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Ruhr Valley, Postwar Architecture, Big Beautiful Buildings

Big and Beautiful: 
Large Structures of the Postwar Era Rediscovered

The Big Beautiful Buildings project by StadtBauKultur NRW and Dortmund Technical University does not appear particularly diffident: the initiators have had larger-than-life letters of golden foil stuck to selected postwar buildings, either directly onto the façades or near the main entrances, throughout the Ruhr area.

No false modesty here – with this unspoken motto, Big Beautiful Buildings corresponds not only to the spirit of the age in which the structures were built, but also to the project’s own goals. The value of postwar architecture has long been a topic of heated debate among experts, according to Tim Rieniets, managing director of the initiative StadtBauKultur NRW, which is funded by the state of North Rhine Westphalia. Little debate has taken place among the general population, a fact which Rieniets finds singularly bizarre, for the era in which the now-honoured buildings were created was the time of the boom known as the Miracle of the Rhine. This period, which covered the 1960s and 1970s, carries positive connotations in Germans’ collective memory.

On the occasion of European Year of Cultural Heritage 2018, Big Beautiful Buildings will contribute to addressing Germans’ estrangement with their own architectural inheritance. About 400 potential candidate buildings for the honour were selected by the initiative; 200 were finally chosen for publication on the project’s website. Around 60 can already be found there. On behalf of the state-run initiative, photographers have redocumented some of them. These include well-known examples such as the Ruhr-Universität in Bochum, the Grugahalle in Essen and Hans Scharoun’s groundbreaking schoolbuildings in Marl and Lünen. But there are many new structures to discover, like the four unconventional Hill Buildings built by Peter Faller, Roland Frey, Claus Schmidt and Hermann Schröder between the 1960s and the 1980s in Marl, a planned community on the northern edge of the Ruhr.

The visionary power of these buildings is still as exciting as always, and their residents and users appreciate them. It is time that a broader public appreciate them as well. Naturally, there are unsolved problems, as Tim Rieniets reports. The Habiflex apartment complex in Dorsten, which features 40 living units, was once considered an ideal of adaptable living according to the building-block principle. Today, Habiflex stands empty, most of its windows have been bricked in, and the entire complex was recently offered for sale online for one euro. Appreciation, therefore, is not the only thing that postwar modernism requires to survive in the Ruhr Valley. In many cases, millions of euros of restoration funds must be invested as well.
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