top of page

Hamburg: Water, fire and air

baltic 4
baltic 1 flickr, wolfer0707
baltic 3
baltic 2 Frank Scymanska,
baltic 5
baltic 7 bigger

The Salzspeicher or salt buildings of Lübeck front the Trave next to the Holstentor. Built in the sixteenth to eighteenth centuries, their gable ends - sloped, stepped and shaped - are typical of the town's hansa architecture. Their influence was felt across the League and down down the years to today (Flickr, wolfer0707)

An aerial view of present-day Hamburg looking north east, with the Speicherstadt running across the image and the Kontorhausviertel toward the rear. HafenCity is being built on the cleared ground to the right (Frank Scymanska,

Block S on Alter Wandrahm was built to designs by Gustav Schrader between 1899 and 1912. The waterside elevations are formidable whilst also being diverting, with a richness of detail that is remarkable and sits between the Gothic and the Modern. The bridge is efficient yet adds another material and form to the district

Georg Thielen's Block P from around the same time is only slightly more restrained but still begins to show how workaday features can be embellished for architectural interest.

The pattern of shadow and light - recession and advancement - on a façade is important in this aesthetic, where the practical necessities of those features' locations tend to generate a regular rhythm  

Three generations of architect and architecture over three successive centuries (from the nineteenth to the twenty-first) sit alongside each other here on Brooksfleet. In the centre is Werner Kallmorgen's post-war Block O from 1959, now a hotel, with to the right gmp's multi-storey car park of 2004 (unlogged site)

Whether considered topographically, economically or architecturally, Hamburg is an elemental city. Water delineates an extensive acreage of docks on which its prosperity has been built and where vessels that move on and below that medium have been forged. Fire drove its greatest expansion and formed the bricks that are widely employed in an architecture of mass yet also of grace, in which terracotta and faience – similarly born of flame – play their part. Air is the newer dimension of arrival and departure, and whilst the means of conquering it once visited cataclysm on the city, aircraft are today assembled here. All three have made Hamburg, and a trip into the past explains why.


Eight hundred years ago, German cogs – flat-bottomed, single-masted cargo boats – moored overnight on the river Neva, one of the last stops on a journey that had taken them hundreds of miles and whose destination was Novgorod. Crews could only travel across great bodies of water at night, following the Pole Star; when its light faded land had to be nearby. Lack of a keel made manoeuvring difficult but shallow waters navigable, and allowed vessels to beach when needed. Similar feats of seamanship were being achieved elsewhere in the world: Richard I of England and Saladin were fighting the Crusades for control of the Holy Land, Japan’s first shōgun was appointed following a decisive naval battle and Genghis Khan was expanding his own empire. On this river, though, the aim was not war but trade.  


The boats were operated by merchants who had formed close-knit groups or hansa that grew to occupy secure enclaves within their home towns. Inside these kontors were warehouses and counting houses, meeting halls and chapels, all for the hansa’s exclusive use. Outside the walls the entrepreneurs also stayed together, sailing in convoy for protection against piracy (though hansa would launch some of the largest ships of their era) and applying their own quality standards, dispute resolution systems and legal codes. The hansa brought timber, fur, ore, fish and wheat from Scandinavia and Russia and sent cloth, silver and finished goods to those territories. And if the cog represented one facet of the logistics needed for such an undertaking – short and broad, even the smallest could carry the equivalent of fifty wagons – the wax tablets used for notetaking and hand-sized wooden boxes containing delicate, collapsible coin scales embodied another. With several of their members’ towns themselves growing to become independent Freie und Hansestadt as a result, the Baltic and the North Sea trade routes were dominated for centuries by what came to be called the Hanseatic League. At its heart lay the town of Lübeck.


Conveniently located – on an island in the Trave river – to serve both those seas, Lübeck was granted special trading rights by the regional ruler in the late twelfth century. Wealth soon flowed out from it to other towns in the League; wealth, but also ideas, technology and culture. This included the very particular architecture of Lübeck’s hansa houses.


Built on plots that were about four times deeper than they were wide due to the expense of obtaining a street-facing frontage, these combined living quarters, office space and storage in one structure. A hall for business and daytime use occupied the ground floor, there was an upper level for sleeping and above that a stack of attic storeys linked by steps and a hoist. The whole was covered by a steeply-sloped roof that became a distinctive feature of the typology. With an absence of suitable stone thanks to northern Germany’s geology, the buildings were constructed from brick. Easily made by semi-skilled labour, and in volume, this material was in any event more speedily transported and laid. As the simplest method of putting up the necessary gable ends during that last process was to step them, this became another characteristic of Lübeck houses along with the cascade of small windows provided therein to light the attics. Additional interest was created by the colour, shape and orientation of the bricks.


This specific mix of form, material and decoration spread from Lübeck to other Hanseatic settlements regardless of country, including Bruges in present-day Belgium, Visby in Sweden and Tallinn in Estonia. Critic Jonathan Meades describes them as possessing a “collective and corporatist” identity through buildings that “wear an imperial uniform”. Hamburg, the larger town to the west of Lübeck, was another.


It had developed around a sizeable natural harbour and three rivers, the Elbe and the lesser Alster and Bille. The Holy Roman Emperor had granted tax-free trading powers some decades before Hamburg allied itself with Lübeck and acquired Hanseatic status, and the prosperity this combination of geographical situation and political outlook brought to Hamburg was soon apparent. The city continued to increase its affluence into the medieval era and beyond, outpacing other Hanseatic locations and notwithstanding changes of national regime, international conflict and especially a devastating fire in the mid-nineteenth century.


This destroyed around a third of the then city area, including thousands of homes in hundreds of buildings and many civic landmarks. Yet even this was no barrier to growth –Hamburg expanded even faster after that event, which also proved to be the pivot around which its architecture changed. An English civil engineer, William Lindley, laid out a reconstruction plan, land was reclaimed with rubble from the ruins and new sewage and water services were installed. Merchants moved their warehouses to the docks and their actual houses to the suburbs, these last reflecting wider ambitions and cultural shifts. Respecting the Hanseatic model of plot-based scale and individualised character, they now appeared in a spread of styles and finishes, from Renaissance to Neoclassical and from render to stucco. As a result of both this and the mandated requirement for fire-proofing in the centre of the town the deployment of brick, that other distinctive aspect of Lübeck’s architecture, shifted from mixed-use to purely commercial buildings. The principal initiative was the redevelopment of Hamburg’s docks.


Speicherstadt (literally ‘storage city’), the resulting complex of warehouses, offices and product sampling spaces, was one of the largest districts of its type in the world. Electrically lit, fitted with hydraulic and steam power and linked by bridges over the intervening canals, its advanced facilities and great capacity drove Hamburg’s mercantile wealth for a new era yet also showed the architectural influence of Lübeck. A relaxed wander around its quays today yields dramatic views along cliffs of red brick – here sheer, there highly modelled –in an experience that is far from oppressive thanks to the diverse approaches taken during that century and the two that followed.


The first of the new warehouses, Block B, was completed in 1879 and was designed by architects Bernhard Hanßen and Wilhelm Meerwein. Now the oldest in the area and so appropriately home to the Internationales Maritimes Museum Hamburg, it set up many of the features that would be repeated throughout the blocks that came after. Built for the storage, transhipment and processing of goods, most were designed by Georg Thielen or Gustav Schrader and are, like that pioneering block, business-like but by no means austere thanks in large part to brick’s ability to provide dimensional articulation as well as simple patterns. This is the legacy of Lübeck’s hansa premises and became Hamburg’s own formula.


Thus all across Speicherstadt, planes of brick are relieved by specific motifs – projecting cornices, corbelled chimneys and multiply-recessed fenestration. This last is of interest in itself – instead of functional, punched openings, there are double and triple light windows set within reveals (themselves mostly Romanesque though occasionally Gothic, as in Lübeck) that often encompass several floors. Some blocks have circular, partly-detached stair towers that stop short of the water on the canal side and so read as an extended oriel. They echo the external loading doors through which goods rose up the building, taken in from a hoist. The pulley and beam for this is found at the top of each stack of doors, protected by a hood and set inside a steeply-sloping dormer roof. This feature inevitably recalls those Lübeck houses and it is surely significant that the gable of Hanßen and Meerwein’s warehouse is actually stepped; alternatively, as demonstrated by Thielen and Schrader, it may be finialled or pilastered. Other embellishments seen on this building or that include turrets, crenelations, finials (rotated or otherwise), metalwork and decorative string courses. The final block was completed in 1927.


The warehouses served just one aspect of Hamburg’s maritime economy. Shipbuilding grew over the same period, with the founding of Blohm & Voss in 1877 a key moment. The firm came to dominate the trade, going on to produce fast commercial sailing barques for the South American nitrate run at the turn of the century and battleships for the Kriegsmarine a few decades later; it was making almost half of Germany’s U-boats, including the advanced, electrically-powered Type XXI, by the end of the conflict that began in 1939. Merging old and new means of travel it also diversified into the assembly and, later, design of aircraft – including many models of seaplane and flying boat – for use in that war; they were tested from its own airfield, built in the Finkenwarder district near the docks. Both made the city a target for the bombing campaign carried out by the Allies’ own aircraft. At the end of July 1943, a week of continuous British and American aerial attacks under the codename Operation Gomorrah generated fires on the ground that were so great in density and extent that furnace-like temperatures were reached. These in turn created tornado-force winds that sucked oxygen out of cellars and blew debris through the streets: a firestorm, one that killed thousands. Jews and other ‘undesirable’ categories of citizens were prohibited from using public shelters during these raids and later deported – Germans could apply to take over their homes. Meanwhile, prisoners of war and concentration camp inmates were forced to remove unexploded bombs and bury the dead.


One notable architectural victim was the Nikolaikirche. Completed in 1874 to plans by distinguished Briton George Gilbert Scott, it was the tallest in the world with a spire nearly 500’ high. Discovering the remains today, amidst a sea of post-war offices and twenty-first century construction sites, is a sobering experience. Entering is an easy task since its walls no longer exist. Corbels support nothing, and soaring Gothic arches are now stumps, consolidated and capped with lead against further loss. There is no nave, no choir and no pews. At the liturgical east the apsidal window has been sheared away, the walls scoured to bare stone and the magnificent altar atomised. The roof has vanished and the glassless windows frame blue sky on a sunny spring morning. The intricately modelled spire largely escaped harm although its buttresses are rent and broken and its statues, now blackened, seem even more precariously perched as they stare out with blind eyes to take in a much-changed city.


Formerly a centre of Hamburg’s spiritual life, the Nikolaikirche was never rebuilt and is now maintained as a monument against war but at Speicherstadt, deemed vital still for the city’s economic life, a lengthy period of reconstruction began in 1949. Architect Werner Kallmorgen oversaw the entire programme and was responsible for most of the actual design work, which is impressively intelligent. He sensitively extended or interpreted the language used by his predecessors, steering the district carefully into a new architectural phase, and the resulting insertions read as frankly Modern but neatly reverent of the past.


Forming the end of a row of warehousing, his Bei St. Annen, 2 appears to be wholly of today with its crisp brickwork, minimalist window reveals below soldier course lintels and spare rooftop belvedere, so it is astonishing to discover it was completed in 1954 as one of the first post-war additions to Speicherstadt. Conversely Block T was one of the last, having been finished in 1967. This is more recognisably of its time, with Kallmorgen designing a solid mass of brick pierced by a tight lattice of fenestration. In between the two is his replacement for warehouse Block O, once the centre of the district’s coffee trade, finished in 1959. Uniquely, the block is gently cranked in plan to follow a kink in the adjacent stretch of water. An expressed frame of dark grey reinforced concrete is infilled with red brick spandrel panels; that these are flush with each other and the glazing, maintaining the idea of a visual grid whilst simultaneously advancing it, shows Kallmorgen’s confidence in working within an apparently restrictive convention. Front and rear elevations are identical, although the concave waterfront façade seems particularly impressive.


More recent decades have seen a third generation of practices take the Speicherstadt story further whilst still drawing on those who went before. Two very different approaches to this are seen in one complex alone. Next to Block B, and well before it became the Maritimes Museum, architect Ulrich Arndt repositioned a brutally utilitarian reinforced concrete warehouse from 1975 as offices for trading company Gebr. Heinemann, in two stages carried out twenty years apart. Commissioned in 1984 to simply add two office storeys to the working warehouse, Arndt clad these in copper and brick and included stepped gables in tribute to the neighbouring nineteenth century building. In 2005 he returned to convert the warehouse to offices, a task that required extensive internal demolition and new construction. To remodel the exterior an engineered brick façade was attached to the structure of the original building with heavy stainless steel anchors; its



                                                                                     Page 2

Chris Rogers  |  Writer on architecture and visual culture

bottom of page