Rounding up this month’s After Dark issue, as Building of the Week we’ve chosen the “Citytower” in Bergkamen, Germany – or rather the ex-Citytower, as it was demolished last year. But as you'll see from its story and the accompanying images, the impressive “farewell performance” for this former landmark, created by osa (office for subversive architecture) and Christoph Rodatz in 2013, seemed a fitting carne vale for our current issue.
Bergkamen, a new town in the east of Germany’s Ruhrgebiet, was only founded in 1966, but grew rapidly to become Europe’s largest coal mining town. Yet its fortunes were short-lived. Today, with most of its mines having closed, Bergkamen is one of those Ruhr area cities facing severe challenges in finding a new identity – and economy – after coal. Basically it needs a new raison d‘être. A perfect symbol of its story is the Citytower.
When Bergkamen grew out of five rural villages, a new civic centre was laid out between them, linking the former villages. This encompassed a new city hall, shopping facilites, a central bus station and, of course, the mandatory multi-storey car park. Remember, it was still the age of the autogerechte Stadt – the “automotive city” built around the car. As a landmark for this new development, the Citytower was built in 1974: a contemporary apartment tower, with all mod cons, its 63-metre metal façade looming high over the region like a lookout, offering spectacular panoramic views to its new residents. Not surprisingly, people queued up to get on the list for one of the 150 spanking new apartments.
But when the mines started closing and many people began to leave the city, the Citytower – much like post-war modern architecture as such – lost its glory. In part this was due to poor maintainance, and residents reported that living conditions in the tower had become progressively worse and worse. Thus gradually the tower began emptying out, and its last residents left in November 2000. After that the tower remained empty for 14 years, with the city simply not knowing what to do with it. Finally in 2013, it was sold to a developer commissioned by the city to enlarge the shopping centre, and as a result the tower was scheduled for demolition in 2014.
Before the tower’s end, however, the international art and architecture collective osa – office for subversive architecture – in cooperation with German artist Christoph Rodatz, organised a spectacular event to mark its demise, as part of the light-art festival Urban Lights Ruhr in 2013: a “farewell performance with light and sound”, as they put it. In a piece that they called Discharge/Recharge, they painted the tower a matte black, transforming the metallic icon into a huge shrouded sculpture above the city “expressing the total absorption of light to symbolise the obliteration of [the tower’s] life”. At night the black tower came alive, turning into a huge screen for an elaborate laser projection show, and accompanied by an audio installation that could be listened to on a radio channel broadcasting from the top of the building. These broadcasts told stories from the different stages of the building’s history, including the experiences of the former inhabitants, and of the politicians and social workers involved at some point with its history.
Since this spectacular wake, the Citytower has disappeared without trace, and demolition was completed by the end of 2014.
According to American architecture theorist Charles Jencks, modernism ended on 15th July, 1972 at 3:32 PM, in the dust of the explosions destroying the failed modern housing complex of Pruitt-Igoe in in St. Louis. But in Bergkamen modernism has lived a strange after-life, rearing its head yet again in 1974 an surviving exactly another 40 years – over a third of these spent empty and unloved.
But what is the Citytower’s legacy? What next? Just another (bigger) shopping mall? Is that today’s only vision for tomorrow? Do we learn nothing?
– Florian Heilmeyer