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Culture

Eye on Architecture

The World Congress of Architecture, which kicks off in Berlin on Monday, is focusing on issues of preservation and change in eastern Germany.

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Mines throughout much of the former East Germany have been closed in the past decade. In Saxony, one innovative project turned a coal pit into a theme park.

In 1991, all that was left of the coal pit Golpa-Nord was a huge, dusty void near Dessau. Here, in the former east German state of Saxony, excavators had dug through the area’s soil for more than 30 years.

After the fall of the wall and the following closure of the pit, the machines were brought to an abrupt standstill. They stood immobile, colossal statues in a barren landscape, for up to 4 years.

Today, these excavators are the main attraction of the theme park Ferropolis, located at the former coal pit. It is becoming increasingly popular – since 1998, there have been more than 200,000 visitors.

Revaluation of faceless suburbs

Dealing with industrial wasteland is one of the main themes at this week’s World Congress of Architecture in Berlin, which begins on Monday.

Architects from around the world will debate on "Resource Architecture" – architecture as a resource of the future. Issues include the modernisation of old buildings, the use of innovative building technologies to save natural resources, the transformation and the continuous develoment of city and society and the revaluation of faceless suburbs.

Many Berlin museums and galleries are staging events in conjunction with the conference, which is being staged in Germany for the first time.

Eastern Germany is another focus of the conference. Panel discussions about architecture in eastern Germany are planned. And this weekend, foreign architects in Germany for the conference are invited to Leipzig for to discuss the transfromation and problems of a traditional commercial region in eastern Germany.

Improving the quality of life with architecture

After World War II and the subsequent division of Germany, the Leipzig region, Saxony, became one of the major industrial and commercial centres in the east. But it also expanded its industrial capacity ruthlessly, plundering natural resources and demaging the surrounding environment.

Since reunification, the region has had to battle with the legacy of this industrial expansion.

Various extensive restructuring programmes have been launched in an attempt to revitalise both towns and the countryside. However, Germany’s eastern states, including Saxony, are still suffering under its historical legacy of both division and reunification.

In addition, a shrinking economy, rising unemployment, and an exodus of 1 million residents looking for better job opportunities and higher wages in the west since reunification, has led to a 13 percent level of both urban, and rural vacancy in eastern Germany, including a large number of old buildings under monument protection.

Despite programmes such as "Rebuilding East", a 2 billion euro ($2.02 billion) federal aid package aimed to revitalize former East German cities, getting public funding is no easy task, especially in more rural locations.

EU aid

Andreas Rochholl of the German Architects’ Association said EU aid has played a key role in helping some communities to rescue architecture of social, economical and artistic importance.

Some 1.3 million euros ($1.31 million) of EU funding helped finance the Ferropolis theme park, for example, which cost 2.6 million euros ($2.63 million) to build.

"Ferropolis is not just a good example for both the creative and economic dealing with industrial monuments in eastern Germany", says Rochholl. "It shows how quality architecture can improve the quality of living".

Closely linked to Europe

Rochholl is curator of the exhibition "Europe Supports Architecture – Selected Projects of the EU Regional Funds in Eastern Germany", showing on the occaision of the Congress in Berlin. According to Rochholl, the exhibition is a chance to show "just how closely linked Europe is to east German architecture".

"The aid from the EU, however, is not just about money", Rochholl says. "It only flows if the projects promise jobs, environmental improvements, and innovation".

The Media City in Leipzig is one example. A hundred years ago this building used to be a slaughterhouse. Today, the complex combines the flair of historic walls with large loft-like offices, the perfect place for media companies. At Media City, part of the EU funds subsidize the rents, which are therefore held relatively low – this way, Rochholl says, "numerous start-ups could open their own offices".

Pyschological boost

However, while Leipzig’s citizens may welcome this boost to a former dilapidated factory building, some may resent the turning of a former coal pit – once the lifeline of the region – into a theme park.

"There are those who may have worked at such a coal pit all there lives, and only wish for it to be destructed after its closure." But dealing with industrial monuments is a question of the future", Rochholl says, "quality architecture can boost its surroundings – both economically and pyschologically."

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