An often talked about piece of land art and an artist who is noted for his intention to not just rework site aesthetics but also remediate the environmental damage done from manufacturing and industrial use.
Halde Rheinelbe in Gelsenkirchen, Germany – Himmelstreppe sits atop a mound of debris from previous resource extraction done nearby. There is a simple use of materials; two styles of concrete are used to form the structure at the top and the stairway that leads to it and a simple metal railing runs alongside. The railing and concrete with larger aggregate beside the stairs seem to be recent additions to the site and, although practical, diminish the dramatic ascent of the stairs to the tone structure slightly.
Himmelstreppe is one piece of Prigann’s ambitious and partially realized Terra Nova project that was created as a vision of how to incorporate an “aesthetic and ecological recycling of derelict landscape areas” with the added benefit of providing jobs for the unemployed and working with nearby universities.¹ It is part of the larger IBA Emscher Park network and also the Industrial Heritage Trail that runs through the Ruhr Valley.
Pictures of the site upon installation show that the barren and stark landscape now surrounding only the utmost mound of slag was once far more expansive. There is now a subtle transition from the surrounding forestland to the low-lying shrubs and grasses that have crept up the sides of the mound. This is a change that has taken decades and, as such, offers a gradation of vegetation reclaiming the former manufacturing site. The slag is so concentrated on the utmost mound that for now, only a handful of plants emerge and it will likely take decades (if ever) for the vegetation to reach the pinnacle structure and reclaim all of the site.
“He showed how it was possible to re-integrate a devastated landscape by putting its former industrial use into the cultural context of a region. It could become a leisure space reintroducing nature while preserving its recent past.”
– Paulo Llull, The New Earthwork: Art, Action, Agency
Children scrambling on the top mound and upon the stone blocks look tentatively at the steep sides of the slope deciding whether to risk the fall from running down or play it safe. Judging from the lack of disturbance in the slag, few have taken the risk over the last few months. Bikers whip up and down the hill. Visitors scramble up the structure and take pictures. Several emptied beer bottles sit tucked to the side and graffiti along the stone show that Prigann’s intention of creating a site so simple that visitors can engage in a number of ways has been successful. In a landscape that is predominantly low-rolling hills, the stroll to the top of the mound offers a unique point of view of the area and that desire to be atop a high point is enough to draw people to the site.
Whether any of the visitors take the time to read the signage at the bottom entrance explaining Himmelstreppe’s role in the re-imagination of industrial sites or the philosophical inspiration for Prigann’s work, the site hits its mark and gracefully carries out the intentions Prigann laid out for it.
¹ Prigann, Herman. “Terra Nova: An Integrated Landscape Art Program.” METU Journal of the Faculty of Architecture 17.1-2 (1997): 43-53. Web.