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Brutal beauty

William Cook takes us on a tour of 2010’s unlikely European Capital of Culture

21 April 2010

12:00 AM

21 April 2010

12:00 AM

William Cook takes us on a tour of 2010’s unlikely European Capital of Culture

‘And the European Capital of Culture in 2010 will be …the Ruhr.’ When I first heard the announcement, it sounded like a particularly unfunny German joke. The Ruhr, after all, is Europe’s biggest rust belt — a vast swathe of mines and factories, many now derelict or redundant, which stretches across north-west Germany like a huge unsightly rash. It’s hard to imagine a less likely cultural capital, and normally I wouldn’t have gone anywhere near it had it not been for a fond memory of one of the nicest afternoons I’ve ever spent.

A few years ago I was in this part of Germany on business and ended up in Essen, one of the biggest cities in the Ruhr. Essen is uninspiring, to say the least — a cross between Coventry and Croydon — but its Folkwang Museum is amazing, with an incredible collection of 19th- and 20th-century art. No wonder the American art historian Paul Sachs (co-founder of New York’s Museum of Modern Art) called it ‘the most beautiful museum in the world’. I spent a wonderful few hours there, and ever since I’d been looking for an excuse to go back. If such an ordinary city could accommodate such an extraordinary gallery, maybe there was more to the Ruhr than meets the eye?

For a lot of Spectator readers, the very idea of Cultural Capitals is probably an anathema, combining the twin bogeymen of EU federalism and state subsidy. However, Professor Oliver Scheytt, Ruhr 2010’s general manager, is confident that this jamboree will generate new money, not just fritter it away. Apparently, previous Cultural Capitals have enjoyed a 20 per cent increase in visitors in the first year, and 10 per cent more thereafter. Still, as it says on adverts for unit trusts, past performance isn’t always a good guide to the future. What will these new sightseers come to see? This is the Ruhrgebiet we’re talking about, not Weimar or Bayreuth.

The incongruous focal point for this year-long festival is the Zeche Zollverein, on the outskirts of Essen — once the world’s biggest colliery, now an improbable Unesco World Heritage Site. Since the mine closed in 1986, it’s been converted into a lively cultural quarter, including a design museum in the old boiler house (redesigned by Sir Norman Foster) and an industrial museum above the old pithead. Think Tate Modern, but on an even bigger scale.

Of course you can make anything look good if you chuck enough money at it (even an old coal mine) but turning industrial relics into arts centres can sometimes make sound economic sense. There used to be over 150 mines in the Ruhr (more than 50 in Essen alone) and the handful that remain cost German taxpayers €100,000 per miner per year. Conversely, the Zeche Zollverein brought in a million paying punters last year, and they expect twice as many this year. This thriving complex also rents office space to high-tech firms that have ousted the old industries. Handled the right way, art can pay its way.

After lunch at the Zeche Zollverein’s busy gourmet restaurant, I headed back into town for a tour of the Folkwang Museum. Since my last visit, this gallery has been transformed, with a brand new extension by one of Germany’s favourite British architects, David Chipperfield. You can see why the Germans are so fond of him. His extension is discreetly modern — providing a bold but unobtrusive adjunct to the existing gallery. ‘Let in more light,’ commanded Goethe on his deathbed. Chipperfield has followed Goethe’s dictum to the letter. Even in midwinter, sunlight streams in through high windows, making this new gallery an uplifting and peaceful space. The Folkwang’s permanent display is well worth a weekend trip, but this year’s highlight is a spectacular reassembly of the original ‘degenerate’ collection, scattered around the world by the Nazis before the second world war.

Essen is probably the best base from which to tour this year’s cultural capital, but there are many more cities in the Ruhr — 52 more, in fact. It’s an enormous urban sprawl, more than 40 miles from north to south and over 70 miles from east to west, and it’s hard to tell where one conurbation ends and another one begins. The engine room of the Third Reich, this was a prime target for Allied bombers and by 1945 the entire area had been reduced to rubble. Most of the rebuilding was perfunctory and the postwar revival added a fresh spate of eyesores. Imagine a Teutonic version of the West Midlands. No one in their right mind would call it pretty. Yet this dark satanic landscape is a great canvas, full of industrial landmarks that make dramatic exhibition spaces. In Dortmund, a brewery has become an art gallery. In Oberhausen, a gasometer has become a science museum.

From Oberhausen I travelled to Duisburg, on the Rhine, to see the Küppersmühle Museum, an old corn mill transformed into a modern art gallery by leading Swiss architects Herzog & De Meuron. This monolithic edifice is an artwork in its own right, and the contents are equally impressive — a wide range of living artists, including modern masters such as Georg Baselitz, Sigmar Polke and Gerhard Richter. The quayside café is a pleasant spot from which to admire the renovated harbour, also revitalised by Sir Norman. Why do Britain’s best architects end up doing so much of their best work abroad?

On my last evening in Essen, I went to the opera to see Verdi’s Nabucco. It was a Saturday night, and the place was packed. The concert hall next door was equally crowded. A hundred years ago, Karl Ernst Osthaus, the founder of the Folkwang Museum, described the Ruhr as ‘art-forsaken’. Today, like Glasgow and Bilbao, it has become an unlikely centre of the arts.

Naturally, these new leisure industries can employ only a fraction of the old workforce. Unemployment is more than 15 per cent and the region’s population is steadily shrinking. Yet as the Ruhr looks for a new raison d’être beyond coal and steel, Professor Scheytt is optimistic that this year’s festivities can change the Ruhr’s gritty public image. I mean to say, whoever thought of going to Glasgow for the weekend before it became European Capital of Culture in 1990? Glaswegians still tell a good joke about the transformation of their hometown, which may yet find its equivalent in the Ruhr. Before its stint as Cultural Capital, they say, the tramps used to ask locals for 10p for a cup of tea. Afterwards, they started asking tourists for a pound for a cappuccino.

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