Thursday, June 11, 2009


I find surfaces in the US pretty boring as a rule. Roads, sidewalks, interior floors: there's not usually much going on there. Surfaces in Europe are a very different story. Almost everything is tiled here in one way or another. When workers need to work on the gas lines beneath the side walk, they just pull up the paving stones and set them aside. When they're finished, they replace the pavers and a week later no one would ever know they had been disturbed.

I started taking photographs of interesting surface patterns soon after I arrived here in September and I've been collecting new ones ever since. It's an occupation that turns every walk into a treasure hunt.

Two weekends ago I spent some time at the Innenhafen of Duisburg, a city neighboring Essen to the West, and I made a comment to an acquaintance saying that I thought it was too bad that Essen didn't have a harbor too. That led to a discussion in which I found out that Essen does have a harbor. Imagine my surprise. I've spent most of my time in southern Essen along the Ruhr. The Ruhr is pastoral. There are some old tow paths, but mostly it's a rural and residential landscape. Not so on the north side of Essen where the Emscher River flows. Here the Rhein/Herne Canal was dug to facilitate the transport of coal and other commodities. On Wednesday of this week I visited the forbidding north end of Essen, walked the Rhein/Herne Canal and saw the harbor, which, for the record, is tiny. It's dominated now by recycling facilities and among other things I watched while small bricks of shredded clear plastic were excreted from a chute into an open container for transport, presumably to some other even more desolate location.

Learning about the canal made me curious about this whole shipping thing and I followed up today by visiting Ruhrort, a Stadtteil of Duisburg. Ruhrort got it's start in the Middle Ages and it's the biggest inland port in Europe. It's the home of a great museum devoted to shipping on the Rhine and its related network of canals and rivers. The best part of the museum is that it's housed in a former bath house for the laborers of the steel works across the street. The architect did a fabulous job preserving the baths and adapting them to the needs of the museum. I could go on forever about this place, but I was supposed to say something about paving stones and tiles.

Here's the connection: water is a great mode of transport for heavy stuff. Heavy stuff that isn't particularly valuable, kilo for kilo. So... a harbor is where the stone, sand, gravel and other building materials typically enter a city. That meant that as I walked around the harbor in Essen I found a paving stone shop. For a guy that likes taking photographs of tiles and such, it was like I died and went to heaven.

Ruhrort and the seedy docksides of the Ruhrgebiet are also where most of the Tatort episodes featuring the legendary Schamanski were shot in the 1970's and 80's. It's a topic that's worthy of its own post here on Forschungsjahr and I plan to get busy with it soon. In the meantime, here are some of my favorite paving patterns from the past year:

1 comment:

Em said...

Wow. Things things you learn.
What a gold mine for your particular texture-hobby!

Though not entirely related (but in its some ways) your opening picture of the Essen Geography reminds me of some beautiful cartography I found recently by Harlod Fisk. They were done of the Mississippi river in the 40's and I thought they were lovely.