We Americans think we’re pretty hip for converting the occasional warehouse or factory into housing, but we can’t hold a candle to Europe’s clever new uses for old industrial relics. Whether ore bunkers or blast furnaces, the Europeans honor these structures as landmarks of a bygone era, rather than blowing them up as we do.

The German city of Duisburg in the Ruhr Valley–the German equivalent to America’s Rust Belt–offers a case in point. Duisburg’s one-time industrial might can be judged from the fact that it was a pivotal target of Allied bombing raids during World War II. Its industrial prominence returned after the war, albeit directed toward more peaceful pursuits. During the last two decades, however, a changing world economy brought Duisburg’s long steelmaking history to a close, leaving a landscape haunted by the abandoned relics of industry.

When Duisburg’s vast Thyssen steel works closed in 1985, the demolition of its towering furnaces and other structures seemed certain. Yet in a development that might puzzle most Americans, there were massive protests to prevent the plant from being destroyed. Accordingly, Duisburg officials and their architects were obliged to seek a more constructive outcome for an integral piece of Ruhr history.

And they found it. For starters, the old Thyssen powerhouse was transformed into an event center, the blower house into a theater, and the ore bunkers into a mountain-climbing garden. The office building was converted into a youth hostel. The casting facility became a concert hall, while the blast furnace, a familiar landmark of the Duisburg skyline, became a museum and observation tower.

Most striking of all, the plant’s gasholder, a gigantic tank some 200 feet in diameter, was filled with water and converted into an underwater world for divers, complete with shipwrecks.

Gasholders like that at the Thyssen works provide another example of European ingenuity in adaptive reuse. These colossal structures, which once served to store municipal gas, are urban monuments in their own right, with the largest of them approaching 40 stories in height. Their looming, X-braced circular frameworks were once a familiar sight in large U.S. cities as well, but during the past two decades, most American examples have been destroyed with little public comment. Perhaps a dozen still remain.

The Germans, on the other hand, seem to have a soft spot for these huge structures. Europe’s largest gasholder, built in the Ruhr city of Oberhausen in 1929, was 220 feet in diameter and stood 360 feet tall. When it was taken offline in 1988, it was not imploded, as would be its normal fate in the U.S. Instead, its vast interior was converted into a truly spectacular exhibition hall.

Nor is this sort of reuse a rarity. In a suburb of Vienna, four enormous red-brick gasholders now contain shops and luxury apartments. Another in Berlin has been preserved as a museum. The municipal gasholders at Zwickau and Leipzig have been converted into a theater and exhibition hall respectively, while one in Bern, Switzerland, is now a concert hall.

Here at home, meanwhile, our own industrial landmarks continue to vanish from the landscape unmourned–remarkable works of architecture and engineering that we just can’t seem to consider worthy of preservation. The Europeans, it seems, know something about history that we don’t.


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