The second life of the Vítkovice ironworks
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.
“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.
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.
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.”
“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.
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.
More information at: www.dolnioblastvitkovice.cz