Abandoned factory floors and contaminated commercial wastelands used to be highly problematic industrial legacies. Precarious places that had outlived their duty – useless and threatened by decay. That is, until they are filled with new life.

Officials, creatives, urban planners, and architects have started exploring these industrial relics, trailing a stream of intrepid ravers, graffiti artists, and other thrill seekers. The aim: to turn the unused sites into hotspots. Think exhibition halls, inner-city fixed-rope routes, or even ski runs on the roof of a waste-to-energy plant. Enjoy five striking transformation stories on the (collective) metamorphosis from scrap to polished experience.

RuhrMuseum – trailing the coal trail

Visitors to the city of Essen often find it a little bit surreal. Right in the heart of the German mining area, graft and culture tend to rub shoulders. The local RuhrMuseum, or at least its current home, used to be part of the regional coal industry: While active, the voracious 40-meter industrial age coal washer could easily process several freight trains’ worth of black coal every day. 

The RuhrMuseum is located in the building of a former coal washing facility
RuhrMuseum opened up inside a former coal washing facility.
Photo: Ruhrmuseum Essen

With the RuhrMuseum, renowned architect Rem Koolhaas has turned the behemoth on the Zeche Zollverein grounds into a stunning exhibition space: To reach the inside and experience the (hi)story of this world heritage industrial region, visitors literally follow the former coal route – down a 55-meter conveyor belt.

Amager Resource Center – skiing on the roof of a waste-to-energy plant

Copenhagen is beautiful in winter’s embrace, but simply too flat for a swift ski or snowboard descent. Well, until now: The architects at Bjarke Ingels Group are about to change all that with a winter sports center at the city’s limit, covering 30,000 square meters and boasting a mile-long ski slope. Sometime in 2018, fans will be able to take advantage of the new facility, cleverly located on the roof of a huge waste-to-energy plant. 

The vision of a ski slope on top of a factory
Skiing on top of a factory – thanks to a Bjarke Ingels design.
Photo: Bjarke Ingels Group

The Amager Resource Centre, nicknamed Copenhill, has been supplying the city with cogeneration heat since 2017 and already provides plenty of opportunities for wakeboarding, kart racing, or climbing. The architects call their concept “hedonistic sustainability” – and rightly so, since it presents sustainability in a brand-new way. Like a good-natured volcano, the facility regularly emits a giant smoke ring that’s even illuminated at night. Beyond its aesthetic appeal, it’s a tongue-in-cheek reminder to keep our “guilty pleasures” in check and an eye on our personal waste generation.

People skiing on top of the building
1.5 kilometers of slope await on top of the building.
Photo: Bjarke Ingels Group
A green smoke ring from the chimney
A smoke ring from the chimney becomes illuminated art.
Photo: Bjarke Ingels Group

The Shed Project – affordable living in old factories

While London possesses many parks and chic neighborhoods like Notting Hill, there’s a lot more to this city than picturesque villas: The British metropolis is teeming with a surprising number of historic industrial landmarks. Architects Herzog & de Meuron already threw a spotlight on their potential with the redesigned Bankside Power Station, now a popular draw as the Tate Gallery of Modern Art. 

Living container in an abandoned factory space
The Shed Project sets up neat living containers in abandoned factory spaces.
Photo: Studio Bark

Not to be outdone, Studio Bark proves that old factories can also be a great place for affordable living. “The Shed Project“ uses cheap materials like sheep’s wool and oriented strand boards for basic construction and insulation. It takes just one day to put up one of these customized living containers – a charming idea and inspiration for much-needed alternative living space.

Willamette Falls Legacy Project – urban fixed-rope route between waterfalls and industry

While Oregon City in the US Northwest might not have a natural attraction as spectacular as Niagara Falls, their Willamette Falls are impressive in their own right. At least if your view isn’t dominated or blocked by the Blue Heron Paper Co. mill, a rusty industrial legacy that overshadows this natural wonder. The “Willamette Falls Legacy Project”, collectively proposed by architecture studios Snøhetta, Mayer Reed, and Dialog, wants to make the waterfall’s allure truly accessible to the public again. 

Visual concept of the building for the Willamette Falls Legacy Project
Nature instead of rusty leftovers: the Willamette Falls Legacy Project.
Photo: Snøhetta

Their planned Willamette Falls Riverwalk resembles an urban fixed-rope route bridging the gap between nature and concrete, industrial heritage and cultural restart. The teetering walk aims to underscore the sheer vulnerability and uniqueness of the Willamette River fluvial landscape. The project has already progressed beyond the first steps, with architects, urban planners, and citizens joining forces to exchange their expectations and potential design concepts of the future riverwalk.

View of the Willamette River landscape
View of the Willamette River landscape.
Photo: Snøhetta

Sidewalk Toronto – planning a new district together

Toronto is considered the secret capital of cryptocurrencies – in recent years, many tech companies have set up shop in the Canadian metropolis. But beyond the buzzing entrepreneur and start-up community, there are millions of people struggling with the challenges of a metropolitan existence, like the increasing lack of affordable living space. 

People walking along the along Toronto’s industrial harbor
New life for Toronto’s industrial harbor.
Photo: Sidewalk Toronto

The Sidewalk Toronto project tries to get as many stakeholders as possible involved in their new initiative focused on turning the old docks, warehouses, and harbor facilities that currently cut off access to the Ontario Lake into a new district accessible to anyone. Design jams, neighborhood meet-ups, and public talks will ensure that citizen participation does not remain an abstract afterthought, but becomes tangible reality. It’s a welcome ray of light and hope in the current age – and one that highlights self-organization in one of Canada’s most dynamic regions.

A futuristic design of a beach dock in Toronto
Beach atmosphere between old docks could soon become reality.
Photo: Sidewalk Toronto