Tuesday, September 8, 2009

See in Germany

Last week I presented a session at the International Committee for the Conservation of Industrial Heritage International Congress in Freiberg, Germany. More in a future post about the session itself, but a highlight of the conference was a bus tour of post-industrial sites in this region of former East Germany. The tour involved sites that were all part of two connected projects.

The first was the International Building Exhibition for Furst-Puckler Land (IBA in German). IBA are term-limited projects (in this case ten years) that are designed to find new ideas and solutions to urban development and landscape planning in a particular region. The first IBA took place from 1901 to 1914. Between 2000 and 2010 this project aims to show the ways in which the area of brown coal production in Lusatia can be transformed as 17 opencast mines and other industries were closed down after reunitification. 25 separate projects, divided into eight "landscape islands" show how industrial landscapes and buildings can be converted and re-used.

The second effort, which will continue after 2010 is known as SEE--a branding that is intentionally ambigous. According to the project, "visitors are invited to 'see' beyond the present stage of the transformation of the landscape region and to look forward to the future to see the complete development. The second meaning derives from the word See, German for lake, referring to the new Lusatian lake area that is being created."

What did we see? Four separate sites, representing different levels of tourism experiences. (and by the way, all were denoted by these large blue signage cubes on the landscape--a nice change from your standard roadside signs).

We began and ended at the Plessa Power Plant, a huge brown coal power plant opened in 1927. It became outdated but was difficult to shut down because of the need for power. However, the plan finally closed in 1992 and then efforts to find an alternative use for this "Cathedral of Work" began. Our tour took us through the process from the delivery of brown coal to the production of electricity. Substantial funds from the European Union and the brown coal restoration fund have helped preserve the buildings and work continues to find additional tenants to ensure the site's continued viability. The focus of this tour was the building itself, the main interest of most of the conference participants--I wished for more about the workers themselves and hope that the future museum will not only give me a sense of this majestic place, but of the generations who worked there.

The Bio Towers in Lauchhammer look like a medieval castle, but they are really the sole-surviving remnants of a large coking plant. Treatment for groundwater contamination at the site continues. The experience is limited, although you can go up into a tower, and the community hopes to make the site a place for performances and events--it was inaugurated with a ropewalking act by a famous German acrobatic family.

At the F60 mine, the large overburden conveyor bridge dominates the landscape for miles. This equipment, completed in 1991 and closed down just 13 months later because of a change in energy policy seems to attract visitors interested not only in mining history, but interested in a chance to walk, and even bungee-jump, from this incredibly large steel framework. It's now an anchor point of the European Route of Industrial Heritage. As one can imagine, the issues faced in conserving this structure, in the open landscape, are immense.

Our final stop were the IBA-Terraces, the main visitor center of the IBA project. The large open-cast mine is becoming a lake, and a pier, now on dry land, will eventually connect directly with the water. The sandy, post-mining landscape looks like a desert, not Germany, and already hosts hiking, dirt-biking and other recreational activities. Eventually, this and other mines converted to lakes in the region will allow visitors to enjoy water-based activities as well.

These were all amazing places, and I was glad to have seen them. I was incredibly impressed at the investment of the European community and the German government in these preservation projects and the idea of a project such as IBA--to take ten years to demonstrate new ideas seemed a wonderful thing.

However, it's hard to tell yet whether these projects will thrive as tourist attractions. It appears everywhere that communities hope for museums and heritage sites to rebuild economically. At least in Germany, there appears to be sufficient investment to make that happen, but only time will tell.

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