Netzstadt Ruhr Das Ruhrgebiet als Rhizom c Liebermann Kiepe

Ruhr Network City: The Ruhr Area as a Rhizome

by Dr. Thomas Ernst

Cities change in character. As factory buildings and shopping streets disappear, a globalized economy and digitized everyday life produces different urban spaces. Over the past few decades, urban research has embraced such models as the global city, the intercultural city and the post-metropolis, indicating new directions addressing the specific needs of the 21st century.
Cities are legible. In La ville comme texte, Michael Butor describes the city as a double text: on the one hand, urban spaces are collections of exposed texts such as billboards, street signs and everyday conversations; on the other, urban space itself has a structure that opens it to perusal through movement. We can read Berlin as a mighty capital, perambulating it linearly: starting at the Victory Column, walking through the Brandenburg Gate and past the parliamentary offices of the Bundestag, following Unter den Linden to finally admire the newly reconstructed Berlin Palace – urban design as the architecture of power: the metropolis.
Globalization and digitization have qualified the importance of regional areas and their power – whilst Brexit and protective tariffs have recently provided counterblows. The new utopias are cities of superdiversity or open source cities, and the urban researcher Hartmut Häußermann was already stating in 2000 at the epochal threshold: “When asked what the future holds for us, we are today more likely to hear a Babylonian cacophony than the unequivocal message of a radiant metropolis.” But, why then, should the Ruhr Area be read as an anti-metropolis, as a paradigmatic network city, as a rhizomatic art space?

Size Crushes: The Ruhr Area as Anti-Metropolis

With its five million inhabitants, the Ruhr Area is, after London and Paris, one of the largest urban areas in Europe. Its importance during the industrial era, as a site for coal mining and steel production was major, its function as a melting pot which has produced countless positive examples of labour migration, is likewise significant – just look at the football portal FuPa – das Fußballportal, at the list of players in any local league team from Oberhausen, on any weekend. At the same time, the dream of a sovereign Ruhr City, which Alfons Paquet envisaged as early as the 1920s, has still not been fulfilled. The notion of a unified Ruhr region remains splintered between 53 towns and cities spreading from Duisburg to Dortmund. This results in the Ruhr Area, as an urban space, constructing itself “to a significant degree through collective acts, by means of communication”, according to urban geographer Achim Prossek.
The transition from the age of sweatshop factories to an innovative information society is still a difficult one for the Ruhr Area, and the economic situation remains disastrous in many towns and cities. The year of the European Capital of Culture in 2010 was therefore very welcome as an extended festival supporting urban renewal. Central to this was the notion of the Ruhr Metropolis, which initially, as of 2007, merely designated a business development agency, but now was to provide the entire Ruhr Area and its average Joe Bloggs (known locally as the Ruhri) with a new self-confidence.
In fact, the largest and most problematic search engine of our time is, today, able to find 366,000 results for the German term Metropole Ruhr. However, as is often the case, the ‘truths’ of marketing on the one hand, and academic observation on the other, remain far apart. In urban sociology, according to Hartmut Häußermann, the notion of the metropolis was already considered obsolete at the turn of the millennium, the metropolis evoking either such historical-political centres as ancient Rome, or modern cultural ones like 19th century Paris. Today, even if it is still possible to speak of Berlin, Hamburg, Munich, and the Rhine-Ruhr or Rhine-Main areas as metropolitan regions, they no longer possess a central significance for the nation-state as a whole, but compete with each other in rankings on the basis of comparative economic data. Integration into a European and global network of economic and cultural exchange has become more important to cities than regarding themselves as a metropolis.
In proclaiming itself the Ruhr Metropolis, the Ruhr Area was measuring itself according to 19th century categories and regarding itself to be of major significance. According to such logic, Berlin, the political and cultural centre of Germany, then became a natural competitor. This was a fatal assessment precipitating a chain of decisions leading directly to the greatest catastrophe that the Ruhr Area has experienced during the last few decades. In competing with the metropolis and wanting to become a metropolis itself, it also adopted the remnants of a techno party from Berlin, one which by then had become a homeless advertising event for a fitness brand, and staged it in a particularly barren part of Duisburg between railway tracks and a motorway. The event had neither developed organically, nor been conceived as something sustainable, and the manner in which authorities were overwhelmed then, is reflected in the futile efforts of today’s legal apparatus in determining who was responsible for the catastrophe. “The 21 dead in Duisburg”, according to the philosopher Christoph Weismüller, “died for the area’s desire to become a metropolis.”

Rhizome, Matrix, Polycentricity: The Ruhr Area as Network City

The geographic structure of the Ruhr Area cannot be read as a metropolis with a clear centre, but rather as a ‘network city’, a rhizome. The term rhizome had already been appropriated from biology in the 1970s by Gilles Deleuze und Félix Guattari for use in cultural theory. Whilst in biology the term refers to a specific form of stem growing horizontally which can be differentiated from a root anchored in the ground and growing upwards as a tree, Deleuze and Guattari use it to describe – to put it simply – a non-hierarchical network structure. This structure has no centre, is complex, multidimensional and in a continual process of change. In other words, a rhizome is the complete opposite of not only a fixed hierarchy, but also a metropolis staging itself as a seemingly trans-temporal and clearly structured centre of power.
The image of the rhizome correlates perfectly with the historically developed geographic structure of the Ruhr Area, which has not been constructed around a single centre, but has grown ever further from the open pit mining south of the Ruhr to deep coal mining to the north. The network of tunnels below ground is virtually reflected by a rhizome structure above ground. Karl Ganser, the creator of the Internationale Bauausstellung Emscher Park (International Architecture Exhibition Emscher Park), has accordingly called the Ruhr Area an ‘anti-metropolis’, whilst urban planner Thomas Sieverts designates the Ruhr Area an ‘intermediary city’, describing it as “a structure without a clear centre, but with many more or less robustly functional specialized areas, networks and nodes.”
This rhizome structure of the Ruhr network city can be confirmed by a single glance at the Rhine-Ruhr transport network, where there is no discernable central point to which its routes run. The Institute for Spatial Planning at the University of Dortmund has translated this rhizomatic structure of the Ruhr Area into models that it variously designates ‘Polycentric Ruhr City’, ‘Band Ruhr City’ and ‘Matrix Ruhr City’.

Turmoil and Aberrations: The Ruhr Area as Art Space

In contrast to the discourses involving politics, economics and advertising, in which the term Ruhr Metropolis became established, artistic approaches have long been taking a rhizomatic Ruhr Area as their point of departure for playful, subversive and striking works of art and projects, of which Ferdinand Kriwet’s Manifest zur Umstrukturierung des Ruhrreviers zum Kunstwerk (Manifesto for the Restructuring of the Ruhr Area as a Work of Art), from 1968, may be representative. Although the Ruhr Area has not yet become the “greatest work of art in the world”, many of Kriwet’s proposals, such as the transformation of coal tips into art objects and blast furnaces into illuminated monuments, have become reality. Others, such as remodelling disused mines into “amusement labyrinths”, or setting up a helicopter service that would enable “the contemplation of the world’s greatest work of art from above”, are still waiting to be implemented.
Idiosyncratic characters such as jack-of-all-trades Helge Schneider and Mambo Kurt, god of the home organ, have developed their playful talents here, whilst jazz singer and narrator Eva Kurowski has cultivated her own effortless style. Wolfgang Welt, long-time usher at the Schauspielhaus theatre in Bochum, allowed his alter-ego to wander through the Ruhr Area, in Der Tunnel am Ende des Lichts (Tunnel at the End of the Light; 2006), which ranges between austere realism and, at times, surreal insanity. “I went up Castroper Straße, and suddenly had the epiphany that this was the last episode of Dallas and I was J.R.”. An aestheticized traversing of the Ruhr Area and the continual mixing of different voices in residential projects are central motifs in such recent monumental publishing projects as Jürgen Link’s over 900-page discourse novel Bangemachen gilt nicht auf der Suche nach der Roten Ruhr-Armee. Eine Vorerinnerung (Scaremongering is not Applicable in the Search for the Red Ruhr Army. A Pre-Reminder; 2008), and Jochen Gerz’s collaborative 3000-page project 2-3 Straßen. Text (2-3 Streets. Text; 2011).
Florian Neuner undertakes a paradigmatic examination of the Ruhr Area in Ruhrtext. Eine Revierlektüre (Ruhr Text. A Reading of the Area; 2010), by consistently applying the Situationist concept of dérive, the experimental and impromtu exploration of urban spaces, to the Ruhr Area. His dérives lead him through such places as Stahlhausen, Hüttenheim and Heimaterde, to events such as Gender Terror, as well as to sites of remembrance of past turmoil – Rheinhausen, the steelworks dispute, the tenancy dispute, and the March Uprising. This was from an Austrian author living in Berlin coming to the Ruhr Area not in search of a new metropolis, but to be surprised by a rhizomatic urban landscape. His book is prefaced by an epigraph from Guy Debord, “La formule pour renverser le monde, nous ne l’avons pas cherchée dans les livres, mais en errant”.

Dr. Thomas Ernst works at the University of Amsterdam and is an expert of German Studies, Media Theory and Digital Cultural Studies.

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