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Tour de Ruhr

A Day at the Zollverein

Founded in 1847, the Zollverein colliery in Essen is most famous for the iconic headframe of its Shaft XII, built in 1932, which was, with an output of 12,000 tonnes of hard coal per day, the world’s most efficient mine at the time. The epitome of Neue Sachlichkeit architecture, it’s also the world’s most beautiful mine, and a fine manifestation of the Bauhaus maxim that form must be oriented towards function. After the mine was closed in 1986 because Ruhr coal had become too expensive, and its 192-oven coking plant was decommissioned in 1993, the Zollverein became the new cultural heart of the Ruhr region.

Just walking around the vast Zollverein site while enjoying the architecture is already pretty exciting, but taking the guided tour About coal and miners, which shows what happened in the colliery above ground level, is well worth two hours of your day. This tour is offered in English on Saturdays & Sundays at 3 p.m., in German several times a day, and in Dutch on some Sundays at 11½ a.m. (The coking plant tour Durch Koksofen und Meistergang is offered in German only.) Children will love the Werksschwimmbad, officially a contemporary artwork by Daniel Milohnić & Dirk Paschke, but you & I recognize a swimming pool when we see one.

The headframe of Shaft XII at the Zollverein
The headframe of Shaft XII at the Zollverein

When I was in school in the 1980s, I learned that the Ruhrgebiet was the industrial powerhouse of Germany, but when visiting the Zollverein, I discovered at the Ruhr Museum that in reality heavy industry was already pretty much on its way out at the time. This museum in the former coal-washing plant presents the history of the region, looking predominantly at the era of industrialization & beyond, as well as the present. So although, apart from the history bit up to the eighties, pretty much everything I previously told my kids about the Ruhr region was outdated, the exhibition corrected that and we were enlightened as to the current state of affairs.

The Red Dot Design Museum in the former boiler house in a way embodies the new vision for the Ruhr region, which is reinventing itself as a supplier of innovative, high-quality services & products. The museum displays some 2,000 objects that have won a Red Dot Award for outstanding design, from scissors to gyroplanes. Not all winners made it to the exhibition, which is rather fortunate if we consider the vast amount of unattractive computer hardware the jury endowed with dots; just the remarkable stuff is on show. It’s a great safe place for design-shopping addicts, because none of the items from the exhibition is for sale — at least, not here.

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On selected Sundays from April to October at 4 p.m., the Zollverein offers photography tours (in German) through either the colliery or the coking plant. Another photogenic place is the Hansa Coking Plant in Dortmund, which offers photo tours on request, but on regular tours you can take pictures as well. Also worth a visit is Werner Thiel’s collection of mining artifacts at Gelsenkirchen’s Consol Mine, open on Saturday & Sunday afternoons.


It is quite miraculous that the Zollverein was hardly damaged in the Allied air raids of World War II. It has been suggested that this was to protect the interests of American shareholders in its parent company Vereinigte Stahlwerke AG. The mine was not listed in The Bomber’s Baedeker, but other Vestag sites were, and so was the Zollverein’s 54-oven coking plant, so it’s probably safe to assume that the pilots of the RAF just couldn’t be bothered to take out the Zollverein — one of over a hundred collieries in the Ruhr — on their way to the Krupp works, a great place to bomb.


Re: Krupp — Villa Hügel in Essen, Alfred Krupp’s impressive 8,100 m², 269-room mansion, features an interesting exhibition about Krupp & the Krupps, how they built their steel company and rebuilt it from scratch after World War II, and about the villa & its park. (Similarly, the Haniels, best known for their ancestor Franz Haniel who founded the Zollverein and whose name lived on in Germany’s last coal mine, Prosper-Haniel, have a museum that conveys the history of their € 6¼-bln company: the Haniel Museum in Duisburg.)


Also part of the exhibition at the Ruhr Museum, the Portal of Industrial Heritage, a multimedia-based presentation that would have made more sense as an app than in its current form, looks at eighteen anchor points of the Industrial Heritage Trail, as they were in the past, as they are today, and will be in the future. (The trail’s website is in German, but the downloadable Entdeckerpass is in English as well.)


№ 12 Shaft may be considered the most beautiful coal mine in the world, but it wasn’t unique. Zollverein’s architects, Fritz Schupp & Martin Kremmer, conceived other, similar-looking collieries, such as Germania’s № 5 Shaft in Dortmund-Marten, designed in 1944 and built during the early 1950s. After the mine’s closure in 1971, its headframe was transferred to the German Mining Museum in Bochum, and apart from the admin building and a flame arrester on the mineshaft’s cover, Germania vanished from the face of the earth. Schupp also created the still-existing Nordstern Tower in Gelsenkirchen-Horst, whose design is clearly related to № 12 as well. (Other remaining buildings by Schupp & Kremmer are the Rammelsberg mine in Goslar and the Church of Peace in Berlin-Niederschöneweide.)

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