The second life of the Vítkovice ironworks

Photo: Zdeňka Kuchyňová

In today’s Spotlight we travel to the city of Ostrava, the capital of the Moravian-Silesian region and more precisely to the city’s industrial centre Vítkovice. Its unusual skyline does not feature skyscrapers and church towers but rather the tall and imposing structures of extinct blast furnaces. Instead of demolishing them, Ostrava has decided to preserve its unique industrial heritage and the whole complex is now being revitalized and turned into a multipurpose cultural facility.

Photo: Zdeňka Kuchyňová
Iron production in North Moravia and Silesia has a long tradition going back to the 17th and 18th centuries. The use of black coal, plentiful in the region, speeded up the growth of the industry in the 19th century. In 1826, the Olomouc Archbishop Rudolf, younger brother of Austrian emperor Francis II., commissioned the building of blast furnaces in Vítkovice to supply pig iron to puddling furnaces in nearby Frýdlant. The first blast furnace was ignited in 1836. With a coal mine on the spot and a river running by, the location was perfect. Jakub Švrček is the head of the industrial heritage site’s future Science and Technology Centre.

“This cultural monument consists of the blast furnaces, coke oven batteries and the Hlubina mining site. Its history was unique in that coal mining, coke production and iron production all existed in one place. And because the resources on the spot were sufficient, the site could operate for almost 160 years in the same location.”

The last furnace tapping in Vítkovice took place in 1998. In 2002 the government declared the decommissioned part of the ironworks a national cultural monument. In 2008 it was added to the emerging list of European Cultural Heritage. Preservationists would also like to see it included in the UNESCO world heritage list. In 2009, the project to revitalize the blast furnaces and other listed buildings received a 500,000-crown subsidy from EU and government funds on condition it would be completed by 2013. Among other things, visitors will be able to look inside the decommissioned furnace.

Photo: Zdeňka Kuchyňová
“The visitors will follow the same path the raw material used to travel. We will load them onto the lift here, take them up to the feeding opening of the blast furnace, but they will not be thrown down the way the iron ore used to be but we will let them take a look around from the tower and then they will descend down a spiral staircase into the furnace. There, with the aid of various acoustic and other effects the visitors will be able to understand how the production process worked, where the iron travelled afterwards and so on.”

The 60-metre-tall furnace tower will offer a unique view of the city as well as the still functional Vítkovice rolls and castings foundries across the road whose owner is also involved in the revitalization of the decommissioned part of the complex.

The Vítkovice ironworks saw the most rapid development after they were bought by the Rothschild family in the mid-19th century. As coke was used to melt the iron, a lot of gas was produced as a by-product of the process. The gas was contained in a large gasholder whose bell rose and fell depending on the pressure.

Photo: Zdeňka Kuchyňová
“There is a giant dial with a scale from zero to fifty because the gasholder has a maximum capacity of 50,000 cubic metres. There was a direct view of the gasholder from the Rothschild chateau. Mr. Rothschild and his managers had binoculars on the balcony and all they had to do was look at the dial to see whether the men were shirking or whether production was underway.”

While the gasholder was being cleaned of rust as part of the renovation, Jakub Švrček mentioned a story about it from the Second World War.

“The outer cylinder of the gasholder was pierced by a bomb but because there was a layer of mud sediment at the bottom, several metres deep, the bomb disappeared in it like in a cushion. When the workers came back after the war, they said: ‘Look, there is a hole, let’s just fix it and stop worrying about it.’ As late as in the 1970s when the gasholder was being modernized and cleaned, it was confirmed that there really was a bomb. So for 30 years, there was an unexploded shell in the middle of the largest gasholders in the city. They lifted it, deactivated it and everything was ok.”

Photo: archive of ČRo 7 - Radio Prague
In the 160-year-old history of the Vítkovice blast furnaces, some 90 million tonnes of pig iron were produced. In 1965, as many as 3,000 employees worked there.

“The first idea of the preservationists was to save the monument the way it looked when the workers ended their last shift, took off their gloves and put down their tools. However, the whole complex is largely made of iron, steel and other metal components and its lifespan is perhaps several dozen years. So we want to bring the location back to life by giving it a new function, a different purpose.”

As part of the revitalization project, three of the dominant structures will be renovated: the blast furnace number one for guided tours explaining the production of molten iron; the old gasholder will house a congress centre with 1,500 seats and the former power centre will be turned into an interactive technical museum. There will be only one brand new building – the Science and Technology Centre designed by architect Josef Pleskot. The centre’s head Jakub Švrček explains.

“The owner of the Vítkovice castings foundry, Mr. Světlík, had to persuade Mr. Pleskot a lot before he managed to bring him here. When Mr. Pleskot arrived, he realized that this was a lifetime project for him, too, and he got so enthusiastic that now he comes here every week. He walks around the structures during day and night and tries to soak up the atmosphere inspiring him to come up with new purposes for the site.”

Architect Josef Pleskot is also behind the idea to raise the bell of the gasholder by some 15 metres and use it as an original roof for the congress hall.

Josef Pleskot
“If the elevation failed – and no one had any experience with that sort of thing – the eight-hundred-tonne juggernaut would actually halt all other projects which are interlinked. So we risked losing the whole subsidy. Luckily it worked out. The result should be visible in mid-next year when we would like to open the congress centre and start full operation.”

According to Jakub Švrček all three projects should be finished by mid-2012. The new museum building will have the shape of an equilateral triangle and its glass façade will reflect all the industrial monuments like a giant mirror. There will also be a covered plaza which could be rented out for various purposes. Jakub Švrček says he is not afraid the place will not get enough visitors. Last year, long before any of the projects were opened, some 140,000 people came to see the unique industrial heritage site.

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