Today Zollverein is a UNESCO World Heritage site, “The Heritage of Mankind.” What used to be a busy coal mining plant is now home to a variety of events and activities. Guided tours of the coal plant can be taken (most in German although there is an English tour available – we missed the one for the day we were there). Or you can walk around the site for yourself.
The Ruhr Museum is located at Shaft VII along with visitors center, a café and bookshop. The plant is so big that they even will rent you a bicycle.
In other buildings the transformation of this site is amazing. It is a testament to what people can create from the remains of something else. It would be easy to simply tear all this down and start new, but part of the UNESCO site has been converted to venues for concerts, exhibits, a design museum, workshops, galleries, a swimming pool and an ice rink. On our walk around the plant we noticed a Ferris wheel and couldn’t figure out how that related to coal mining. Later we asked and learned that it is now for tourists; during the summer they can ride it and get a bird’s eye view of the plant.
We parked in the free parking lot at Shaft 1/2/8, which was farther from a lot of the main facilities, but it is easy enough to walk around and there are plenty of paved sidewalks on the planned Ring Promenade circular walk connecting all three locations. Near Shaft VII is a visitor information center, which I recommend starting at so you can pick up a map of the facility that explains what you are seeing.
Zollverein is quite a place – it was hugely important as a coal mine and today continues to provide an important venue to relive history and to explore modern culture.
Back in 1847 Zollverein was begun. It started with the first mine shaft and became the first underground coal mine in this part of Germany. That one shaft eventually grew to become one of the largest coal mine operations in the Ruhr region. In the 1920s Zollverein joins with Vereinigte Stahlwerke AG, the second largest steel group in the world and by the early 1930s, Zollverein is the largest coal mining operation in the world producing more than 12,000 net tons of pure hard coal each day. Eventually the coking plant comes online in the 1960s and is expanded in the 1970s.
Zollverein provided jobs for more than 5,300 people at the turn of the century. These workers lived nearby and many died young due to the dangers of a job in mining. The plant covered more than 100 hectares in the primarily industrial area of the Ruhr.
In 1986 the mine was closed down and placed under an order to preserve the site for posterity. The buildings, the coking plant, the rows of coal cars can all still be seen by visitors walking around the plant.
Zollverein is like a ghost town, a throwback to what like used to be like. As we wandered around the area, virtually deserted on that very rainy Sunday morning, we could only imagine what it must’ve been like a century ago when it was bustling with workers.
Essen's modern opera house is not only a top class theatre but also a masterpiece of architecture. The history of its design and construction begins in 1959 when the city of Essen ran a contest which was won by one of the best European architects of the 20th century, the Fin Alvar Aalto. The following decade was spent discussing, changing, redesigning and adapting the plans, but then the city council decided to give another project priority, namely the construction of the new city hall. (Now to be honest, which of the two would you consider the worthier piece of architecture?) Anyway, there was money for but one. Only after the city hall was finished, in 1979 the city council finally decided to build the theatre. Aalto had in the meantime died. Another architect took over but Aalto's wife had a say in the final planning. In 1983 construction works started, five years later the building was finished. In September 1988 the first performance took place.
Aalto's architecture is to resemble Finnish landscapes. The curved surfaces of the facade remind me of a coastline with rocks that have been eroded to smooth, rounded shapes by wind and waves. The opera house was built in a corner of the park (Stadtgarten), hence it has open space around, trees and lawns.
What does the architecture of the interior look like? See my "Visit a Performance" tip
The colourful, life-size statue of Franz Kardinal Hengsbach is a recent addition to the front yard of the cathedral. I spotted it in December 2012, during my visit in 2010 it had not yet been there.
Franz Hengsbach became the first bishop of the newly founded diocese of Essen in 1958. He stayed in office until 1991. In 1988 Pope John Paul II appointed him cardinal. During his long term in office he had great influence on the church in the Ruhr district. He died in 1991, a few months after his retirement at the age of 80. Not everyone was happy about everything he did, but Hengsbach earned himself lots of respect and trust due to his down-to-earth style, his deep connection with the Ruhrgebiet (his bishop's ring had no precious stone but a but of coal) and his interference in emergencies, like delivering the ransom to rescue Theo Albrecht, one of the Aldi brothers, from kidnappers.
I am not sure how to explain the symbols of wolf and lamb by his feet.
After the coal had been brought up out of the mines it was transported around the plant by these giant conveyor belts.
Five huge "washing" machines with swiftly moving water separated the lighter coal from the heavier pieces of rock, but a lot of the sorting work still had to be done by hand. This was usually done by 14 to 17 year old boys, since by law they were too young to be sent down into the mines.
Second photo: These long sorting machines separated the coal from any remaining pieces of rock, and sorted the chunks of coal into different sizes
Third photo: Machinery in the Zollverein.
Fourth photo: One of the workshops in the coal plant. Some of the tools are really large.
In the year 1934 the Zollverein had 10,400 of these coal tubs, which were in constant motion from the mines to the shaft to the processing plant and back again. To meet the goal of bringing up 12,000 tons of coal per day, each tub had to make at least one and a half round trips every day.
Down in the mines there was always a shortage of empty tubs, which was a catastrophe for the miners because they were paid by the tub-load, not the hour. A token identifying the exact point of loading was attached to each tub be means of a thin wire. These tokens were collected up in the plant by the payroll department, so they could figure out exactly how much coal had been produced by each of the 110 loading points down in the mines, and pay the men accordingly at the end of the week.
Second photo: Within the plant the coal tubs were pulled around by cables in the floor.
Third photo: A coal tub on its tracks.
Fourth photo: A tub full of coal.
Fifth photo: A text panel in German and English explaining the route of the coal tubs.
After nearly 55 years of continuous operation, coal production at the Zollverein Shaft XII ceased on December 23, 1986. Even before this, plans were being made to preserve the entire facility and to find new uses for some of the buildings.
Not only can you take a fascinating tour of the plant, there are also concerts, lectures, readings, panel discussions and special exhibitions nearly every day of the year. The photo shows part of a modern art exhibition in hall 5, with works by the painter Herbert Bardenheuer and the sculptor Oveis Saheb Djawaher.
On December 14, 2001, the Zollverein shaft XII along with the nearby coking plant and one of the older mine shafts was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Unlike most German pre-war industrial plants, this facility is extremely well preserved. Despite its strategic importance it did not take a single direct hit by bombings during the entire Second World War. This remarkable restraint on the part of the Allied air forces no doubt has to do with the fact that the construction of the facility in the 1920s was largely financed by American capital, so it was in a sense American property, even though operations were entirely controlled by the Germans.
Second photo: Part of our tour group at the art exhibit in Hall 5.
Third photo: On my way back to Essen on my bicycle after seeing an opera in the nearby city of Gelsenkirchen, I stopped to take this photo of the Zollverein Shaft XII at night.
Designed and built in the 1920s, this shaft and processing plant went into operation on February 1, 1932. At that time it was considered the largest, most efficient, most modern and also most beautiful coal mining facility in Europe.
The Zollverein was founded in 1847 by an industrialist named Franz Haniel (1799-1868). He gave his mine the name Zollverein in honor of the German Customs Union of 1844, which made it possible to do business in Germany without having to pay tolls every few miles at the borders of the many tiny German states.
By 1920 the Zollverein had four shafts producing 8000 tons of coal per day, but at that point they decided there was no way to modernize those old shafts and increase the daily output, so the solution was to build a new shaft for the sole purpose of bringing up 12000 tons per day in a huge multi-storey elevator.
Surrounding the new shaft they built a processing plant which by the standards of the times (recall that they had nothing resembling the computer technology we have today!) was highly automated. They were so obsessed with automation that the buildings originally didn't have any toilets, but they quickly had to add some when they realized that they still needed hundreds of workers to run the new machines, although not as many as before.
The managers proudly announced that they had eliminated 500 jobs, which then as now was a dubious achievement, since unemployment was one of the many factors that enabled the Nazis to seize power in 1933.
Second photo: Looking up at the elevator tower.
Third photo: Beneath the plants there were railroad tracks so that after the coal had been sorted and processed it could be dumped directly into coal cars and transported to the end users, like the nearby steel mills.
Fourth photo: Under one of the old conveyor belts that moved coal all around the plant they have recently built a pair of escalators to bring people up to the new visitors' center on the second floor. (Third floor to you.)
The Grillo Theater in downtown Essen is now the city's main venue for spoken drama, but for many years it served as the opera house while city officials were agonizing over whether to build Aalto's version.
This theater was built from 1890 to 1892 with money bequeathed by a wealthy industrialist named Friedrich Grillo (1825-1888). It was in fact the first City Theater to be built in the Ruhr Valley area. (All the cities in this area are relatively new, since this was all sparsely settled farmland until the first railroads were built and coal mining started here in earnest around the middle of the nineteenth century.)
The Grillo Theater was destroyed by bombings in 1944 and was rebuilt in a simplified form after the war. In 1950 it was reopened under the name "Opera House", which is what it remained until the opening of the Aalto-Theater in 1988.
Second photo: This sign on the Grillo-Theater is entitled "Opera House".
Right next to the Aalto-Theater there is a state-of-the-art concert hall called the Philharmonie, which is the home of the Essen Philharmonic Orchestra and also a venue for numerous visiting orchestras, chamber music ensembles and choirs.
The current building is the third concert hall on this site. The first one was a wooden building that was built in 1864, at a time when the coal mines were quite new and were starting to bring prosperity to the new city of Essen, or at least to a small upper class of wealthy mine-owners and industrialists. A second, more substantial concert hall was built on the same site in 1904, but was destroyed by bombing during the Second World War.
The current concert hall was inaugurated in 1950, and still looks the same now as it did then, but only from the outside. Since 2002 they have been completely rebuilding the inside to bring it up to 21st century standards, not only for concerts, but also for conventions and conferences.
Second photo: The Philharmonie as seen from the terrace of the nearby Aalto-Theater.
I keep reminding myself that Aalto designed these abstract wall sculptures in 1958, along with the rest of the building. I don't know if he had anything particular in mind, perhaps having curved forms that reach up towards the sky, or perhaps organ pipes.
To me, though, they look like those famous photos of the remaining girders that were left over after the World Trade Center in New York was destroyed on 9/11. But since Aalto died in 1976 he couldn't have known what would happen a quarter century later in 2001.
Second photo: The wall sculptures as seen from the third balcony.
Third photo: The three balconies of the Aalto-Theater.
The Aalto-Theater is a quite busy opera house. In a typical week they might have up to five performances of three different operas, so whenever you go to Essen you have a good chance of seeing an opera or two.
And if that isn't enough, the adjoining city of Gelsenkirchen also has a full-scale opera house that is a mere nine kilometers away as the crow flies -- and still only fifteen kilometers if you follow the tram tracks on your bicycle like I did.
Second photo: Musicians tuning up before the performance of Rossini's Italian Girl in Algiers at the Aalto-Theater.
In 1958 the city of Essen conducted an architects' competition to design a modern new opera house. The winner was the Finnish architect Alvar Aalto (1898-1976).
Of course just winning a competition is no guarantee that your design will actually be built. The German cities of Leipzig and Kassel both held architects' competitions for new opera houses in the 1950s, and neither of them actually managed to build the winning design.
For a long time it looked as though Aalto's design for Essen was going to have the same fate, but then in the 1980s they started getting their act together and began building Aalto's opera house under the artistic direction of his widow Elissa Aalto. In 1988, a mere thirty years after the original competition, the building was inaugurated with a performance of Wagner's opera Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg.
Additional photos: People in the lobby of the Aalto-Theater.
In the early 1890's, an industrialist named Friedrich Grillo donated a theater to the city of Essen which bears his name. In World War II, the theater was destroyed by Allied bombing. After the war, it was rebuilt in a simplified form.
Today, the Grillo Theater is the primary playhouse in Essen. With this tip, I have included the link to a website (in German) which provides information about current and upcoming peformances.
Essener Straße 11
Tel. +49 (0)201 – 860 59 40
Fax +49 (0)201 – 860 59 44
Mon.-Wed. 9.00-16.00 Uhr
Thu. 9.00-18.00 Uhr
Fri. 9.00-14.00 Uhr