The deputy mayor of Dresden, Ralf Lunau, makes no secret of his pride in what is currently the largest cultural project in the city: the transformation of a former power plant area into a venue for the city’s state opera house, the Staatsoperette, and a youth theater organization.
The Dresden Opera’s new venue, just a few minutes way from the historic Semper Opera House, is scheduled to be ready by the end of 2016. The offical cost of the project is €90 million, or $101 million.
The Dresden city fathers are not the only ones who have recognized the potential of the old industrial architecture. In other cities there are many historical power plants sitting unused because nuclear plants, wind turbines and solar facilities have replaced electricity generation from coal or gas. This has awakened investors who are looking for something special.
The most famous example is in London, where the Tate Modern art gallery has existed since 2000 in the former Bankside Power Station, which was built between 1947 and 1963 along the banks of the Thames.
That museum of modern art attracted 5.8 million visitors last year. The city of Cottbus in the eastern German state of Brandenburg was inspired by the museum, and since 2008 has housed its art museum in a diesel power station.
The Mitte power plant in Berlin is also used for cultural purposes. Cultural impresario Dimitri Hegemann, founder of the famous Berlin techno club Tresor, now uses the giant hall for exhibits, concerts, fashion shows and other events.
And now Dresden is following suit. The turbine hall of the power plant on Wettiner Platz that started operation in 1928 will soon be shared cultural space. “The visitors will see the old walls and get an idea of the rooms of the old building,” said Mr. Lunau. The great hall of the Staatsoperette is in an adjoining newly built space. The boiler house with its four imposing smokestacks is no longer there, as it was torn down in 2006.
The Bille power plant in Hamburg was facing the same fate, but the city reached an agreement with the owner, energy company Vattenfall, in 2011 to place the early 20th century structure under historic preservation and to transfer it to a new owner. Martin Hadler, real estate entrepreneur and owner of classic car company Meilenwerk, wants to use the Bille plant for his vintage motors. Mr. Halder is planning to start construction in early 2016.
“At the time of industrialization, power plants were built as icons,” said Mr. Halder. “They have a unique charm and still have outstanding building quality.”
Old power plants still have their drawbacks. “Their structure is tailor-made for a very specific use,” said Mr. Hadler. The power plant Bille was expanded several times, so the building contains very different sections — from the 70-meter-long boiler room with the encircling gallery to the engineering room that is only two meters tall.
The Munich-based furniture store Kare also faced challenges when it decided to transform a 50-year-old power plant in the city into a showroom. “So many people called us crazy,” said company spokeswoman Susanne Knacke. But, she says, the power plant, with its 80-meter-high chimneys and giant transformers, was “the right stage for an innovative retail concept with a wow effect.”
You can even live in the Schaeffler-Areal power plant in Bamberg. The real estate company Denkmalneu is about to complete construction of 46 apartments in the former power plant and its administrative buildings. “We benefitted from the very good collaboration with the historic preservation office in the city of Bamberg,” said managing director Jürgen Dziumbla. In particular, the office let the builders put in additional window openings and affix balconies. But everything has its price: “The renovations cost more than a comparable new construction,” said Mr. Dziumbla.
The surrounding area also benefits when an old industrial site is repurposed. “We hope that the new cultural center will give a boost to urban development,” said Dresden’s Mr. Lunau. He said private investors are already interested in neglected properties in the area around the plant.
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