At the end of the 1970s I had a holiday job at Kronos Titan, part of the colossal Bayer works along the river Rhine in Leverkusen. As a local student – I’d grown up in the city, a mere 100m away from the football stadium – I was given the chance to work for Bayer during semester breaks. These were the glory days of the German chemical industry, and hourly rates of pay (boosted by all kinds of bonuses for shift work, hazard pay, etc) were positively paradisical. I seem to recall that I got on average 3o Deutschmarks an hour. For the purposes of comparison, my first holiday job two years before – at the cheese counter in a department store – paid all of 2.65 Deutschmarks.
The Kronos Titan factory was a city-within-the-city of the Bayer works. It was instantly recognisable because it was covered all over in white, as if dusted with fine icing sugar. As an art student I was of course familiar with ‘Titan white’, which had the greatest opacity of any white pigment. But what I saw when the foreman showed me around the ground floor were huge vats filled with jet black liquid – the black Australian ore rutile (TiO2), which was washed to isolate the white pigment.
I was to work on the floors above, where 12 different mills ground the white pigment to varying degrees of fineness. The mills were funnel-shaped, and cut through three storeys. There were three shifts: 6am–2pm (early shift), 2pm–10pm (late shift) and 10pm–6am (night shift). Each was manned by two workers. The standard routine was to work seven days a week for three weeks and then take the fourth week off. But I was keen to earn as much money as possible, so after the third week I took just one day off and the next day put on the full body suit and face mask (a great combination, as it meant hazard pay) and started all over again on the early shift.
Armed with a heavy wooden hammer with a steel inlay, it was our job to ‘strike off’ the pigment that stuck to the inside of the mills during the grinding process. To do this we had to walk around the metal mills, hammering them from top to bottom. We would begin on the third floor, working our way from Mill No 1 to Mill No 12; then we’d go down one floor and do the same thing all over again – and finally repeat the whole performance for a third time on the floor below. When that was done, we’d allow ourselves the briefest of pauses before going back up to the third floor and starting all over again. I liked this work. I also liked my co-workers. I found out after a while that I was the only German. The others came from Turkey, Poland, Russia. They didn’t talk much.
After each shift I went back to my studio, where I also lived. It was perhaps 300m from the works and part of a picture framing workshop, with a WC, washbasin and carpenter oven. For the first few weeks I was dead tired at the end of the shift, but from the second month things improved and I had enough energy to do some work of my own.
The designer of the Bayer Cross remains unknown, though there are two competing origin stories. One gives the credit to Hans Schneider, who worked in the Scientific Department in Wuppertal-Eberfeld in 1900. A co-worker recounted: ‘I went to see him as I had several matters to discuss with him. He wrote on his notepad the word ‘BAYER’ in capital letters, first in a straight horizontal line then again from top to bottom – it was the Bayer Cross! He tore the sheet out of the pad, leapt up and, excusing himself, took the sign to the Directorate, where it was much admired.’ The alternative version is that a Dr Schweizer who worked in the New York branch of Bayer was eager to convince the US medical community of the merits of the company’s products, but mindful that its name – ‘Farbenfabriken vormals Friedrich Bayer & Co, Eberfeld’ – was perhaps a bit of a mouthful for those unaccustomed to German compounds. To get around this small obstacle he came up with an eye-catching stamp with the Bayer Cross on it, initially for use as a letterhead.
Whatever its origins, the Bayer Cross has great sentimental value for all inhabitants of Leverkusen. It is to the city what the cathedral is to Cologne, just 15km away. Visible from afar at night, the cross in a circle has an almost religious aura. The first sign was erected in 1938. At the time it was the largest illuminated sign in the world (72m diameter, and mounted between two brick chimneys), but it was shut off with the blackout at the start of the war and dismantled in 1944.
The present Bayer Cross was completed by the Berlin firm Turmbau, Steffens & Nolle in 1958. It has a diameter of 51m, weighs 300 tonnes and is supported by two 118m-high steel masts. It used to be equipped with 1,712 conventional 40-watt light bulbs (total power output c 70,000 watts). The individual letters were visible from 5km away.
In 2006 Bayer announced its intention to dismantle this energy-guzzling cross, and the whole population of the city rose up in protest. Even the ultras of Bayer Leverkusen (generally derided as the Bundesliga’s spoiled ‘opera audience’) launched a petition to save it. It was the first (and up till now the only) time the fans had engaged with anything outside football. And it worked. On 4 December 2007 Bayer announced it had decided not to tear down the cross after all. But in 2009 they replaced the lightbulbs with 5-watt liquid LEDs (cutting energy consumption by more than 80 per cent). The tower still stands as the symbol of the city: it just twinkles a little less brightly.