“Düsseldorf?” asked Terry, taking a sip of coffee from his paper cup. “Me’ old man used to fly over there a lot”.
Terry, a retired teacher from Newcastle, was flying on his daughter’s staff travel to New York; as for me, I wasn’t going that far. But neither of us were off to anywhere yet: he was hoping for a seat to be available, whereas in my case a standby boarding pass was all I had as the umpteenth Lufthansa strike had overbooked my British Airways flight.
“Yeah, he flew Lancasters during the war, went to Düsseldorf many times, bombing the factories in that city and around, you see”.
I looked at him but, before I could reply that bombing the hell out of it wasn’t my reason for visiting the Ruhr, a lady called my name, handed my boarding pass and recommended me that I legged it, for my flight was now boarding.
In the air, replicating almost exactly the route that RAF bombers took 70 years ago, I thought that all of us, myself and those young aviators, were heading towards the same direction, the Ruhr’s factories. Only our purposes were different: whereas their very honourable aim was to stop Hitler’s war machine, mine was a lot more peaceful, for I was indeed bound to the Rhineland to admire the heritage of Europe’s industrial heartland.
The Ruhr has entered everyone’s dictionary as a byword for heavy industry. This fertile lowland by the river Rhine had always been rich, with powerful cities, wealthy market towns and universities, but it wasn’t until well after the Peace of Westphalia, which gave Prussia control over this side of the river, that the region’s mining and industrial potentials started being exploited.
Today, after two centuries and two devastating conflicts, the region is still heavily industrialised. All mines have closed and some factories have been shut down, but much of Europe’s industrial output is still churned out of these very lands: 49% of the steel made in Germany, for instance, was made in the city of Duisburg alone, where I was headed to see this.
In the northern fringes of the town, in 1901, opened the Rheinische Stahlwerke zu Meiderich bei Ruhrort, a gigantic steel mill with five mammoth blast furnaces, tubes 75 meters tall capable of reaching temperatures up to 2000 degrees Celsius and producing enormous quantities of metal each day, every day. The plant supported the Kaiser’s and Hitler’s bellic effort, was heavily bombed and, after the war-time rubbles had been broomed away, played a part in the new German economic miracle.
Then, in 1985, struck by a overcapacity and by the competition of cheaper, more efficient mills in Japan, ThyssenKrupp decided to close down the factory, shifting production to other plants built in the surrounding areas, gifted by an easier access to the Rhine river and by more modern hardware. The Ruhrort, for the first time in 80 years, fell silent, leaving a polluted wasteland in its wake.
Whereas, in other places, steel mill fell under the hammers and explosives of demolition equipes, here the city of Duisburg decided to follow another path, turning the gigantic structure in a park, without removing them.
Architects Latz + Partner were awarded the contract to refurbish the place, and they came out with this project, a vast park with the plant as its epicentre. The Gargantuan furnaces still tower above the surroundings, turned in observation points, whilst most of the other sites have been re-used for other purposes: a power station became a concert hall, the admin building is a youth hostel, the casthouse is an open-air cinema or concert stage, a gasometer is now a scuba diving pool complete with fake shipwreck. In 1994, after less than five years of works, the park opened, becoming one of the most visited attractions in the Ruhr region.
The road to the Landschaftspark Duisburg-Nord, as it is now called, is the definition an anti-climax. A quiet, sleepy side road with modest-looking houses on one side and a well kept park on the other, with daffodils and Borussia Dortmund flags equally soaked by the incessant rain.
What’s unusual, though, is the view behind the trees: tall, slender chimneys, their purpose obvious even to the most naïve of the observer, flanked by more mysterious, elaborated structures. Almost as tall as the smokestacks themselves, these enormous conglomerates of gigantic piping, wiring and scaffolding pierced the cloudy sky in mute confusion, their purpose obvious only to those who worked on them.
On my way to the entrance I stopped to look at them many times, trying to understand their function. I had never been at a steel mill before, but what ascended before my eyes was something that I felt more akin to a massive siege tower ready to trudge towards the ramparts of an enemy city, or a view of Aliens II‘s Colony. A quick look at the map informed me that I was looking at the blast furnaces.
Inside, the vast esplanade before the casthouse had been turned in a covered arena where, under the watchful eye of a smokestack, the preparation for the weekend’s street foot festival were in full swing. I walked, dazed, through the neatly parked food truck, trying to make sense of the fact that a caravan selling vegan crêpes had been placed where iron was molten and turned into steel. Minimal techno bounced around the buildings, mixed by a DJ in the corner near a stall selling cocktails mixed with locally made cola. If only the old workers could see this.
Blast furnace 5, the one to the West, was open and could be climbed to its top. Despite the rain, I joined a maniple of fellow visitors and began the journey.
A blast furnace, as a chalk graffiti that I hastily copied on my notepad told me, is an industrial transposition of Dante’s inferno: a well, 75 meters high, where a mixture of coke, iron ore and limestone is piled in stacks and then hit by air that a complex system of stoves 50 meters tall has warmed to the incandescent temperature of 1200 C. The molten result, pig iron, is ready to flow out of the furnace into the awaiting torpedo car, while slags flow separately towards another, equally sturdy, container. Around it, a myriad of pipes, tubes, valves, portholes, winches, pulleys, walkways run in elaborate coreography, industrial versions of the abstract motifs painted by Muslim artists on the domes of their mosques.
As I ascended the structure, tracing in reverse the journey that the ores made on their way to become pig iron, the sheer scale and complexity of this artefact hit me. The tiny gangways are festooned with pipes, handles, knobs, and control panels. Giant tubes, their diameter way larger than a person’s height, run parallel to the tower, carrying the hot gases to be recycled through a contraction whose name, dust cyclone, conjures images of Martian sandstorms in my awe-struck mind. A long platform, hypotenuse stretched between the ground and the summit of the tower, runs upwards at an impossible angle: the conveyor belt for the ore.
It was easy, as I climbed upwards, to be overcome by superlatives: 37 million tonnes of iron were produced here by thousands of workers on shifts running around the clock. But the tiniest details also tell a story of fragility, of a giant always at risk of succumbing to the same forces it employed, heat and pressure. This is the reason for the presence of the enormous gas pipes but also of the delicate web of water ducts, running in and out of the furnace’s skin, keeping it cool against the tremendous heat inside, capable, if left unchecked, of setting ablaze even to the sturdiest fire bricks.
It was by looking at these details that I started noticing some subtle additions, scribbled or glued to the steel surfaces of the furnace; a series of small, unobtrusive graffiti and stencils, left after the closure of the plant.
Given its dimension, the whole park is open, all day and all night. Despite that there was very little vandalism to be seen, if any at all, and the few street art I can see on the furnace was limited to a few drawings, either made using the intricate geometry of the infrastructure, or by employing some good-spirited humour about the very existence of this place. A group of raccoons, cloths and brooms in hand, were busy cleaning the tower from the fine, red metallic dust; a dachshund is painted on a triptych of rusting fuse boxes; an ATM marked “Iron Bank” has been painted on a funnel big enough for a car to go through, the feedstock inlet, perched atop the tower at 70 meters.
The final ramp of stairs, vertiginous metal mesh steps opening over 75 meters of void, delivered me on the last landing. A gargantuan corkscrew, several meters long, was the largest machine in the cramped space, opening the inlet to let a new batch of materials to precipitate in the red-hot abyss below. I stare, gawking, at the whole tower, at the copper-red pipes, more missiles than ducts, departing nimbly from the massive, sturdy and blackened tower, leaving for the Cowper stoves nearby, more overgrown hairspray bottles than ovens. The whole complex unfolds before my eyes, winds howling through the other two, twin blast furnaces, but it wasn’t that that caught my attention.
To the north, to the west, towers still pierced the cloudy sky, burping fat clouds of smoke; in the distance, through the rain, I could see the same structures, the same furnaces, this time very much active, still busy in their quest to transform mineral into metal, ore into materials for our cars, trains, homes and bridges. Around me a flight of pigeons left the winch house, aiming towards Tower number 3. I looked below, fighting vertigo,mand I saw tiny figures – other visitors – walking through the trees towards my alien spaceship; time to descend, the exploration had just begun.