Zeche Zollverein Heritage Site

Mining the Past

A restrained graphics program helps preserve the legacy of one of Germany’s cultural treasures.

Its Bauhaus-style shaft has been closed and its coking plant smokeless for decades, but the legacy of the Zollverein Coal Mine Industrial Complex lives on in Essen, Germany.

Zeche Zollverein was once the world’s largest coal mining operation, and Shaft 12, with its iconic winding tower and cubical buildings, has been called “the most beautiful coal mine in the world.” Situated in the Ruhrgebiet, Germany’s industrial heartland, Zeche Zollverein was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2001 due to its significance as a coal-mining operation and its design features, including several 20th-century buildings of architectural significance.

Following a 2002 master plan by OMA/Rem Koolhaas, the area is becoming an important center for culture and design. Essen has been chosen as the Cultural Capital of Europe for 2010, and Zeche Zollverein will be the main event location.

The 100-hectare complex (the size of about 140 soccer fields) now accommodates museums, more than 100 companies, several event locations, and a design school built in 2007 by SANAA Architects. Since a Europe-wide design competition in 2005, the Zollverein Park project has been designed and implemented by a multidisciplinary design team consisting of communication designers (F!RSTDESIGN, Cologne, Germany), landscape architects (Planergruppe Oberhausen, Oberhausen, Germany), lighting designers (Licht Kunst Licht, Bonn/Berlin, Germany), and artists (Observatorium, Rotterdam, Netherlands). 

Signage without signs

Invited onto the team because of past collaborations with Licht Kunst Licht, F!RSTDESIGN was tasked with the wayfinding and graphic elements of the park development. The challenge of the wayfinding system was to meet the needs of 800,000 visitors each year while working within stringent regulations for monument conservation. The system also had to identify buildings and features in two languages (German and English) and include both historic and new building names.

While the client—a public utility/housing enterprise owned in majority by the state of Northrhein-Westfalia—uses a system of signs designed by Metadesign/Erik Spiekermann, Ledwig and his colleagues preferred to start fresh.

“The [old] signs had gotten pushed so far by the monument conservation people that they were hiding,” he explains. “They were brown signs in front of brown buildings. They totally faded into the background.”

Rather than populate the site with a “forest of signs,” Ledwig focused on developing what he calls “a signage system without conventional signs.”

“Our design intent was to guide with minimal yet distinctive clues rather than confusing people with too many signs,” he explains. “Our keynote was ‘Silent in terms of quantity, loud in terms of quality.’”

In other words, a restrained approach that would leave the site alone to the extent possible. That meant minimizing vertical “disruptions” (such as traditional signs) that would disrupt visitors’ viewing angles. Instead, they maximized horizontal elements such as printed maps, ground markings, and knee-high scale models that became the core of the wayfinding system.

A model program

The team first cleared the area of all existing signs, posts, and panels. They divided the park into three districts based on major destinations (two mine shafts and the coking plant). An exterior parking guidance system leads visitors to the site, to their relevant entrance, and to parking at the periphery. Tenant panels at the periphery identify locations of interest, list tenants, and provide takeaway materials including four-color printed maps.

Since the site has multiple entry points, there is no one primary identity sign. Instead, the first wayfinding devices visitors encounter inside the park are welcome pavilions (designed by Observatorium) positioned so that visitors will literally run into them, a concept Ledwig calls the “tripping method.”

The pavilions house the heart and soul of the wayfinding system:  1:715-scale models of the site that provide both visual and haptic guidance.  

“Zeche Zollverein has a very unique topography and it’s huge,” says Ledwig. “The models make the dimensions and all of the site features very clear, and visitors can quickly determine their positions relative to their destinations.”

Seven of the models have been installed so far, and five more are planned. They posed immense fabrication challenges. At 95-in. wide, 95-in. deep, and 27-in. high, each model consists of nine base plates (including a pigmented-concrete base whose colors were custom-mixed by Observatorium), a thin band of red LED lighting on which the model seems to “float” at night, and the cast-iron model itself, with a milled line drawing of the area and more than 100 separate buildings and site features screwed on to the top plate.

The models needed to be industrial strength and vandal proof, so Ledwig’s team chose concrete, iron, and anodized, screenprinted aluminum legend plates. They also had to be changeable as the site is developed, so new site element pieces can be screwed on in the future. Working out the fabrication details was immensely challenging. “Hardly anyone does cast iron models made of 100 pieces, and certainly this is not a precision process, so producing 1-in. pieces was difficult,” Ledwig explains.

Fabricator Vangenhassend GmbH (Düsseldorf) created the models as well as the site signage. CEO Dirk Vangenhassend says the biggest issues were sourcing high quality iron and making sure the base plates fit together properly. “And in a puzzle with more than 100 pieces, something will always be missing,” he adds.

More breadcrumbs

The wayfinding system also needed to identify the 100+ buildings on the site. To make the wayfinding communications internationally understood, the team gave each building a letter designation corresponding to the three districts (A, B, and C) and a number, in addition to its historic German name. House numbers are provided on 16- by 16-in. backlit aluminum panels mounted directly to the buildings and edgelit at night by LED flat lights encased in red Perspex® (Plexiglas) with special light-conducting properties.

To provide an additional breadcrumb, Ledwig’s team added simple site maps to 16- by 16-in. aluminum “doorbell panels” on each building. The panels are screenprinted, lasercut, and edgelit with the Perspex-encased LEDs. “The monument conservation guidelines did not allow ‘identity’ signage, so the doorbell panels had to serve that purpose,” Ledwig says. “We snuck in the maps to help orient people to where they are in the complex.”

A fine balance

The $20 million park development project (including about $1 million for graphics and signage fabrication) has been a balancing act for F!RSTDESIGN and its teammates. Working with a large utility/government client with input from the public, environmental groups, site tenants, the developer, and monument conservation has required thousands of hours, more than 40 major meetings, and more emails than Ledwig cares to count.

“Pleasing everyone has definitely been the biggest challenge,” he laughs. But the team has worked well together for the same reason that it won the project over favored competitors. “Our concept was far better than our competitors because the disciplines of communication design, landscape design, lighting, and art were so interwoven in our approach.”

Furthermore, says Ledwig, his team had simplicity on their side. “The other teams wanted to create all these new features on the site. We felt it was beautiful as it was and wanted to add as little as possible. Our approach was to clean it up, make it safe, create some nice viewing angles, and leave it alone.”

--By Pat Matson Knapp, segdDESIGN No. 21, 2008

Jury comments

“This project captures it all for me in one word: zeitgeist. It is the zeitgeist of the 2008 awards. This project speaks to me from the past and into the future.” 

“Appropriate in its totality, its essence in Essen is the flavor, feel, spirit, smell, feeling, look, tone—the general atmosphere of a place or situation and the effect that it has on people. I will include this in my top 100 places to see in the world.”


Location:  Essen, Germany

Client:  LEG Landesentwicklungsgesellsutag (LEG Research and Development Company)


Design Team:  Christopher Ledwig (principal in charge), Aysin Ipecki (project manager), Harald Steber, Anna Weber, Bettina Feldhausen, Andreas Marks, Till Armbrüster, Kathrin Spohr

Consultants:  Planergruppe Oberhausen (landscape architecture), Licht Kunst Licht (lighting design), Observatorium (artists)

Fabrication:  Vangenhassend GmbH (general contractor), Hüwels Betonelementewerk GmbH (concrete products)

Photos:  Christopher Ledwig


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