Junk to joy

Junk to joy

It could have been the same old story around the harbour in the German town of Dusseldorf where River Rhine is at its curvaceous best. Metalworks, fat pipelines, smoke-gushing chimneys. All those outmoded factories which lost out to the digital generation and fell off the industrial map, left desolate to rot.

The neighbourhood around the once-busy harbour, where barges would vie to berth in dozens at a time to pour out coal and supplies from their bellies, and the buzz of activity would keep humming late into the night, they all fell silent. As with many such neighbourhoods in many cities around the world with a similar fate, gloom would settle in, and from its dark cracks would germinate the evils of desperation and crime.

But that wasn't to be.

The factories did close down. And warehouses abandoned. But the harbour by the Rhine in Dusseldorf bounced back. Thanks to the inventiveness of its town planners and the architects - some of them world-renowned, who stamped their genius to create a space to marvel at.

The whole area, rechristened as Medienhafen (Media Harbour), is now a bustling commercial hub, a major attraction for the tourists, and a funky place to be at  for the locals. And that's not all. The initiative more than compensated for the jobs lost from the closure of traditional factories by creating new jobs.

A good 8,000-plus of them. I found the area abuzz with people. People who work in one or the other of the establishments around - of cutting-edge technology and media and entertainment. People who throng the cafes and bars, and plenty of those like me who come just to be there to regale amid the artistic splendour of architecture and the breezy riverfront. The Rhine, after all, has indeed swerved north in a U-turn in the literal sense at the harbour, and Medienhafen did precisely so to the neighbourhood, figuratively.

It all started in the early 1980s. By the late-90s, it got the boost when the Canada-born American architect Frank O Gehry stepped into the ambitious project of Der Neue Zollhof (The New Zollhof), by the riverfront at the eastern end of the harbour.

Gehry was already a celebrity for his designs of the Dancing House in Prague and the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao. This time, he set out on an encore of what he accomplished in Bilbao in Spain, known to architects and town planners across the globe as Bilbao Effect - to metamorphose a rundown area of a city in economic decline to spectacular financial prosperity and prestige.

For Dusseldorf, Gehry let his creative genius take yet another flight of fancy. Gehry set up three buildings, side by side, which are as similar and yet as contrasting from one another. Each building has its own curves and leanings and façade cladding. Of the two buildings on either side, one has white plaster on the outside and the other red brick. The middle one has curves like vertical waves jutting out of the building, and its entire façade is made of stainless steel. This acts like a wavy mirror reflecting the two buildings on either side, creating an illusion of continuity running between the three. The Gehry Buildings, as they are popularly known, house the Rheinhafen Centre of Arts and Media. New economy ringing in.

The Medienhafen (Media Harbour) is indeed a feast for the eyes with its assortment of post-modern architecture. Take the Haus vor dem Wind (House in Front of the Wind) for one, with its curved glass façade, like a sail filled with wind, about to drift into the rippling Rhine. Or take the Colorium, for instance, of the British architect and urban planner William Alsop, who uses colour to create a dialogue between his works and their surroundings. Its colourful glass panes make Colorium an  18-storeyed crayon box.

By the Rhine

Fun is a recurring connotation in the scheme of things at Medienhafen, its manifestation cutting across different architects from diverse places, not just Frank O Gehry or William Alsop, not just German architects who have marked their footprints here. Sometimes, fun is understated, wrapped under the overwhelming distinctiveness of architecture, as in the Gehry Buildings. Elsewhere, it is out in the open, and I got a taste of it sooner than I expected in Roggendorf-Haus.

I walked across the Living Bridge - a pedestrian bridge which joins two sides of Dusseldorf Harbour. To my left and across is the Roggendorf-Haus. This was once a warehouse and in 2001, was renovated into a modern office building. But what makes this rather commonplace building extraordinary are the 29 bright plastic sculptures, the Flossis, of the German sculptor, painter and stage designer, Gudrun Müller, who for herself chose to be known as Rosalie. Rosalie's Flossis climb the walls, much like a platoon of spider-men. Bringing art, theatre and architecture in a harmonious confluence, making it impossible not to notice the Flossi-Haus, as it is endearingly referred to by the locals.

A barge lumbered along the Rhine. Yonder, a speedboat whooshed by, leaving a trail of foam on the drowsy water lazing under the afternoon sun. In the inlet of the harbour, a taskmaster of a coach was pushing a women coxed four team to row faster.

The sun, now quite reclined, reflected from the glass facia of the revolving restaurant atop the 1,100-feet-high Rhine Tower. It was time to settle down in one of the numerous eateries lining the riverfront with a drink, and linger till the night sky turned deep, and the waiter lured with the catch of the day. Fresh from the Rhine.

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