Rheinelbe Sculpture Woods

The Rheinelbe Sculpture Woods (Skulpturenwald Rheinelbe) in Gelsenkirchen, Germany, is one of Herman Prigann’s most ambitious projects, the transformation of a former coal mine into a sculptural park that invites nature back into previously fallow land.

The project was realized within the context of the IBA (Internationale Bauausstellung/International Architecture Exhibition) between the years 1996 and 2005. It encompasses the re-imagining of an entire terrain, the creation of 15 sculptural objects (some metamorphic, others permanent), as well as the monumental Spiral Hill with Skystairs, one of Europe’s best-known land art pieces. It also includes the Large Stone Field at nearby Mont Cenis.

large stone field, grosses steinfeld, mont cenis, herman prigann
Large Stone Field, Mont Cenis

The creative process involved the recultivation of the site under an ecological aesthetic. The materials used in most of the artworks are stone, concrete and iron remnants of the former industrial site, as well as elements of nature.

The theme running through the entire artwork is the history of the site and the surrounding area and the traces it left behind. The Erinnerungssteine (Memory Stones) line the forest road leading up to the Spiral Hill with Skystairs. Embedded into the concrete are old tools and other items related to the mining operations that once took place at the site. The inscriptions are poems by or about miners.

The park was structured along lines of orientation marked by stones, wood sculptures, steles and towers.

The Holzplatz or Wooden Place (shown above) is a sculptural place on a hillside. A long stone path and stairs lead through the forest, made from old building materials and natural stone. At the top is a wood sculpture of intersecting trunks, a portal of sorts. The path – stairs – portal guide the eye, creating a sight line through the forest.

The Spiral Hill – Skystairs is 110 meters tall. A hill comprised of slate soil and the remnants of coal mining. On top stands a monument of concrete blocks, rests of the old industrial architecture. It rises to a height of 16 meters. The artwork is the highest point in the entire area.

Spiral Hill by Herman Prigann
Spiral Hill with Skystairs, 2000. Photo by Werner Hannappel.
spiral hill rheinelbe herman prigann
Spiral Hill from above. Photo by Werner Hannappel.

Rheinelbe Sculpture Woods is maintained and cared for by a dedicated team of forest rangers. In 2010 the Landesbetrieb Wald und Holz NRW and the M:AI (Museum for Architecture and Engineering Arts) organized the exhibition Rheinelbe – Art in Nature about the evolution of the sculpture park and how Herman’s work brought together art, nature and history. Since then the on-site forestry station houses a permanent exhibition about the site and its artistic transformation.

Rheinelbe is unique, the first example of how an industrial area – forest – wilderness can be transformed into a new kind of park.

– Herman Prigann, 2008

Rheinelbe Sculpture Woods, 45886 Gelsenkirchen-Ückendorf, NRW, Germany

City of Gelsenkirchen official website

All photos by the artist (unless otherwise noted), Herman Prigann Estate, All Rights Reserved.