a small museum with coal memorabilia like bricks with GDR emblems. We have a coffee and a soljanka soup at the café terrace overlooking the steel giant. Couples can even hire an elevated platform hundreds of feet high for a special dining experience.

Lauchhammer Bio Towers

The Lauchhammer Bio towers are another kind of monument, this time the only remnants left from a huge 120 hectre cokery that once filled the town of Lauchhammer. Not ruins, but reminders. Througout Lauchhammer there are old, factory buildings with broken glass and lonely bus stops with names like "Wasserwerk" and "Haal 3", reminders that the town once relied on this coal washery, powerplant and brickette factory to survive. We look at a black and white photograph of the site in 1958 and I am shocked by its huge scale. In 1991 it began to be dismantled. 5000 people lost their jobs.

All that is left of the cokery now are the bio towers and a tree that also miraculously once stood here. Landscape architects Zimmermann and Partner have transformed the area with a green and asphalt park, replacing the dirt and smog with landscape design. A vertigo inducing glass cube hangs off one tower, where one can now look over the site from above and see another design tool, the white crosses that mark the spots where other towers once stood. The paving is made from schlackerstein, the waste products of Lauchhammer. The towers were only saved after much controversy. For a while they were lit up at night until the locals were convinced of their value as a monument to their local history. In the end it was the work of the Kunstgassemuseum Lauchhammer that saved them. Plans for the future are still unclear.
Former worker Dr Konrad Wilhelm joins us on our tour and as he looks out over the area, the sadness he still feels is clear. He tells me how he was born on this area, played there, partied at the rocket bar and the cinema; how he left, came back, employed workers and then had to fire them all. He tells me he turned out the light at the end of it.

Art and Creativity

Creative initiatives are paramount to the SEE project and play a role in many of the 25 projects. They revitalize the area, create interest and engage the community.Internationally renowned landscape artists and architects have also been invited to participate. Nowhere is this so prevalent as Pritzen - a peninsula that forks out into the new lake of Grabendorf.

In the nineties Pritzen had two Art Biennales (1993 and 1995), so it already has some resonance on the German cultural map. These Biennales consisted of site specific land art and landscape design, and addressed the changes. Ben Wagin created his own monument to the destroyed village of Gräbendorf and planted a tree for every demolished house. Like all land art, some pieces have remained, while others have been grown over or swept away by the battering winds. It feels like a treasure hunt trying to find them all now. The Stonehenge like structure on the top of the hill is clearly an art object , while the abandoned caravan in the field - it’s not really clear.

But there are new plans too. Swiss artist Jurg Mantala has been chosen as community arts worker. Together with the locals they will create art works under the name of Paradise 2. Other community projects involved the people of the destroyed villages creating an opera together. Artist Charles Jenkes together with Italian Andreas Kipar have been invited to create a new piece and will create a giant hand, embracing the lake and island. After walking along the windy shores, we took a warm coffee and LPG cake “ every trade cake” at the local café. The town of Pritzen has a sense of hope.

Weltzow – World at the open cast mine

While there are 24 projects to resuscitate the mines, one project, just as spectacular, does not do that. It is the one remaining active coal mine in the Lusatia – Weltzow.
After seeing this, I am aware of the sheer scale and effect of open coal mining, and why the other 24 projects are so necessary in creating an alternative future for the area.
As we near the Weltzow, the road becomes rough and dug up, trees are being felled to make way for large machines. It is like a giant hole creeping towards the neighboring towns, about to eat them up and swallow them into the mine. When we arrive at the mine, Energy company Vatenfall has even provided look out spots to bear witness. As far as the eye can see, up to the horizon, there is a dead desert. No sign of life. Miles of nothing. Just the sounds of strip mining, the monstrously big machine and the F60 overburden conveyer belt, slowly passing and sorting the soil, exposing the black coalface below. Huge endless plains of desert, the largest machines in the world repetitively sorting the soot from the sands of the coal face. It is like a huge rake or a huge insect. Here the F60 is no ruin or monument, it is alive and active and is slowly rumbling its way to devour ghost towns. 80 towns have gone or were relocated due to the mines. And more will go. On our way back we pass through the inhabited town of Proshun, who have to wait until next year to find out their fate. Heidemuhe was not so lucky. We drive through its deathly quiet overgrown streets, cracked windows with flowers growing through the mouldy wallpaper – all abandoned – to make way for the mine. There are open doors and stairways to nowhere, an old glass factory that is no longer needed.

Some ideas work and others do not in this changing and historically forgotten landscape. This area is one of opposites, of destruction and transformation. It is not unique, but the incentive and infrastructure put in place to deal with the changes may well be.
As I leave, I think again that it’s a bit like alchemy - transforming heavy metals into another force.

Thank you to Janine Mahler and IBA SEE for hosting me and showing me around the area.

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