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“The German Silicon Valley of the 19th century”: Anja Kolacek and Marc Leßle, Managing Directors of artist initiative “Room 13” | Photo: Thomas Schäkel
“The German Silicon Valley of the 19th century”: Anja Kolacek and Marc Leßle, Managing Directors of artist initiative “Room 13” | Photo: Thomas Schäkel

Awakened from a deep slumber

created by Anja Albert | |   urban culture

On the outskirts of Cologne, new urban initiatives are imagining a different kind of city

In Cologne, there is a sense of a new awakening: a number of initiatives are working for a kind of sustainable urban development that is geared towards the common good. We paid a visit to these ‘real-life laboratories’ for a closer look.

Anja Kolacek and Marc Leßle are standing in the middle of an enchanted-looking courtyard. Everywhere they look, bushes, grasses and trees shoot up out of the concrete. And in large, eye-catching letters above them, the words: “The art of revolution”. Stretching out behind this are enormous factory buildings, a rusty crane bearing witness to their industrial heritage. This is where Klöckner-Humboldt-Deutz (KHD) developed the world’s first combustion engine 150 years ago, ushering in a global technological revolution. The company finally vacated this site in Mülheim-Süd in the mid-2000s, leaving the giant production halls to steadily deteriorate. As Marc Leßle, Managing Director of artist initiative Raum 13 (Room 13), which moved into the former KHD headquarters in 2011, declares: “Cologne’s Mülheim district was the German Silicon Valley of the 19th century. It needs to be a source of innovation again – it’s time for a new kind of urban development that puts people first!”

The two artists transformed the 250-metre brick façade on Deutz-Mülheimer-Strasse – itself listed as a historical monument – into the Deutzer Zentralwerk der schönen Künste (Deutz Fine Arts Factory), allowing it to play host to readings, theatre performances, concerts and other artistic and cultural events. Over the past nine years, some 75,000 people have visited the Otto & Langen quarter, which covers an area of six hectares. German cultural association Goethe-Institut even included it on its list of the ten most important former industrial plants in Germany that are now used for cultural purposes. This is where Cologne really exudes its own brand of big-city charm: as rough as London, as romantic as Paris, as underground as Tbilisi. “For me, it’s the secular equivalent of Cologne Cathedral”, says Marc Leßle. Within the long red brick building, the artist duo created a walk-in installation on an area of 10,000 square metres, combining memorabilia with new exhibits. Such as worn-out workers’ shoes and typewritten letters from the 1950s, large-format photographs of dance performances or cords that are stretched in all directions across a room as part of an installation. Some rooms, such as the wood-panelled boardroom or works council office, have been retained in their original condition. Since September 2020, the fine arts factory has played host to renowned exhibitions ‘Stollwerck 1970–1987’ – the occupation of the disused Stollwerck chocolate factory in Cologne (to prevent it from demolition) – and ‘Via Industrialis’, a tour of key locations from Cologne’s industrial past.

However, the initiative does more than bring art to industrial ruins – it also pursues a socio-political agenda: in several “future workshops”, they came together with academics, city planners, preservationists, artists, politicians and local citizens to explore the question of how we want to live in the future. And they were very keen to reach a wide cross-section of people, from university professors to refugees. In a ‘real-life laboratory’, they aim to develop a model district for the 21st-century city, taking into account socially relevant aspects such as housing, work, the environment, mobility, inclusion, participation and democracy. In ­recent years, they have gained hundreds of supporters, including renowned academics, not-for-profit foundations and high-profile politicians. “We have six hectares of land at our disposal for the purposes of convincing society to explore alternative concepts”, says Marc Leßle about the Otto & Langen quarter, which could turn out to be the largest ‘real-life laboratory’ in Germany, and maybe even in Europe.

However, it’s not all plain sailing: at present, the Otto & Langen quarter belongs to two owners, the federal state of North Rhine-Westphalia and a private investor, both of whom have been dragging their heels so far. By contrast, the City of Cologne has, through a series of declarations of intent and council resolutions, indicated that it would like to acquire the quarter. While continuing to protect buildings with listed status, it aims to set up a district geared towards the common good that will be used on a cultural, social and commercial level. The prestigious administration building on Deutz-Mülheimer-Strasse where the fine arts factory is located is also to remain as a cultural site and an “anchor point for holistic development”. It would appear that the city has learnt from past mistakes: the Otto & Langen quarter is located at the heart of one of the most exciting urban development projects in Cologne, which extends from the trade fair centre in Deutz to the Katzenbuckelbrücke bridge in the Mülheim port area, covering a total of 70 hectares. It is the last unplanned space still to have its future decided. Well-funded investors have bought up the surrounding land, tearing down everything save for a number of listed halls with the intention of building upmarket residential and office complexes there, which people are trying to prevent from happening.

In Cologne, there are already plenty of examples of old factory buildings being successfully repurposed: Carlswerksgelände on Schanzenstrasse, the Hallen Kalk complex on Dillenburger Strasse where, in addition to the existing projects and initiatives, the DOMiD documentation centre and museum on migration in Germany is to be housed from 2023. In Bickendorf, on the other side of the Rhine, urban cultural association Niehler Freiheit e.v. has created a small biotope within a former industrial site with raised beds and rooftop greenery; film festivals, concerts, workshops and panel discussions can all be held here. Volunteers spent a year converting a food transportation vehicle into a mobile, solar-powered dental surgery that is now providing dental care to internally displaced persons in refugee camps in Syria. The most recent project is Wandel-Werk in Neuehrenfeld: on the site of a former car dealership, Klug e.V. has launched a crowdfunding campaign for a one-year interim usage period. Here, too, a ­creative laboratory for sustainable urban development is to be set up, complete with communal workstations, artist studios, greenhouse, urban gardening projects or a community workshop. All efforts to ensure that, as our city grows, the availability of free space for socially-minded projects grows with it. 

Zentralwerk der Schönen Künste Raum 13

Deutz-Mülheimer Str. 147–149, 51063 Cologne,

Niehler Freiheit

Vogelsanger Str. 385B, 50827 Cologne,

Hallen Kalk

Dillenburger Str., 51103 Cologne,


Liebigstr. 201, 50823 Cologne,


(by Anja Albert)