• High German

    Forty-five years ago, Travemünde on the Baltic Coast of what was then West Germany was at the very edge of the Iron Curtain. Sitting – appropriately – on the west side of the estuary that gave the hamlet its name (“Mouth of the River Trave”), the peninsular of Priwall jutting out from the eastern bank also fell within its boundary but only up to a point – the neck that attached it to the land beyond was cut by the Inner German Border. This line of separation then ran south, all the way to the Adriatic, as Churchill said. But in 1974, Travemünde residents were given a new vantage point from which to contemplate their former compatriots in the East with the opening of the 35-story-high Maritim hotel. With its period décor largely unaltered to this day, this remarkable addition to a genteel, Victorian seaside resort ironically if winningly recalls the architecture of the East.

    The hotel’s roots are firmly in the Federal Republic of Germany. Founded by Hans-Joachim Gommolla in 1969, the private Maritim group opened its first hotel not far from Travemünde at Timmendorfer. This was at the height of the Cold War, which had split the country in half and seen culture and the arts deployed on both sides in furtherance of opposing ideologies. By building along the Baltic Sea – a traditional German holiday destination but one into which the German Democratic Republic had pushed that divisive border – Maritim challenged its neighbour; by building so high at Travemünde, Gommolla arguably thumbed its nose at her, just as Axel Springer did with his towering publishing headquarters right on the Berlin Wall.

    As constructed by Hochtief from 1972, the Maritim Strandhotel Travemünde was to climb 119 metres into the sky and have 35 usable floors. In a further touch of showmanship-cum-assertive diplomacy, a rotating red shipping navigation light was mounted one storey higher. The hotel thus became one of the tallest lighthouses in the world, replacing the hamlet’s 16th century predecessor at its base.

    Resolutely Modernist in style, the hotel’s façade is defined by the projecting grid of concrete piers and beams that create its rooms and the continuous perimeter balconies that wrap the entirety of every floor. These last maintain a surprising horizontality that avoids the building’s height becoming overweening. Rectangular in plan, the hotel’s tower is oriented north west-south-east, giving all rooms views of the river, sea and land.

    As was common in this period, the hotel has a top floor eating and bar space that today – rather unaccountably – is restricted to daytime hours only. Located at the south-eastern end of the floorplate, it faces Lübeck further up the river.

    The base of the building takes the form of a wide, two-storey podium that is partially embanked and has a basement. This houses the main public spaces, which again reflect their time – lobby, restaurant, a bar, a ‘pub’ (so named) and a bowling alley, all with large windows and overlooking the water. A vast, double height and windowless conference/banqueting hall complete with mezzanine and its own dedicated foyer balances these to the landward side. The hotel was originally linked to a large indoor swimming pool complex but this was demolished and the land disposed of in favour of new resort buildings under separate ownership. A smaller pool now forms part of a spa for the hotel.

    No matter what their date, almost all hotels undergo regular refurbishment. Unless exceptionally notable, interiors seldom survive these periodic convulsions of taste. What distinguishes the Maritim Strandhotel Travemünde today is the fact that so much of what is clearly its original scheme remains intact, complete with rich materials and warm colours.

    In that lobby, veined white marble columns, tremendous polygonal chandelier light fittings and the inevitable veined-gold mirrored glass walls survive, as does an attractive metalwork grille to a retail unit. Padded leather half-moon door handles are first seen here and recur elsewhere in different colourways – cream, burgundy, dark green.

    The double doors to the restaurant are a highlight – their insides and outsides, as well as a frieze-like panel above, are feature beaten metal bas reliefs illustrating a mediaeval feast. Slightly naïve in style, they are nevertheless utterly charming. Inside, the serving area is backed by a delightful metalwork screen on an appropriately nautical theme.

    The foyer of the function hall has many more of the chandeliers, as well as sconces in a matching style. An attractive staircase flanked with deep, padded leather side rails leads down to the lower level of the podium.

    Unexpectedly, the guest rooms also show elements of this original scheme. The crystalline light fitting over the full-length mirror, built-in wardrobes with recessed handle, bedside radio controls and hardwood window frames with bronze handles all recall the early 1970s in winning fashion.

    That this hotel has not succumbed to the latest trend is not entirely a surprise. Even today, as new apartment blocks are carved out of the ground across the water, Travemünde is an old fashioned kind of place and a popular retirement destination. Perhaps it is fitting, then, that some of the more positive aspects of that time many decades ago are still with us.


Chris Rogers writer on architecture and visual culture

Click blog images to expand; pre-Sept 2011 posts here


Chris is one of more than a dozen specialists whose essays fill this fresh examination of the charms of Paris, which is edited by John Flower. Looking at the French capital's history, culture and districts, each item can be read in just half a minute and is beautifully illustrated with its own collage-style spread.

The Ivy Press, 2018

Hardback, 160 pages | ISBN 9781782405443


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