Watching “Brachen of Berlin” reminded me of exploring Berlin’s ruins, relics and derelict spaces with my friends as a teenager. These “bando’s” were often not only spaces of ‘spontaneous nature’ as outlined in the film but also reflected current and historic metabolic flows and political priorities. One site I have fond memories of exploring is the chemical factory or “Chemiewerk” of Rüdersdorf! As you will find out in this post it has a long history of changing socio-ecology significance to Berlin (and with it a long history of name changes).
The municipality of Rüdersdorf is located approximately 30km outside of Berlin’s city centre. However, don’t let the distance fool you, Rüdersdorf has played a central role in the material production of central Berlin! The construction of a whole range of Berlin’s most well-known cultural and historical sites relied on limestone extracted in Rüdersdorf (or as it is known locally the “capital of limestone”): the Brandenburg Gate, the Berliner Dom, Sanssouci, the Berlin Olympic Stadium, and the Reichstag. Many of these sites are of immense political importance to Berlin. Indeed, the Reichstag, the home of the German parliament, is arguably THE locus of political power in Germany today.
The Chemiewerk Rüdersdorf places a central role in this history and has shaped and been shaped by the urban political and ecological composition of Berlin in a range of fascinating ways.
It started off as a Berlin-based cement factory in 1900 operating under the name “C. O. Wegener Rüdersdorfer Portland-Cementwerk – Hennickendorfer Dampfziegeleien Vertriebs-Aktiengesellschaft” before being bought up by the Prussian mining and smelter company the Preusag in 1939. Operating under the Preusag, a company taken over by the Nazi regime in 1933, an estimated 2000 people were forced to work in the lime quarries and cement works to facilitate rearmament efforts such as building air-raid shelters and fortresses for Berlin. In this way, the flows of limestone to the city that were enabled by exploitative labour were directly linked to Nazi war efforts.
In fact, the ecological focus and political significance of the Chemiewerk was constantly in flux. In 1944, as the German war industry grew hungry for aluminium, the Chemiewerk moved away from producing cement and began producing synthetic bauxite instead. However, these flows were disrupted after the war when the Soviet military administration took over the site. Seen as a form of reparations, the administration ordered political prisoners, including a range of high-ranking Nazi officials, to dismantle much of the old cement factory so that it could be transported to the Soviet Union. In 1949 what was left of the site became “VEB Glühphosphatwerk Rüdersdorf” – a fertilizer production plant focussed on producing magnesium phosphate. As such, the location became linked to the ecological metabolism of food in Berlin. In 1972 the focus switched again as the site began producing calcium sodium phosphate for the industrial livestock to keep up with growing demands for meat in Berlin. It now operated under the name “VEB Chemiewerk Coswig Betriebsteil Rüdersdorf”. After Germany’s reunification, like much of East-Germany’s infrastructure, the factory was no longer considered important to the political priorities at the time and closed its doors soon after.
Today, Chemiewerk Rüderdorf is a very popular location within Berlin’s “urbex” scene due to its proximity to Berlin and being virtually unguarded. If you go to Chemiewerk Rüderdorf you will find that it is an eerie landscape: puddles of green liquid are dotted around, the wind rushes through vast halls through shattered windows, the muted sound of machinery from a nearby limestone quarry still buzzes in the background – all remnants and reminders of its complex metabolic past. A range of filmmakers have made use of this “post-apocalyptic landscape”. The Chemiewerk features, for instance, in ‘Enemy at the Gates’ and ‘The Monuments Men’ and it was the backdrop of a moon landing in a Rammstein music video.
In many ways, I don’t think it is fair to call the Chemiewerk Rüderdorf “abandoned” or a “wasteland” as in Gandy’s movie, it is very much still alive, in flux, and facilitating metabolic flows to and from Berlin.
If you want to read more on the site’s history I recommend having a look at this brilliant piece: https://digitalcosmonaut.com/2020/chemiewerk-ruedersdorf/?fbclid=IwAR0XCzhIgKm_bpdJDu_cpqsJ5FL8JSF0GBd_UVppxudUtz2mPmqIRXLwOXA.