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Friday, May 20, 2022

Visit to the cultural capital of Esch: when wealth came from the land – culture

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Luxembourg is the richest country in Europe. Regardless of which indicators you use, even Switzerland is outperformed by another twenty percent. A trip from the airport to the capital is enough to get an idea of ​​where the money comes from. The wide boulevard is lined with new buildings for banks and financial service providers.

In the middle are also the National Library and the Philharmonic. Luxembourg knows how to ennoble its prosperity with cultural things. Of course, you participate in the exhibition of the European Capitals of Culture that change annually, and since the city of Luxembourg was already able to perform in 1995 and 2007, the country’s regular nomination right was filled this time with the second most big from the far south on the border with France.

Esch-sur-Alzette, and this makes the choice attractive, represents a different era and the first wave of prosperity that took hold of the Grand Duchy, situated between Belgium, Germany and France on the map. Wealth came from the earth, from the iron ore mines that were dug out of the quiet hills in the course of the Industrial Revolution, to be processed into those products in the metal works and steel forges that soon leveled everything green. , in which the material world. still rests today rests.

Transformation towards the “knowledge society”

Larger and larger factories grew in the Esch area, before and after World War I and again after World War II, in what is known in French as Trentes Glorieuses, the three decades of growth and confidence. They ended with the oil crisis in the mid-1970s. Blast furnaces were soon a thing of the past, sold to Asia in good times and demolished in bad. The latter can be experienced in all its visual harshness in the 8-channel projection that looms over the dark room of the “Massenoire”, while below it the “Remixing Industrial Pasts” exhibition presents the life and work in the objects of the age of steel in six chapters represents.

This room, called “Massenoire”, is part of Belval, an industrial complex of which particularly impressive parts are preserved, such as two blast furnaces, plus some large rooms; the rest, however, was removed, straightened and cleaned, so that gleaming new buildings could be built in the cleared areas. There are office and apartment buildings, as well as a university that is supposed to certify the transformation towards a “knowledge society” that is invoked in Esch as everywhere. Two thirds of the university library have found space in an old long building; the remaining third, dark as a cave, houses an electronic art exhibition in the cultural city program, an ideal environment for lighting effects.

People celebrate the opening of Esch 2022 as European Capital of Culture.Photo: dpa/Harald Tittel

This is Esch, one of the three European Capitals of Culture this year. Of course, Luxembourgers know that a mere fireworks display of one-off events (which, of course, also exist) no longer meets the growing demands for sustainability, so long-term projects such as the conversion of vacant land around the The fairly quiet city center of Esch stands out as exemplary.

Esch never aimed for UNESCO World Heritage status, for example in the case of the pioneer of industrial monuments, Saarland Völklingen with its ironworks, which were ennobled in 1994, but instead opted for a solution more decorative. Said blast furnaces with their early tangle of tubes are now densely surrounded by understated and functional contemporary architecture, thanks to the underground pathway at the top custom built for pedestrians and well connected via the nearby train station.

The age of dust and dirt is over

The age of dust and dirt is over, and who would cry about it? The current high-gloss facade of the state capital conveys a certain history to every visitor, but the state certainly has a different one. In the south live the descendants of those whose daily life under the reddish-brown iron dust used to be cloaked as a sign of “resistance”. Immigrants first from Belgium or Germany, then from Italy and finally from Portugal came here in waves and many took root.

Memories of times of hard and equally proud muscular work are preserved in many places, and in the south of the country several mining museums are dedicated to the elaboration of that long-repressed past. The exhibition at the “Massenoire” does this temporarily, but with advanced means.

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Old industrial plants meet modern buildings in the city.Photo: dpa/Harlad Tittel

The use of those huge workshops and warehouses, which in contrast to the complicated steel forges were initially allowed to remain, is far from clear. There can’t be enough “creative workshops” and “art factories” to even come close to filling these spaces. More promising is the preservation of the above-ground testimonies of those mines that are now surrounded by green nature again, as they were when they first opened, such as the “Cockerillmuseum” in the Ellergronn nature reserve near Esch, named after by a mining company that it had dominated for a long time.

The dark tunnel mouths give a glimpse of how the miners disappeared into the dark day after day, dragged in scattered wagons behind crouching electric locomotives, their clothes hanging from chains below the bathroom ceiling and warning signs warning of the danger. . dangers that lurked everywhere underground. In the “Minett Park Fond-de-Gras”, an old inn bears witness to little free time after a hard day’s work and a completely preserved shop on arrival of industrially manufactured branded products – and a slide for “polenta” to the Eating habits of immigrants. Minett is the name of the mining region of Luxembourg, for the reddish soil colored by iron ore.

Blast furnaces are included in the new life of the city

“There is no place in Europe where industrial heritage is so directly involved as in Belval,” Belval’s urban development project is touted, around the blast furnaces rising into the sky like abstract sculptures. That’s not all bad; because unlike carefully preserved industrial monuments such as the ironworks in Völklingen or the “Zeche Zollverein” in Essen, which is also listed by UNESCO, the giant blast furnaces of Belval integrate into the new life of the city as somewhat rougher neighbors to give the collection of contemporary buildings a special identity.

Another currently desolate industrial wasteland in Esch is being planned for the new city quarter, Schifflange, with an area of ​​62 hectares. The Danish office COBE, which has already completed a comparable building in Nordhavn in Copenhagen, won the competition for the redesign. “From the steel factory to the city factory” is the motto that the promoter company is issuing, with a time horizon of at least 20 years for the realization. His quaint office is filled with endearing trinkets, including porcelain plates painted with factory motifs and model mining locomotives, small sculptures of miners determinedly wielding jackhammers, and framed 1937 anniversary stamps.

In such memories materialize the hopes, the joys, the struggles and, last but not least, the pride of generations. The fact that Esch-sur-Alzette, like the entire mining region, treats its own history with care is the most lasting message this year’s Capital of Culture can send.

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