Germany’s biggest lignite reserves are situated in the former GDR, around Leipzig, Halle, Bitterfeld and at Lausitz on the Polish border. It was in the fifties that the extraction of lignite really took off. Lignite is a type of coal but is of more recent date and so has a lower temperature of combustion. Lignite also lies closer to the surface, which is why the mining is open-cast.
The depth of the lignite strata varies from just beneath to more than one hundred metres below the surface. Excavators are used to remove the earth. The biggest of these is 650 metres long and can excavate a 60 metre-deep layer of earth in one go. The earth is removed in terraces. A conveyor belt carries the rubble to the outer ring, giving rise to the characteristic dikes along the pits. Depending on the pattern of the lignite underground, the mines are dug in a straight line or in a spiral.
During the excavation process, huge pumps remove water (up to 170 m3 per minute) from the mine to prevent it filling with ground water. When all the lignite in the mine has been extracted, the pumps are switched off and the pits automatically fill with ground water. The acidity of the water is extremely high as a result of the extraction process, and can have a pH value of 3 or less. This gives rise to a landscape of crystal-clear but heavily polluted lakes where no algae, weeds, fish or birds can survive.
Open-cast mining is highly detrimental to the environment, seriously affecting the quality of the soil, ground water and the air. By adding calciferous materials such as shells to the water, the acidity can be reduced. However, the amount of polluted water is so great that the cost of this operation is prohibitive. The soil around the briquette factories is so contaminated that if you push a stick into the ground in warm weather, tar bubbles up out of the earth. After the mine has been abandoned, the soil needs between thirty and a hundred years to recover. This process can be speeded up slightly with a structured and well thought-out planting scheme.
A characteristic feature of lignite mines is that the landscape’s evolution process plays like a speeded-up film. Normally, a landscape evolves extremely slowly. The logic of age-old cultivation systems can play a role for many centuries, even though the system itself has long disappeared. In his study whose title translates as ‘The green grass of the Embaba’, Philippe Panerai shows that Cairo’s informal urbanization is based entirely on centuries-old agricultural methods, land parcellations and the attendant irrigation systems.1 To this day, the dimensions of a field in which a cow grazes can be found in the dimensions of bedrooms. Likewise, the dimensions and location of roads, streets and alleyways can be traced back to Cairo’s centuries-old irrigation system.
Open-cast mining, however, erases every form of evolution in one fell swoop: infrastructure, villages, property lines and soil composition are removed to make way for a new logic: the earth’s bones, the hitherto invisible pattern of lignite seams. Open-cast mining works like a gigantic time accelerator, altering the landscape’s genetic information within the space of a few years. This genetically manipulated landscape has a wild, violent beauty and produces the uncertainty of all genetically manipulated creations: you don’t know when they are going to turn against you. Within ten years, the inhabitants of this gently rolling landscape dotted with farms and cows were evacuated.
After the evacuation came the tabula rasa, then the pits. The pits filled up with water leaving a silent landscape of lakes.
Now, in an ad hoc manner, local councils are filling in these areas with romanticizing projects: rural dwelling alongside marinas, countless leisure schemes and golf courses, with the odd monument to the impressive excavator and briquette factory. In a few years’ time, man will have this genetically manipulated soil under control. Only underground will it continue to simmer, so that every now and then a surprised golfer will wonder why his white golf ball is covered in tar. The evolution of the landscape has been painstakingly reconstructed and restored and lies like a warm blanket over the pits.
The scale of the mines is awesome. Areas covering 25 km2 and more were subjected to this industrialization process. It has left an impressively desolate wasteland, an overcultivated primeval landscape with gulleys 100 metres deep, embankments and furrows, landslips and slag heaps. Only cartography can shed light on this landscaped violence. On the map, the mines are like vast grey twilight zones, in Südraum Leipzig covering more than half the territory. There are no roads or rivers, no building development or woodland; the area is blank apart from the sliproad. These gigantic urbanistic interventions have no author.
For decades, a colossal effort was put into constructing huge foundations for a nameless megalomaniac project. The logic of the invisible foundations lies hidden in the force fields of the earth. Slowly but surely, the foundations are now filling with water. There is an obvious similarity with the foundations of the Palace of the Soviets. In the thirties, Stalin blew up the basilica in the centre of Moscow to make space for a Palace of the Soviets. A competition was held and construction started on the winning project: an enormous iced cake with Lenin on top. It was a mammoth undertaking: tons of concrete and steel disappeared in the foundations. But the project was dogged by setbacks; the foundations let in water and the outbreak of the Second World War put an end to the flow of cash.
The project was shelved, the steel sent to the arms industry and the foundations were left lying there. After the war, the foundations, which were full of water anyway, were used as an open-air swimming pool.2 In the early nineties, work started on another megalomaniac project. A new basilica, a replica of the one, which had been so completely demolished, was built on the foundations of the Soviet Palace.3 The projects on these foundations are evidently interchangeable.
The foundations constructed in the open-cast mining areas are violent. They have ripped open the landscape, manipulated and polluted it. They have stripped it of infrastructure, property lines, agriculture, buildings and irrigation systems. It seems that on these foundations only a violent urbanism can provide the answer. An urbanism without memory; ruthless, as aggressive as the intrinsic beauty of this naked wasteland.
1. Philippe Panerai and Sawson Noweir: ‘Het groene gras van de Embaba’, in OASE no. 33, summer 1992, pp. 63-73. – back
2. Rem Koolhaas, ‘Palace of the Soviets’, S,M,L,XL, Rotterdam (010 Publishers), 1995, pp. 823-825. – back
3. N. Luzhkov, ‘Church of Christ the Saviour’, in Project Russia 5, Moscow, 1997, pp. 34-35. – back