Hamburg's new image centre


Europe’s most ambitious waterfront development initiative, the HafenCity in Hamburg, looks unaffected by the recession. Hectic construction activity enlivens the 380-acre expanse of abandoned harbour, and many new buildings are up and inhabited. When it’s completed in a couple of years, the HafenCity will house 12,000 apartments, office blocks for 40,000 people and an array of dazzling cultural and educational institutions.

Footing it through the ‘designer district’, where muddy swathes of land curl spectacularly into the Elbe River, I see architecture by some of the biggest signatures on the international drawing board — Dutchman Rem Koolhaas’s ring-shaped Science Centre, New Yorker Richard Meier’s glass-and-white metal Hamburg-America House, Copenhagen’s Henning Larsen’s organic sculpture-like Spiegel Building, Italian Massimiliano Fuksas’ dramatic cruise ship terminal and hotel and, not least, Swissmen Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron’s much-vaunted, futuristic Elbe Philharmonic concert house.

The 500-million-Euro, wavy glass Elbe Philharmonic structure, designed by the duo that produced London’s Tate Modern, will be the centrepiece of HafenCity. It will soar 110 metres out of the triangular foundation of an old port storage-house and its colossal, curved, glass panels will replicate the ripples of the water surrounding it. The structure’s just beginning to take shape but one can easily tell that it will be a stunner.

The Elbe Phil’s cost has escalated by 250 million Euro recently, but Hamburg’s minister for urban development Axel Gedaschko maintains that the rich old Hanseatic city, Europe’s second-largest port which saw a 4.2 per cent growth in 2008 (nearly twice that of Germany as a whole), can afford the additional expense. “The value of the Elbe Philharmonic structure will far outweigh the cost of its construction,” notes the politician.

The Elbe Phil structure, along with the contemporary architecture surrounding it, will strengthen Hamburg’s iconography, which is relatively weak, explains HafenCity project chief Juergen Bruns-Berentelg, who led the reconstruction of Potsdamer Platz in Berlin in the 1990s.

“Hamburg is not identified with any particular monument or image, like New York is with its skyline, Berlin with Brandenburg Gate, Mumbai with the Gateway of India, or Sydney with its Opera House,” the planner points out. “The Elbe Phil will give Hamburg a new image centre.”

Cool culture hub

The planners and local people hope that the concert house will do for Hamburg what Jorn Utzon’s shell-like Opera House has done for Sydney and that HafenCity will transform their gracious old port-town into a cool new global destination.

There’s no guarantee that it will, of course. But Bruns-Berentelg declares that their team is striving to avoid the pitfalls of other harbour rehabilitation projects such as the Docklands in London, the South Street Seaport in New York and the Amsterdam Waterfront Development that ended up creating a social monoculture behind colourful facades. “They ended up as caricatures,” he remarks wryly. “We are more ambitious. Our challenge is to preserve Hamburg harbour’s historic identity and create something contemporary at the same time. We are being more demanding, but also more careful.”

More careful than they were at Potsdamer Platz, he admits. Germany’s other big urban renewal venture has failed in terms of livability. It’s a tourist magnet but a sterile place.

“True,” Bruns-Berentelg concedes with amazing grace. “But then, Potsdamer Platz’s residential zone occupies just 10 per cent of the area. Moreover, it has no iconic architecture. HafenCity will be a success, we hope, because 35 percent of it is residential, and it’s got some fabulous architecture.”

Their team has striven to stamp HafenCity with a high quality of urbanity, as it were — to create a contemporary setting where work, living and leisure areas will mesh quietly and where residents, workers and tourists will intermingle seamlessly.

There will, for instance, be no shopping malls in HafenCity. Instead, all buildings — offices or homes — will have a 7.5-metre-high ground floor to lure retailers and restaurants, creating an outdoor street culture.

Cars will be parked underground, sound facilities for flood control will be in place, waterfront walkways will abound. “There will be a horizontal flow of people along the water basins, HafenCity’s strongest feature,” says Bruns-Berentelg, “and that will provide the place with a sense of harmony.” 

An integral part of this top-class urbanity is the use of green energy. “The City of Hamburg, where the Greens are an important part of the ruling coalition, wishes to adhere to every clause in the Kyoto Protocol,” says Ingrid Spengler, whose firm designed H20 House, one of the first green buildings in HafenCity.

“Architects, or rather their clients, need to work to recently established HafenCity Standard that requires builders to minimise energy consumption and maximise the use of green energy.”

“Germany sets the pace in the global green race,” chips in the exuberant Bruns Bereltelg, “and HafenCity is the place to watch the race.” But has all this spotless planning and green technology infused HafenCity with energy?

At the end of the day, I do not find the place the last word in spontaneity or dynamism. But then, urban renewal districts across the world are sterile to start with. “Life takes a while to arrive,” as one new HafenCity resident tells me.

“The patina of day-to-day life shows up when people start using the place in ways that its planners didn’t reckon with. So, wouldn’t it be fair to raise this question in 2020?” he suggests.

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