Hope and rust : Reinterpreting the industrial place in the late 20th century

Abstract: Industrial society has changed thoroughly during the last half a century. In many Western cities and towns, new patterns of production and consumption entailed that centrally located industrial areas became redundant. The once lively workplace and urban core became silent and abandoned, gradually falling into decay. In recent decades, the former industrial built environment was reinterpreted and reused as apartments, offices, heritage sites, stages for artistic installations and destinations for cultural tourism. Companies and former workers, heritage and planning professionals, as well as artists and urban explorers, were some of the actors involved in the process. The overall aim of the study is to contribute to an understanding of this transformation, and hence it addresses questions about what happened to the industrial places that lost their original function and significance. How were they understood and used? Who engaged in their future? What were the visions and what was achieved? Three former industrial areas are examined from a historic perspective and with a critical hermeneutic approach: Koppardalen in Avesta, Sweden, the Ironbridge Gorge Museum in Britain, and Landschaftspark Duisburg-Nord in the Ruhr district of Germany. Included in the results that challenge previous research, the study claims that the key figures were often newcomers to the place, and white-collar professionals, rather than former workers asserting a historic perspective from below on the basis of a crisis experience. In general, the study shows how the redundant industrial place became an arena for visions of the future in a local community, and, furthermore, how it was being turned into a commodity in a complex gentrification process. The place was given new value by being regarded as an expression of the overall phenomenon of reused industrial buildings, and, simultaneously, as a unique and authentic entity. In the conversion of the physical environment, the industrial past became relatively harmless to many people, because the dark and difficult aspects were defused in different ways. Instead, the industrial place was understood in terms of adventure, beauty and spectacle, which included rust from the past as well as hope for the future.