View Full Version : Archived: Zollverein Central Cokery, Essen-Katernberg, Germany – Oct ‘09

08-11-2009, 12:30 AM
Zollverein sits in an old industrial landscape – part of the Ruhr’s rust belt known as the “Emscherzone”. Its 250 years' worth of activity is comparable to the Upper Clyde Valley: layer upon layer of industry has been superimposed, with the new often wiping out the old. The Zentralkokerei Zollverein was another "must see" for me because, like Zeche Hugo, it was designed by Schupp and Kremmer.



Coal mining began at the Zollverein pit in 1851. Four separate mines were worked by the Zollverein company until the Phoenix AG coal corporation took over, and decided to rationalise the mine and build a new shaft in 1928. They chose the architects Fritz Schupp and Martin Kremmer, then young men around 30 years old, to translate "Fordist" principles of continuous production into coal mining. However ... coal doesn't come up the shaft continuously, especially in an area like the Ruhr coalfield which has difficult geology. So the mining engineers created an elaborate system of conveyor belts and bunkers, and two symmetrical sets of machinery, so that any breaks in underground production wouldn't affect the continuous stream of coal reaching the surface. The shaft, the pit head and all connected buildings of Zollverein 12 were completed in 1932 – and with a mining output of 12,000 tons of usable coal per day, it was the most productive mine in the world. But what to do with all that coal?



In 1962, a huge coking plant was opened next to pit head 12 to convert the coal raised from Zollverein colliery's no.12 shaft into coke. The central cokery complex was built between 1957 and 1961, replacing an earlier, smaller plant built in 1932 (also by Schupp & Kremmer). Its end product was coke for the blast furnaces of nearby iron and steel works: the batteries of coke ovens inside the building removed the water, coal-gas and coal-tar from the coal, leaving it as (almost) pure carbon. In that form, the coke was actually both fuel and reducing agent when it was loaded into Essen's blast furnaces. In 1961, the cokery had 192 batteries of Krupp-Koppers type coke ovens, and produced 5000 tons of coke each day. The coke gas was de-sulphurised and piped across the internal road to the company’s gasholders and various chemical by-products, especially crude coking tar, benzyl, sulphuric acid and ammonium sulphate were produced in the extensive chemical section which also still stands, with weeds growing through it.



In the mid-1960’s, the coking plant was extended to 304 batteries and the process was largely automated. The coking plant could now produce 8500 tons of coke daily, and was the largest and most modern in Europe – interestingly I spotted some "Vickers" control gear, which proves that Germany didn't have a monopoly on industrial process control kit. In reality, Schupp and Kremmer's role here at Zollverein was closer to master-planning than architecture, because the cokery design was dictated by the specialists who designed the coke oven batteries, conveyors and so forth. The coking plant then worked away happily and efficiently for the next thirty years, feeding much of the Ruhr’s coke requirement.



Gradually run down as the coal began to run out, The Zollverein cokery shut in June 1993 when German steel production was also cut back sharply. The owners, Ruhrkohle AG, tried to sell it as a job lot to the Chinese, but the deal fell through – so it sat derelict for a period as its fate was debated. It was saved in 2001 by the industrial heritage trust who now run the whole Zollverein complex, and shortly afterwards it was declared a world heritage site. Swathes of it are still derelict, but most of the adjacent colliery has been converted into a museum, visitor centre and conference venue – probably the most skilful and thorough industrial preservation in Europe, which pisses all over Britain's attempts at sites like Magna in Rotherham or Summerlee in Coatbridge. However, it seems that the Zentralkokerei is just too big and dirty to open – it’s been sealed off, which presents a great opportunity for the curious to investigate it. In fairness, the rest of Zollverein, and other related museums like Duisburg Nord and Zollern, are run with a lightness of touch that means you can crawl and climb over many parts of them in a way that isn't possible in British museums.



The passage of time hasn't detracted from the Zentralkokerei’s dramatic appearance, with no effort made here to moderate or mediate the buildings: the steel gratings rust and splinter, gaping holes appear in gangways, render flakes from the brickwork. Once inside, it's the same dry black stoor as at Hugo and a half dozen other mothballed or abandoned pits I've visited – grains of carbon, the stuff at the heart of dying stars and the fuel of Europe's old economy. With some climbing, you can disappear into the guts of the Zollverein cokery and lose yourself in the 450m long main building, crawling between the coke batteries. The atmosphere is still acrid, granules of coke crunch underfoot, and oily water seeps from the founds. On one side are the two coaling towers, with conveyors zig-zagging down to the heads of the coke ovens, which are charged through hoppers. On the other side are rail tracks along which coke cars travelled, collecting the end product as it was discharged from the batteries after it had been quenched.



As we left Zollverein, the sun was setting and a well-dressed woman approached us, asking whether we knew about that night's concert recital at Zollverien. Enschuldegung, mein damen ... we're only tourists here ourselves.

Visited with Cuban.