(Documenting the world’s most compelling and foreboding industrial architecture)
The roar of furnaces. The pounding of drills. Twisted steel sculptures rising high over perpetually-dark, smog-choked cities. Despite everything nature and our own instinct tells us, there’s something hypnotic and almost romantic about great industrial architecture. It’s a statement of power. An expression of man’s dominance over nature, as well as his own self-destructive tendencies.
The following cities are not conventionally beautiful by any stretch of the imagination. Yet each of them has a magnetic allure that’s almost impossible not to get sucked in by. If you prefer steel to seafront, factories to fields, and blast furnaces to balustrades, you might just want to consider taking a whirlwind tour of the following.
Ostrava (Industrial Architecture & Design in the Czech Republic)
On the outer-fringes of the Czech Republic, just before the Polish border, sits the industrial city to end all cities. Ostrava is a Mecca of iron and steel. A vast, crashing conurbation of rusted factories, decommissioned mining sites and looming, long-dead chimneys. Once the industrial heartland of the former Czechoslovakia, Ostrava today trades on its living, breathing industrial atmosphere.
Although the ironworks and mine closed down in 1994, their hulking, decaying skeletons still stand watch over the landscape. Seen from afar, their industrial architecture gives them the look of hostile, alien environments. Up close, they feel like fragments from another world. At least two of Ostrava’s great old industrial sites are open to the public today, with tours, festivals and art exhibitions taking place there. But those who want to feel the full-effect should visit in winter. Surrounded by the silent smokestacks as the cold nips at your skin, it can feel like you’ve slipped backwards in time to the city’s post-war history.
(Image: Andreas Habich)
Seeing Benxi for the first time is like glimpsing some forbidding, nightmare future. A vast, sprawling city in China’s chilly north, Benxi is home to 1.7 million people, all dedicated to one of two things: steel production or coal mining. Huge chimneys spew smoke over shabby, near-uninhabitable apartment blocks. Vast pits thud and crash all year round to the rhythmic pounding of drills. A vast smog cloud hangs perpetually over the inhabitants. It’s a vision of industrial hell so breathtaking it passes through ugly and comes out almost picturesque.
For those who live there, these polluting plants and factories are an economic lifeline, fuelling their workers’ ascent out of poverty. Yet, they’re also a curse. Benxi is one of the most-polluted places in one of the world’s most-polluted countries, with all that entails regarding health and wellness.
Essen is the fourth largest German city in North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany’s most populous state; a green, leafy city popular with corporations looking to locate their headquarters somewhere. But on the very edge of town lies something far more spectacular. The old Zollverein industrial complex is an homage to the possibilities of iron, an example of industrial architecture so grand it was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
It’s easy to see why. The decaying architecture of Zollverein is arguably unmatchable. Sprawling over a huge area, it looks like a cross between a hulking wasteland and a disused set from Blade Runner. Great, rusting conveyor belts loom up beside twisted coking plants and towering shafts. There’s even a Bauhaus-style boiler room that earned the complex the nickname “the most-beautiful coal mine in the world.”
Today, much of the Zollverein complex is open to the public. Old run-off channels are even converted into skating rinks in the winter.
Technically-speaking, Chell is no longer a town. Absorbed into the expanding Stoke-on-Trent in the 20th century, it is today more of a suburb. But Chell is home to something that nowhere else in Stoke can lay claim to: the jaw-dropping Chatterley Whitfield Colliery.
Once, this was one of the largest, most-productive coal mines on the planet. It was the first colliery in the UK to produce one million saleable tons of coal in a single year. Although those days are now long gone, the old complex remains one of the best-preserved in the entire country. Victorian industrial architecture at its most impressive, great chimneys still jostle for space with pit heads, winding towers, and vast storage spaces. The buildings themselves are an eclectic mix of the old and the more modern, like a history book of industrial architecture you can peruse without having to turn a single page.
There is arguably no other city on Earth as associated with industrial production, and the painful decades of decay that followed its winding down. Once known as Motor City, Detroit, Michigan spent much of the 20th century as a boom-town, a place where people flocked from across the United States to find work and get in on the wealth that the years of industrial production brought with them. Unfortunately, they did indeed end, leaving swaths of Detroit a sad wasteland of vacant lots, drug addiction, and shattered dreams.
While Detroit has made something of a comeback in recent years, buoyed by pioneering attempts at conservation and adaptable reuse, the once-great Motor City still bears the rusted scars of its industrial decline. Factories that haven’t functioned for decades still loom on the city limits, surrounded by tumbledown mansions and abandoned suburbs. But even in these wastelands there is still hope. The Russel Industrial Center, for example, recently reopened as a space for businesses and artists, helping to stave off the long-term decline.
Often overlooked for its big brother Amsterdam, Rotterdam is the beating heart at the centre of Dutch life. A dynamic, bustling metropolis, Rotterdam runs the gamut from old and beautiful, to new and shiny, to awe-inspiring and industrial.
For those who like their industrial architecture to come with plenty of steel and a good dose of other-worldliness, the Waalhaven is the city’s centre piece. A vast docklands consisting of endless stacked containers, towering cranes and floodlights sweeping out across the dark and choppy seas, it’s a wonderland of practical design. Further inland, the Spaanse Polder industrial zone is where Bauhaus collides with practicality, the high-point of which is probably the UNESCO listed Van Nellefabriek factory complex. A glass-and-steel haven of rational design and straight white lines, it epitomises industry in the inter-war era; a time when Europe was swapping the grimy factories of old for the light and space of the future.
Birmingham, Alabama (USA)
Occupying a narrow strip of land in the downtown area of Birmingham, Alabama, is one of the most-remarkable industrial sites in the whole of the USA. A massive pig iron blast furnace that operated from 1882 until 1971, it remains the only blast furnace to be preserved and reopened to the public in the whole of America. Designated a National Historic Landmark in 1981, it is now one of the best places for understanding the country’s industrial history.
The buildings themselves are undeniably dramatic. Great, rusted towers stretch up high into the sky, watched over by powerful chimneys. Great wheels still thrum with a hidden power, and mighty pipes crisscross the scarred landscape. This is how swathes of the States used to look, before deindustrialisation took hold. While those days may be long gone, the Sloss Blast Furnace in Birmingham serves as a reminder of those times and the industrial architecture that they spawned. A ghost from the past, frozen forever in amber.
It’s one of the coldest cities in the world. A Siberian dystopia of permanent winter darkness, where temperatures routinely drop to -55C. The line of the Arctic Circle, 250 miles south, is just a distant memory here. This is Russia’s most-polluted city, an industrial zone where chemical spills have previously caused the rivers to run red like blood, and a cloud of Sulphur dioxide permanently hangs in the air overhead. It’s little wonder few people make the trek out here.
Yet those who find beauty in bleakness will discover a multitude of gems here. Norilsk’s citizens lead harsh, difficult lives, eking out an existence in a part of the world man was perhaps never meant to conquer. Their fortitude, combined with the rundown industrial architecture of the buildings littering the town, make this one of the most quietly-impressive places on Earth.
McKittrick, CA (USA)
McKittrick, California is a place so small, it barely even exists. The 2010 census records the population as a mere 115 hardy souls, down from a high of 160 during the year 2000. So why are we including it here? Simple. McKittrick just happens to edge onto one of the largest concentrations of oil fields in the entire world.
Running through the town is the vast Midway-Sunset field, itself the 2nd biggest oil field in the US. Northwest is the Cymric field, the 4th largest. East is the Elk Hills field, west is the McKittrick field, and along Highway 33 is the South Belridge field. Take a drive around McKittrick, and you’ll see nothing but miles of nodding donkey oil wells reaching out as far as the eye can see.
For some, this vast concentration of wells is a vision of hell itself. For others, these strange examples of industrial architecture and design are a thing of haunting beauty. Driving past them in the desert’s eerie silence, it’s hard to find them anything but relentlessly hypnotic.
It looks like a massive alien insect, crawling across the horizon. A mechanical beast, more metal than creature, its body twisted in hideous contortions. Welcome to the Völklingen ironworks, one of the best-preserved examples of 19th century industrial architecture in the whole of Germany.
Opened in 1881, this metal monster once roared day and night, spewing its foul fumes over the nearby town. Worked continuously until 1986, it was closed for less than 10 years before UNESCO declared it a World Heritage Site in 1994. A linchpin of the vast European Route of Industrial Heritage, it is a brooding monster; a place that must be seen to be believed.
Open to the public, Völklingen is today one of the best places on the continent to learn about the history of industrial design and production in the 20th century. But the real reason to go is to experience the power of its immense industrial architecture for yourself. Lost in a maze of rusted pipes and concrete tunnels, it can feel like you’ve entered a whole other epoch.
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