Magazine article The Spectator

Brutal Beauty

Magazine article The Spectator

Brutal Beauty

Article excerpt

William Cook takes us on a tour of 2010's unlikely European Capital of Culture

'And the European Capital of Culture in 2010 will be . . . the Ruhr.' When I first heard the announcement, it sounded like a particularly unfunny German joke. The Ruhr, after all, is Europe's biggest rust belt - a vast swathe of mines and factories, many now derelict or redundant, which stretches across northwest Germany like a huge unsightly rash.

It's hard to imagine a less likely cultural capital, and normally I wouldn't have gone anywhere near it had it not been for a fond memory of one of the nicest afternoons I've ever spent.

A few years ago I was in this part of Germany on business and ended up in Essen, one of the biggest cities in the Ruhr.

Essen is uninspiring, to say the least - a cross between Coventry and Croydon - but its Folkwang Museum is amazing, with an incredible collection of 19th- and 20thcentury art. No wonder the American art historian Paul Sachs (co-founder of New York's Museum of Modern Art) called it 'the most beautiful museum in the world'.

I spent a wonderful few hours there, and ever since I'd been looking for an excuse to go back. If such an ordinary city could accommodate such an extraordinary gallery, maybe there was more to the Ruhr than meets the eye?

For a lot of Spectator readers, the very idea of Cultural Capitals is probably an anathema, combining the twin bogeymen of EU federalism and state subsidy.

However, Professor Oliver Scheytt, Ruhr 2010's general manager, is confident that this jamboree will generate new money, not just fritter it away. Apparently, previous Cultural Capitals have enjoyed a 20 per cent increase in visitors in the first year, and 10 per cent more thereafter. Still, as it says on adverts for unit trusts, past performance isn't always a good guide to the future. What will these new sightseers come to see? This is the Ruhrgebiet we're talking about, not Weimar or Bayreuth.

The incongruous focal point for this yearlong festival is the Zeche Zollverein, on the outskirts of Essen - once the world's biggest colliery, now an improbable Unesco World Heritage Site. Since the mine closed in 1986, it's been converted into a lively cultural quarter, including a design museum in the old boiler house (redesigned by Sir Norman Foster) and an industrial museum above the old pithead. Think Tate Modern, but on an even bigger scale.

Of course you can make anything look good if you chuck enough money at it (even an old coal mine) but turning industrial relics into arts centres can sometimes make sound economic sense. There used to be over 150 mines in the Ruhr (more than 50 in Essen alone) and the handful that remain cost German taxpayers ?100,000 per miner per year. Conversely, the Zeche Zollverein brought in a million paying punters last year, and they expect twice as many this year. This thriving complex also rents office space to high-tech firms that have ousted the old industries. Handled the right way, art can pay its way.

After lunch at the Zeche Zollverein's busy gourmet restaurant, I headed back into town for a tour of the Folkwang Museum. Since my last visit, this gallery has been transformed, with a brand new extension by one of Germany's favourite British architects, David Chipperfield. …

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