It’s a far cry from the country’s traditional tourist sites. The imposing Vítkovice ironworks, dubbed the steel heart of the country, served the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the First Republic, the Wehrmacht and later communist Czechoslovakia. In 1998 part of this huge industrial complex with its blast furnaces and coke oven batteries was closed down and rather than getting dismantled it was declared a national cultural monument that is gradually being transformed into an interactive museum and a multipurpose cultural facility.
Ostrava, and in particular the city’s industrial zone Vítkovice, is one of the most polluted parts of the country and indeed the whole of central Europe. It has little to offer tourists who go in search of unspoiled natural beauty and picturesque villages. However with its extinct blast furnaces this dormant city of steel has been transformed into a visitor-friendly multi-cultural facility for people with inquisitive minds and an interest in the country’s industrial heritage.
The first phase of a ten-year project co-financed by the European Union was concluded last week and the decommissioned part of the ironworks opened its doors to the public giving people a glimpse into a world that is generally strictly off-limits. Visitors got a step-by-step tour of the iron manufacturing process taking a glass elevator, originally the skip hoist, to the opening of the blast furnace which used to be filled with coke, iron ore, limestone and other mixtures. From the mouth of the furnace visitors get a fabulous view of Ostrava and the Beskydy Mountains before descending down a spiral staircase into its very bowels where the temperature used to exceed 1500 degrees Celsius. They stop at the tapping platform where the process of tapping and the work of smelters is demonstrated and proceed to the control centre of the blast furnace. The giant gas container, which was part of the ironworks since gas was a by-product of the melting process, has been transformed into a multipurpose hall for cultural events and the one-time Energy Station offers an interactive museum showing fully-functional technical exhibits such as a steam powered facility used to pump water from coal mines that people can try their hand at.
Jan Světlík, the general director of the still functional Vítkovice Machinery Group which is involved in the revitalization of the lower area of the Vítkovice industrial compound, says the idea was not just to prevent the demolition of the 160-year-old ironworks, but to breathe new life into them.
“Today is the culmination of a 10-year reconstruction effort. The most difficult phase was at the very outset when there were numerous ideas flying around and lots of arguments about how to approach the task in a way that would work long-term, that would be attractive to the public and give the ironworks a new lease of life in the sphere of culture and education for years to come. In 2009 we received the European Heritage Label which greatly boosted our efforts and if you look around you today I think you see how well our ideas have come to fruition.”
The highlight of the opening, which included the screening of a film and a book launch mapping the reconstruction process of Dolni Vítkovice, was the interactive museum showing not just production processes used in the iron-making industry but technological achievements in general: a Czech-made robot, a model of Jurij Gagarin’s spacecraft and a battered old Škoda 1000 MB, an old communist model that made its debut in April 1964 and marked the beginning of what would eventually evolve into a long line of rear-engine Škodas. Fantasy and the unknown are important components here and individual sections of the exposition have been named after the novels of Jules Vernes. The author of the exhibition, where the common rule “do not touch” does not apply, is Milan Pešík. He explains the connection to Jules Verne’s novels.
“I was thinking about how I wanted to handle this expo and the main idea here was presenting technological progress in a way that would fire children’s imaginations. I realized that for me the concept of new horizons and pioneering was linked closely to Jules Verne’s novels. I wanted to make that connection and then I found that Jules Vernes was born the very same year that the Vítkovice ironworks were established. That settled it and I had my theme. So it is Jules Verne who guides visitors through the achievements of the past two centuries in this region which was a melting pot of Czechs, Germans, Poles Jews and other nationalities who together contributed to the fact that today the Czech Republic is one of the 30 most industrialized countries in the world.“
Today the museum provides space for the realization of educational programmes, workshops and seminars. The multipurpose cultural facility –a huge gallery named The Gong provides room for concerts, exhibitions of outsize art and book readings. Recently it served to showcase an outsize oil painting depicting the murder of prince Vaclav by his brother by the 19th century Viennese painter Anton Petter. The painting was never shown in appropriate surrounds which largely contributed to the fact that it failed to get recognition in its time. Artists and critics who attended the opening of this exhibition said that the modern steel and glass surroundings and the 19th century work blended exceptionally well.
The chief architect of the project Josef Pleskot has big plans for the future. Since the Vítkovice ironworks are indelibly linked with the history of the region he aims to make them a flagship project that will help Vítkovice grow and develop rather than being a burden. The Lower Area of Vítkovice, Hlubiná mine and Landek Park which offers the biggest exhibition on the history of mining in the Czech Republic are to be naturally connected to the centre of Ostrava by bike tracks, city transport and pedestrian alleys. The ironworks which in its time produced 90 million tons of pig iron and employed over 3,000 people is to become a showcase of industrial development and a recreational park where the locals and tourists can spend a day filled with sporting activities and cultural events. The first phase of this transformation process was concluded last week and on its opening day the industrial site attracted over 1,000 visitors. Architect Josef Pleskot says the public response fills him with hope for the future.
“I rate the success or failure of projects according to public reaction. And here I see satisfaction all round. Whenever I have accompanied people on tour at Dolni Vítkovice I have seen interest, curiosity and satisfied faces. We can say that we have achieved our goal in making this place what we wanted it to be, as we envisaged it but the important thing is how people relate to the project.”
The second phase of the project should see the construction of a large science and technology centre and provide easy access to the industrial compound from the city centre. But even now Ostrava can say that the two and a half billion crowns that have gone into the project has been money well-invested.