Culture has transformed a once blighted region of Germany.

Germany’s ‘Ruhrgebiet’ (Ruhr Area, named after the river which runs through it) is one of many cities and regions around Europe which has reinvented itself through culture. The region comprises over 50 cities and over five million inhabitants, making it the third largest conurbation in the EU after London and Paris. The main cities, such as Essen, Duisburg and Bochum, are as little as 15 minutes apart and some 20 art museums collectively hold one of the largest modern art collections in the world. In the past the Ruhr region was the economic powerhouse of Germany, when its coal and steel industries thrived.

The late artist Christo converted the Oberhausen gasometer into one of Europe’s more unusual exhibition spaces.

Since those days, and after a period of stagnation, the area has recovered socially, environmentally and culturally. Railway lines for transporting goods are now cycle paths, polluted streams and rivers are now renaturalised and wastelends are now urban parks and industrial buildings have been reborn as exhibition spaces and cultural centres.

Essen

At the centre of the metropolitan Ruhr area is Essen, Germany’s tenth largest city with around 600,000 inhabitants.

Germany’s first museum of contemporary art and the first in Germany to acquire works by artists such as Van Gogh, Cezanne and Gauguin, Museum Folkwang (a name for the afterlife meadow of the dead in Norse mythology) holds the region’s largest collection of modern art, including 19th century German and French painting and sculpture, examples of various 20th century movements, art after 1945, graphic art and photography. It was one of the first museums to collect photography as art and has a lower floor section dedicated to it. Another first: free admission to the permanent collection.

Museum Folkwang

The museum was founded in 1902 by Karl Ernst Osthaus, who coined the slogan “Change through culture – culture through change”, which was adopted by the region for its stint as the 2010 European Capital of Culture, the first time the award had been given to a whole region. The museum now occupies a spectacular, light-filled building with an extension by architect Sir David Chipperfield, its exterior walls of recycled glass gleaming on even overcast days.

Museum Folkwang

Unusually, works from different periods and in different media are shown together to create interesting juxtapositions. Rooms are rearranged every four months and include works by (deep breath) Picasso, Beckman, Ernst, Daumier, Ensor, Flavin, Magritte, Dix, Rodin, Nolde, Kirchner, Marc, Renoir, Delacroix, Chagall, Monet, Cezanne, Rothko, Richter, Liebermann and many more. There is also a regular programme of special exhibitions.

Museum Folkwang

The most famous industrial monument in the Ruhr area and a symbol of the region is the huge pithead tower of the Zollverein. Dubbed “the world’s most beautiful coal mine”, it was the largest ever built in Europe, covering an area of about 200 football fields. Forced into closure in the 1980s by the influx of cheap coal from Asia, it has been redeveloped into an arts, culture and heritage centre. The Zollverein’s Bauhaus-inspired architects aspired to have industrial buildings regarded as “city monuments” and it is the only industrial site to receive UNESCO World Heritage Site status.

Zollverein

The highest outdoor moving staircase in Germany (58 metres) leads up to the visitor centre in the main building, where the Ruhr Museum has a permanent exhibition showcasing the natural, cultural and industrial history of the region from prehistory to post-WWII.

The Ruhr Museum has the highest outdoor moving staircase in Germany.

Elsewhere on the site, the Red Dot Museum, redesigned by architect Lord Norman Foster, has the world’s largest exhibition of contemporary design. Over 4,000 square metres of floor space provide a showcase for around 1,500 products from across the globe – all of them winners of the prestigious red dot designation for product design.

Red Dot Museum

The complex also includes the cube-shaped SANAA Building, an architectural gem used for exhibitions of photography, communication design and industrial design by students of the Folkwang University of the Arts.

SANAA Building

Occupied between 1873 and 1945, the Krupp mansion Villa Hügel is still the largest single family home in Germany, according to the land registry, despite its 269 rooms. In truth, no more than a single family ever lived there – two parents and their seven children at its fullest.

Villa Hügel, Photo: Peter Gwiazda, Krupp Stiftung

Inspired by castles the firm’s founder Alfred Krupp’s saw during visits to England, it stands to the south of Essen on an elevation above Lake Baldeney (‘hügel’ is German for hill) surrounded by extensive parkland.

The Krupp family shaped the history of Essen for over a century. Their factories were the largest employers in the region and no company symbolised more the region’s industrial might. The last owner died in 1967 and now the Krupp Foundation supports a range of cultural causes, including contributing €55 million for the Museum Folkwang extension. Visitors can visit some of the sumptuous, art treasure-filled rooms.

The vast entrance hall at Villa Hügel (above) and the Concert Room (below, Photo: Peter Wieler)

Duisburg

Named after the Duisburg-born sculptor William Lehmbruck (1881-1919), the Lehmbruck Museum is a centre for international, modernist sculpture. As well as Lehmbruck’s works, there are pieces by Giacometti, Barbara Hepworth, Calder, Picasso, Ernst, Rodin and many others. Set in a park dotted with sculptures, the museum has large, light-filled galleries with open views from floor to floor.

Lehmbruck Museum

Comprising over 50 gallery spaces, the Museum DKM caters to both contemporary and traditional tastes, including ancient Asian and Egyptian art, statues, busts, vintage and contemporary photography and sound installation. The labyrinthine, multi-level complex of three buildings has five themed display areas. Picture windows look out onto sculptural pieces in the surrounding courtyard.

Salt-glazed ceramic work by Marcel Wolfers Nox at Museum DKM

The Museum Küppersmühle für Moderne Kunst (MKM) is housed in a huge, red brick building previously used as a corn mill and storage silo to load boats moored at the adjacent dock in the world’s biggest inland harbour. It stands at the centre of an enormous regeneration programme based on a master plan by Lord Norman Foster and including flats, offices, restaurants and shops.

MKM is housed in a former corn mill

Entered by a remarkable, terra cotta-coloured staircase, the MKM has one of the most extensive collections of post-WWII German art, including works by Joseph Beuys, Anselm Kiefer and Gerhard Richter, There are also several exhibitions a year of international art. As befitting the size of the building (it has six metre-high ceilings), the artworks too are large scale.

Bochum

The Kunstmuseum Bochum (‘Kunst’ is German for art) presents a series of changing exhibitions from its collection of primarily European art from around 1900 onwards. Highlights include Czech Symbolism and Cubism, an extensive collection of works on paper by Lovis Corinth, samples by all the important German expressionists, an extensive Surrealism collection, including works by members of the COBRA group, Eastern European art from the 1960s onwards and individual works by Francis Bacon, Frank Stella, Cy Twombly, Nam June Paik and others.


Kunstmuseum Bochum

Situation Kunst, an ensemble of buildings on the outskirts of Bochum, houses international contemporary art and ancient African and Asian art belonging to the collection of Bochum University. A modern addition, the ‘Kubus’ (Cube), rises from the ruins of the Weitmar House, destroyed in WWII, and hosts changing exhibitions. The surrounding parkland is dotted with sculpture and outdoor art.

The ‘Kubus’ (Cube) at Situation Kunst