Tourist information – Heerlen
Until the late 19th century, Heerlen was a sleepy market town in the south-east corner of the Netherlands. It was rudely awoken from its slumbers by industrialisation and without warning, Heerlen became a boom town. From 1900 to the mid-1970s, the economy of the town and the region centred on coal. No fewer than 8 mines operated within a ten-kilometre radius of the town and its once rural landscape was scarred in the mad rush to extract this black gold. Like a wild west town, money poured into the region and Heerlen became one of the richest municipalities in the Netherlands.
Thrown into the 20th century, Heerlen became a hotbed for urban innovation and experimentation, particularly in the field of architecture. The Glaspaleis, a transformational building of concrete, steel and glass, was originally designed as the Schunck department store in the 1930s and built according to Modernist principles. It now houses a museum of contemporary art and is the cultural heart of Heerlen. It has also been acclaimed as one of the 1000 most important buildings of the 20th century by the International Union of Architects.
In the decades that followed the mine closures in 1975, Heerlen fell into sharp decline and made several unsuccessful efforts to reinvent itself. A number of iconic buildings from the age of coalmining – municipal and industrial – were demolished.
One of the buildings that thankfully escaped the wrecking ball was the Royal Theater, now home to the Dutch Mountain Film Festival. It dates from 1938 and was designed in the style of Het Nieuwe Bouwen, a school within the Modernist movement.
Across the square from The Royal, a new structure, which incorporates the new railway station, has emerged: the Maankwartier is a new large-scale urban development plan that was conceived to finally bring Heerlen’s period of decline to an end. Construction started in 2012 and is almost complete. In addition to the station, the complex will ultimately accommodate a mix of retail, offices, dwellings, a hotel and two car parks.
In recent years, Heerlen has rediscovered its lost creativity. It has a lively sub-culture and can claim to be the Street Art City of the Netherlands. The town can quite justifiably call itself the Mural Capital of the Netherlands, with more than 20 gigantic wall paintings adorning gable ends and empty spaces where buildings once stood.