Another short digression from the environment. The City Museum in St. Louis, Missouri (video here) is one of the most extraordinary places for culture and fun in the world. Occupying a ten-story shoe factory from the early 1900s, it seems to be the result of a mad self-taught tinkerer, the set designers of Blade Runner and Brazil, and the fantasy-art-nouveau architect Antoni Gaudí trying to make an all-ages playground and museum of 20th-century culture at the same time, out of scrap metal and discarded airplanes and factory machines.
It has twisting multi-story slides and climbing cages indoors and out which lead to buses and airplanes and a ferris wheel perched several stories above the ground, tunnels between floors, antique natural history exhibits and carnival game stalls, free-form mosaic-covered art nouveau/science fiction-inspired arches and staircases, collections of parts of historic buildings, a working antique shoelace-making machine, an indoor skate park, the world’s largest pair of underwear, vintage jukeboxes, and a 19th-century log cabin – to name just a few of its many, gloriously incongruous parts.
Restoring degraded, concrete-encased urban streams is essential for healthy ecosystems and resilience to the coming impacts of climate change. In this area, the eastern German city of Leipzig has been busier than most.
The city of Leipzig, once home to Bach, Wagner and Mendelssohn and in 1989 a crucible of sorts for the Peaceful Revolution that led to the reunification of East and West Germany, has made itself a world leader in urban stream restoration over the last two decades, very much under the radar. Since the late 1990s the city has been reviving streams and canals that have been buried in underground pipes and paved over for the last 50 years, or simply silted up with mud, both in the city center and surrounding countryside. The formerly sooty, crumbling city core is now crisscrossed by tidy canals that, despite their intensely un-natural urban context and industrial history, are intended to provide at least some of the functions of natural streams.
Outside the city, no less than 26 lakes created by the closure of all but one of the area’s open-pit coal mines are being natur-ized (it’s not restoration per se because they were never natural lakes) and connected by natural and artificial waterways and locks to create a region-wide network entirely passable by small recreational boats and, it is hoped, fish.
Previously I wrote about Germany’s abundant and well-funded industrial heritage sites where disused rust-belt facilities are repurposed into multi-use parks with landscaping, nature, culture and recreation coexisting among the dramatic metal and concrete relics. Here I will cover more of the remarkable architecture both new and old.
In many sites striking new pedestrian / bike bridges connect public spaces that are separated by roads, rivers and other obstacles. They help make up for the country’s otherwise abysmal modern architecture which stands in sad and ugly contrast to the rich variety of fresh and exciting buildings in pretty much every other western European country.
The first one is a unique type of drawbridge in Duisburg that stretches up to lets boats pass, without opening as such, like one of those stretchy watchbands made of metal links, or a cat’s back, which has earned it the nickname “cat’s-hump”.
Lately I have been discovering Germany’s many extraordinary Industriekultur and Industrienatur sites, which are decommissioned rust-belt industrial facilities repurposed into hybrids of historical monument, recreation park and nature reserve. The sites are cleaned up, the enormous concrete and rusting metal structures largely left in place, the buildings – including numerous architectural landmarks – restored, and the grounds are partly landscaped with ultramodern design and partly allowed to be re-greened by nature running its course.
The buildings are renovated into diverse combinations of arts venues, recreational facilities or opened for tours. But the most striking features are outdoors where the industrial and the natural are interwoven.
I cannot get over how much of this stuff there is and how well-funded it is. There are hundreds of these sites throughout Germany; the greatest concentration is the Ruhr region, Germany’s rust belt. They are linked by bike paths and region-wide sequences of green spaces as well as extensive networks of regional culture agencies providing a vast assortment of Industrieroute planners, maps and guides.
One site that has gotten attention in the US is Landscape Park Duisburg-North, which the New York Times calls “the quintessential park of the 21st century”, its “nightmarish hulks… almost mythic in their lurid grandeur”.