With little publicity here so far, what's billed as 'the biggest landscape project in Europe' is well under way in the former East Germany. This year marks the mid-point of the 10-year Internationale Bauausstellung Fürst-Pückler-Land (IBA), with projects at 24 sites in the Lausitz - a 100 x 50km region of opencast lignite mines roughly halfway between Berlin and Dresden.
The lignite (low-grade coal) from these pits was the prime fuel source for the German Democratic Republic, but with changed priorities in energy supply after reunification, the majority of them closed abruptly; there was no gradual wind-down with time to create new jobs.
Some 25 per cent of the population has since left the area, while current unemployment is also about 25 per cent.
So the IBA aims to give the region a new economic stability while dealing with the aftermath of the mining, in what must be one of the most extreme post-industrial landscapes in Europe today.
Certain images from the last IBA, staged in the Ruhrgebiet in the 1990s, have gone around the world. Open any landscape book published in the past few years and you will find the variegated park that Latz + Partner weaved around a huge redundant steelworks at Duisburg Nord; it has become a model project. With the emphasis of the Lausitz IBA primarily on landscape (the shrinking population makes building secondary), what will the equivalent images be? What models will it create?
This one-time mining region could be a source of genuinely new landscapes, not replicas of the past, but will that happen?
The IBA is a fixed-term limited company that doesn't execute schemes itself but is an enabler 1. It offers ideas, creates networks, and knows about potential finance (for which the EU is a major source). Its director, Dr Rolf Kuhn (a former director of the Bauhaus Dessau), saw three options for Lausitz. One was an extension of the remedial work already being undertaken by the government-funded Lausitz and Central German Mining Administration (LMBV), with the biggest coal pits turned into lakes, waste heaps revegetated and remaining industrial structures demolished. The results might be pleasant enough, but probably bland and monotonous, with the region's recent history erased and its landscape potential unrealised.
The second option, that Kuhn says he was 'fascinated by', was to do nothing - to leave the landscape to its own devices as a wilderness. But tempting though this sounds, it wasn't feasible, because of the danger of subsidence as water in the pits gradually rose (as it would) and the likelihood that this water would come from the River Spree to the detriment of areas further north. One ecology would prosper at the expense of another; nature would not simply heal itself.
So, on the premise that the new Lausitz is a human construct like the one it supplants, the IBA has taken a middle line.
It seeks 'sustainable development' (of course); it stresses tourism and recreation, with many pits becoming lakes; it aims to cultivate new forms of energy (biomass). But it wants the region's special topography and history still to count.
Before the IBA was set up, many of the Lausitz's industrial remains were pulled down. For instance, at one IBA site, Lauchhammer, there are now six clusters of tall brick towers, which look much like a castle shorn of its perimeter wall. In isolation they are impressive, if enigmatic - a photograph comes to the rescue, showing the vast coking plant of which they were a minor part. With that context gone, they're as much giant sculptures as 'industrial heritage'. The IBA sees their dual potential:
a destination in their own right and a backdrop to outdoor events.
One prospective image shows them lit at night with rows of theatre seats between them: adaptive reuse or history as decor?
Another building to survive is the nearby Plessa Power Plant, lignite-fuelled when operative and due to become 'a living museum', presenting its past to the public, with new small businesses on the side. But Lausitz's major industrial relic, visited by 90,000 people last year, and sure to be one of the images of this IBA, is the F60 conveyor bridge at Lichterfeld - a spectacular 502m-long, 74m-high steel structure, which could excavate up to 60m of overmatter to reach the strata of coal.
Not that the F60 has much historical patina - it was built only in 1989-91. Meant to be in action for 30 years or more, it was defunct in just 13 months but local initiatives to save it from demolition were already under way before the IBA added its support. The F60 has been moved back 500m from the pit where it worked, which is now being slowly flooded to become the Bergheider Lake. Landscape architect Büro Löwe has planned its new surroundings, which include an eye-catching area of coloured gravels, meant to symbolise the geological structure of the former pit and be seen as strata by visitors up on the F60.
This too is both a destination and a backdrop for events:
Verdi's Nabucco was staged here recently. The F60 can be lit at night with an installation by Hans Peter Kuhn, though such schemes don't always find favour. A light show is integral to Latz + Partner's Duisburg Nord steelworks but it has been criticised for 'trivialising the life of working men and making it just a place of entertainment' (AJ 02.07.98).
Lit or not, the F60 is already a major attraction. If tourism is central to the reborn Lausitz, this is one of its prime sites. A long gradual climb brings you to the tip of this skeletal conveyor bridge, where you hover in mid-air with a hawk's-eye-view of the surroundings - a panorama of pits, spoilheaps and incipient lakes;
of large cornfields, conifers, and wind turbines. From here it's clear how much this is a landscape in transition.
That state of change is highlighted in 'Bewegtes Land' ('Land in Motion') - an exhibition at the IBA Terraces at Grossräschen, a series of neat pavilions by Frankfurt architect Ferdinand Heide on a stepped promenade above another mine that will one day be a lake. Installed by Berlin firm mesh design, 'Land in Motion' presents a timeline of the Lausitz since the Ice Age.
'The earth is undergoing continual change, ' says the first display panel, but in the Lausitz at present that change is accelerated, and is a conscious focus of the IBA. The slow filling of the lake below the terraces, and of other pits in the region, many of them linked to form a navigable chain, will be a sight in itself.
This isn't fanciful. Given the dune-like remnants of the mining process and the plants that colonise these spoil heaps, their slow submergence should be engrossing, if an advanced lake like the Sedlitzer See is any guide. The vanishing dunes become islets, the drowning plants and saplings are a swamp. Eventually they will all be lost beneath the water and the result, though fine for boating, may have less to offer visually than some moments on the way.
Not every abandoned pit, though, will be flooded in this slow, controlled manner. There is one site in the Lausitz where the second option that Kuhn mentioned, the landscape left to itself, is becoming a reality. At Wanninchen, the Heinz Sielmann Foundation has purchased 3,000ha, which it treats as a nature reserve with limited public access. The water in the old mine here has risen naturally, not by tapping the Spree, and grey geese and cranes now stop here in the autumn on their journey south.
Meanwhile grass sprouts on the dunes, followed by conifers and silver birch. 'If you did nothing, you'd eventually get forest, ' says the foundation's project manager, Ralf Donat. 'So these are our landscape architects, ' he adds, pointing to some sheep.
While almost all the pits in the Lausitz have closed, the one at Welzow is still in action and should be for decades to come.
If things go to plan, it will be the setting for Desert/Oasis - the IBA project most likely to appear in future landscape books and become representative, as Latz + Partner's steelworks did.
Though these lignite mines are vast excavations, they are well hidden in the Lausitz's flat terrain - only when you're a few metres away from them does their full extent come into view. On the edge of the mine at Welzow, wild flowers surround a large boulder that has been deposited by an Ice Age glacier.
A narrow road heads straight towards the pit and ends in a void;
it once led to a village, whose residents were among the many that mining in the Lausitz displaced.
The pit itself stretches far into the distance - it is 7.5 x 1.5km in size - but you lose all sense of scale until you spot a person, or a vehicle, or something else to give a focus. Down below, a conveyor bridge continues to remove the earth covering the coal in a relentless methodical way ('like cutting bread', says Olaf Umbreit, head of the body that manages the F60).
Desert/Oasis is a scheme by two Berlin-based firms, Becker Giseke Mohren Richard (BGMR) and archiscape, who want to exploit the fact that this is still a working pit by creating a new landscape from the mining process itself - 'a new topography based on the way the machines manoeuvre, ' says archiscape's Michael Mackenrodt.
As a rule, the spoil from mining is simply dumped behind the excavators and levelled. BGMR and archiscape plan to direct this disposal of waste to create a 'desert' of hills and valleys: the hills sometimes conical and varied in colour, the valleys first to attract vegetation, and the whole area accessible to the public, who can take a 7km hike from one end to the other. Nestled in the middle of all this is the 'oasis', with a dense patch of green, and visitor facilities (a 'bazaar', a cinema, an information centre). Other areas along the route are shaped and given a specific identity - one becomes a stadium, for instance.
There is a precedent in certain Land Art projects: Robert Smithson's proposal for the Bingham Copper Mine in Utah and his widow Nancy Holt sculpting a landfill site in the New Jersey Meadowlands into a Sky Mound (until the money ran out). But Mackenrodt distinguishes this scheme from theirs: 'We don't think of this as a Land Art project or a park but as a real landscape.
You can get lost, you can be alone - it's not Disneyland.' The IBA is sure that visitors will come. It has been running guided tours of the old mine beneath the terraces at Grossräschen with great success, playing up the 'lunar' or otherworldly quality of the cratered landscape. The Lausitz teems with possible locations for a film by Werner Herzog, given his taste for the eerie and uncanny. But this aesthetic appreciation of the residue of mining is more for people from outside the region, to whom it is new, than those who live on the spot. For some of them the Welzow pit is an eyesore that should just be rehabilitated conventionally, and though the IBA scheme has the support of Brandenburg's authorities, it has not yet got a green light.
Along with the coal mines, the rising lakes and areas that are still cultivated, there is another landscape in the Lausitz that contrasts strongly with these others, but that gives the IBA its name. Prince Hermann von Pückler-Muskau (1785-1871) was an enthusiast for the landscape garden, partly thanks to the 18th-century models he saw on two trips to England, and at Bad Muskau (now a UNESCO World Heritage Site) and then Branitz he put his ideas into practice.
When Pückler-Muskau visited Stowe, he complained that it was 'overcrowded with temples', so his schemes are less about architecture than an artful naturalism. His park at Branitz hinges on skilful transitions between the immediate environs of the palace, an inner park and an outer one (the 'ornamental park'), but these gradations are partly lost - hence the IBA's involvement.
The plan is to recover the old circuitous approach to the house, re-establish lost vistas and overall definition and restore the mix of farmland and woods in the ornamental park.
The beguiling inner realm of Branitz seems a world away from the coal pits of the Lausitz but they have one thing in common - their landscapes are the result of earth-moving. 'There were no natural advantages here. It's done out of nothing, ' says Andreas Pahl, the park's head gardener.
Most distinctive are two pyramids that Pückler-Muskau made, one of which stands in the middle of an artificial lake and serves as his tomb. Covered with plants, this pyramid is green in summer, red in autumn, and forms a perfect reflection in the pool among the water-lilies and dragonflies.
Branitz is already the main attraction in Cottbus, the Lausitz's biggest town, and - with tourists in view - the IBA is making the most of its Pückler-Muskau connection. This summer it inaugurated the Fürst-Pückler Path, a 500km-long cycle route connecting all the IBA sites, which is already rife with Lycra.
The IBA's emphasis on landscape doesn't altogether preclude architecture. Apart from the new IBA Terraces and reused industrial buildings, there are plans for floating homes and the like.
But the most interesting architectural project so far is firmly on dry land: an imaginative recycling of parts of a former Plattenbau in Cottbus, one of the prefabricated concrete housing blocks that were ubiquitous in the GDR. Cottbus' population has shrunk in the past decade and several Plattenbau have been demolished.
Local architect Zimmermann + Partner has used elements from one of them to create a two-storey family house and four three-storey apartment buildings. Cubic, smoothly rendered, almost like little Loosian villas, their Plattenbau origins are urbanely camouflaged.
They were quickly occupied at rents only 20 per cent higher than in the surviving Plattenbau. 'It's not a cheap solution, ' says project architect Lothar George, 'but these are usable building materials. Why should they go to waste?' His firm is now carrying out a comparable scheme at Sondershausen in Thuringia 2.It is landscape, though, on which this IBA hinges, integrating elements from the past - Pückler-Muskau's two parks, the F60 at Lichterfeld - with a new leisure-based series of lakes and a bold attempt at Welzow to make something more than Land Art. Pückler-Muskau's pyramidal tomb, the big steel conveyor bridge, the future Desert/Oasis: together these images start to suggest what the IBA is about.
But to give a fuller picture another one is needed - picking up on the theme of the IBA's current exhibition, 'Land in Motion'. From 2006 the pit beneath the IBA Terraces will begin to fill with water and, as with the other mines in the Lausitz, it will take 10 years or more to become a lake. However attractive and ready for recreation these new lakes are at the end, the most memorable images of them are likely to be as they are formed - the swamps, the islets, the still visible craters. This IBA aims to transform a ravaged landscape, but the process of transformation may be more striking than the result.