Art & architecture in Gelsenkirchen

Gelsenkirchen’s Musiktheater im Revier opened on 15 December 1959. The architect was Werner Ruhnau, who designed a complex comprising two stages for music theatre and dance. Instead of a percent-for-art scheme, Ruhnau chose to involve artists in the project right from the start so that their works of art would be on an equal footing with the architecture. He had first caught sight of Yves Klein’s monochrome paintings at an exhibition of the German sculptor Norbert Kricke at Iris Clert’s gallery in Paris in March 1957. Ruhnau was so taken with these that he called on the painter the very next day. The friendship that grew out of that first encounter would culminate in Klein having a hand in the design of the theatre in Gelsenkirchen. Klein’s connections with Germany intensified when his Monochromes featured in the inaugural exhibition of the Galerie Schmela in Düsseldorf. It was there that he met his future wife Rotraut, sister of the ZERO artist Günther Uecker. Klein submitted his bid for the artistic design of the foyer of the Musiktheater im Revier on the day of the opening at Schmela, 31 May 1957, and was awarded the contract – thanks in part to the support of both Kricke and Ruhnau – in January 1958. Just over a year later, on 22 May 1959, Jean Tinguely was likewise enlisted to create two moving reliefs for the complex. These were to be ready by August, it was stipulated. Klein had long been in Gelsenkirchen by then and was working round the clock on a blue sponge sculpture in the theatre foyer. The exhibition Collaboration Internationale entre artistes et architectes dans la réalisation du nouvel Opéra de Gelsenkirchen opened at Iris Clert’s gallery in Paris in late May 1959 – a few months before the theatre itself.


Jean Tinguely in the New City Theatre in front of one of his kinetic wall objects
© bpk / Charles Wilp

As an architect I strove – and still do strive – to hire not only technical experts for the structural engineering, the materials, the heating and ventilation systems, the acoustics and such like, but also artists, who as 'specialists in aesthetics' – especially painters and sculptors – will help design the work’, wrote Ruhnau in 1999. ‘Architecture as an artistic discipline has always called for the involvement of painters and sculptors.

With the dawn of modernism this practice was all but forgotten. The revival of the old master builders’ practice of working together with a masons’ yard opened up an exciting source of inspiration for both the artists of the ZERO group in Düsseldorf and the Nouveaux Réalistes, a group made up of Tinguely, Klein, Pierre Restany and others that was founded in Paris in October 1960.

It was in our masons’ yard that Jean Tinguely, Yves Klein, Anita Ruhnau, Paul Dierkes, Franz Krause and I founded the 'Party of Blue Patriots'. Klein and I planned 'air-conditioned oases' for a paradisiacal fellowship of men. We designed a 'Theater of Emptiness' and developed the sponge reliefs and blue paintings in the foyers; we threw stones at the soft mortar of the murals and delighted in the cosmic craters that this produced. We empowered each other to appropriate and sign each others’ ideas and works. For a city dubbed the 'city of 1000 fires' we planned pyro-sculptures on the concourse in front of the theatre, and to perpetuate our Gelsenkirchen 'masons’ yard' we founded a 'School of Sensibility', in which Jean Tinguely along with twenty teachers and 300 pupils, but without any curriculum or examining board, would work steadily on a building that would continue to grow, changing constantly.

Werner Ruhnau, 1999

Image credit: Jean Tinguely (l) and Yves Klein in the shell of the New Gelsenkirchen City Theatre © bpk / Charles Wilp