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design was taken from that of the upper levels, created two decades before, which was extruded downwards. It included a newer, twenty-first century rhythm for the windows, the sills constructed alternately from brick and metal. Five years later again Gebr. Heinemann called on architects gmp to extend their premises, which resulted in a more conventional office building being erected next to the Arndt block in 2016. Comprising four brick volumes compressed into a rectangular plan, its verticality is presented very differently from previous generations via floor-to-ceiling glazing across complete façades or squeezed between full-height brick piers. The approach broadly works, although the ‘invisible’ five-floor glazed link to its earlier cousin might suggest a certain distance between the two was welcomed by all.  


Elsewhere, in 2003-04 gmp built a large multi-storey car park next to Kallmorgen’s Block O whose volume and massing matched it and the typical nineteenth century blocks; regularly-spaced stair and lift cores or other interruptions in the parking floors occupy the physical and visual positions where loading doors would have been found, and are also topped with vestigial dormers. The car bays are clad in masonry grilles that pick up on the brick pattern used by Kallmorgen on the street-side ground floor of his block.


A brief note on the wholly contemporary, ongoing HafenCity development to the south east of Speicherstadt is warranted since although water brought great wealth to Hamburg, the city’s low-lying position and the region’s weather systems have meant inundations as a result of storms and winds have been common for decades. Dikes are employed as flood control measures but as these are expensive and disruptive, in this area developers are required to erect plinths eight meters above sea level to support their buildings proper. Living accommodation is not permitted on the ground floors, glazing must resist water pressure and multiple, high-level escape routes have to be provided.


Back at Speicherstadt, though, this intensive architectural dialogue conducted across a century and a half within what is in essence a single typology has produced an absorbing and rewarding range of buildings, settled though pleasingly varied. The possibilities even when using a small number of fundamental features is apparent, as is the skill needed to produce cadenced repetition rather than uninspired monotony. The conjunctions between adjacent buildings emerging from the same or different practices, ages and clients are particularly powerful.


A short walk north of Speicherstadt is the Kontorhausviertel or office building district. Established just as the first round of warehouse construction ended, though deriving from the same initial impetus, this comprises a dozen very large office complexes or Kontorhäuser to house the administrative space needed by the businesses engaged in port-related activities. Each was let to multiple tenants, and so the interiors were built to be subdivided as needed. All were pushed to the very edges of their respective plots to optimise net floor area and so ultimately the road layout, including the diagonal Burchardstraße, explains their unusual planforms. Each floor above the sixth had to be set back from the one below to reduce the height seen from the street, an urban planning concession unnecessary in the industrial Speicherstadt.


Most arrestingly the chosen building material is a black clinker brick, an accident of production usually rejected as unwanted – overheated in the kiln, they darkened beyond the intended tone – but embraced by a select group of architects at the dawn of the twentieth century. Especially suited to Hamburg’s geography, being also harder (the name is onomatopoeic, from the sound made when they are tapped), heavier and resistant to frost and water, they were here stacked in assertive, Expressionist arrangements that vary from block to block. As with those nearby warehouses the Kontorhäuser are both similar to each other yet also highly individual, and the looming muscularity of their elevations is offset by intricate detailing and the unexpected openness of internal courtyards.  


The Chilehaus is not the largest of the blocks but is the most famous and so stands for the rest in any analysis. Ten storeys high, it was designed by Fritz Höger for Henry B. Sloman, whose business imported saltpeter from Chile, between 1922 and 1924 (the last of these Kontorhäuser were completed just after the war). The local street plan notwithstanding, the building is reminiscent of a boat with its polygonal ‘stern’ to the west, regular centre section bridging over an existing alley and photogenic pointed eastern ‘bow’, itself asymmetrical with a light concavity to the south east elevation. Structurally the building is a complex hybrid of concrete, iron, stone and timber from its foundations to its roof. Courtyards – two private, one public – bring daylight to the offices and as the upper floors step back from these inner façades as well as those toward the street, their cross sections recall those stepped gables from Lübeck.


The darkness of the clinker bricks, rare in any city and certainly when used on this scale, suggest the building has been carved from a solid mass rather than assembled from individual components. The inclusion of gauged or wire-cut ‘specials’ contributes to this impression; on the low arches giving onto the now-pedestrianised alley the bricks are knotted, whilst above they are twisted, six rotated one way and a single rotated another, to form pilasters that rise to the deep sixth floor cornice. Other textures are found in the central courtyard. The contrasting white window surrounds, especially when set out in a regular grid, emulates that seen in the Speicherstadt’s warehousing and creates a mesmerising moire effect. There are broader stylistic influences at work than Expressionism and Höger acknowledges this with for example a Gothic arcade at the eastern tip that forms a nascent bow wave of terracotta carved into columns, cherubs and creatures. It was made by Richard Kuöhl. Inside the two main entrances lie staircase lobbies lavishly lined with travertine or faience (glazed ceramic) layered in alternating bands of salmon and oxblood. These are taken with great skill around the acutely-curved landings where, too, splashes of other colours appear such as a deep ocean blue. On upper levels the tiling is more business-like.


Of the other blocks the Meßberghof to the southeast in paler, calmer brick and with illusory buttresses, the Mohlenhof in the northwest and the Sprinkenhof in the northeast are noteworthy. The latter is the biggest of the group with around 560,000 square feet of floor space. That many of the Kontorhausviertel buildings feature ceramicware in significant ways is no co-incidence. Hermann Wurzbach introduced grès flammé or glazed stoneware to Hamburg in 1905 and  was followed by Leon Frejtag and Erich Elingius who, well before the first world war, erected a number of rationally planned, proto-Modernist office buildings in the city. Prominent amongst these is the powerfully original pair at Schauenburger Strasse, where piers of glazed brick frame mullions and spandrels of faience or glazed terracotta; strikingly, number 15 (completed in 1906) is deep red in colour whilst the adjacent number 21 (1911) is a dark green. Appropriately, relief motifs refer to Hamburg, trade and seafaring.


Overall, then, it is apparent that what writers Horst Büttner and Günter Meissner call “the charm of brickwork” beguiled merchants from Hamburg in the twentieth century just as it did their ancestors from Lübeck in the thirteenth, and the former’s warehouses and office buildings are the clear spiritual descendants of the latter’s merchant row houses.


Perhaps surprisingly given its proximity to the docks, the Kontorhausviertel escaped major destruction during the 1939-45 conflict and so is less reflective of post-war architectural values than Speicherstadt. Both are specialised contexts, however; for a more general view of what was built in the 1950s one must walk toward the centre of the city. Here, good examples can still be found of what critic Simon Bradley calls the “light, friendly” variety of Modernism that emerged across Europe at this time and was applied to a range of typologies. Sometimes referred to as the Contemporary style in England, this is rather charmingly termed Nierentisch-Stil or ‘kidney table style’ in Germany after a signature output of the same period’s decorative arts scene.


Immediately north of Speicherstadt and fronting, now, a busy road as well as the water is Kajen, 2-10, one of a group of new Kontorhäuser built between 1953 and 1955 by architect Otto Paradowski. Though sizeable, it is set back from the road and its gently convex façade, pale sandstone cladding and riven slate spandrel panels reduce the apparent scale further. One entrance, neatly cut into the end of the block, is announced by an abstract tiled mural covering the entire exterior wall, the colours of which match those used in the elevational treatment. It is punctured by two large eye-like porthole windows. At the opposite end of the building another entrance leads to a small public lobby whose original décor has been preserved in its entirety. A compass star of coloured marble is set into the floor, watched over by a traditional ship’s figurehead on a minimalist plinth. The lift portals of polished black veined marble are complemented by a cantilevered elliptical staircase which elegantly rises the full height of the building, with a complementary flight curving down into the basement. Even the gold foil lettering on the timber-and-glass door to the concierge’s kiosk is intact.


Closer still to the city centre stands the former premises of H.O. Persiehl, an office supplies firm that began in Hamburg and which was noted for the progressive employment policies of its eponymous founder. Designed by Alfred Bliemeister between 1957 and 1958, the building is entirely of glazed brick (where the visible face has been coated and fired to a sheen or even gloss finish) in two colours – ivory for the façades and deep vertical ribs, red for the spandrel panels. The modest rake of the end wall mirrors that of the pier below. A recessed top floor with railed terrace emphasises the depth of the cantilevered roof, which is pierced with circular light openings – horizontal portholes, as it were – whose German name Himmelklos translates as ‘sky loos’. Recent conversion to a Scientology church has been sympathetic; a clock face replaces the Persiehl logo in its projecting circular frame and the freestanding letters on the ground floor canopy replicate the position and style of those that once spelled out the company’s name.


This is one of many connections between present and past in Hamburg, connections that often share the constituents of water, fire and air. Nowhere in the city are these more intimately linked than in its modern commercial port, one of Europe’s largest. This is home to the usual container terminals, cruise liner berths and shipyards, including that of Blohm & Voss, which remains a major marine builder and repairer to this day and still occupies its 1911 main building, brick-built and with embryonic stepped gables. Next door is Airbus’s national headquarters and highly automated fuselage assembly line, the jet-powered airliners that emerge from it a clear inheritance of the inter-war inventiveness of Blohm & Voss and which are now test-flown and delivered from the same private airport that the shipbuilder once used. A recent runway extension is built on the rubble of the Fink II U-boat pens, erected during the war and explosively demolished by the British in subsequent years; remaining sections of wall can still be clearly seen from any passenger flight arriving in Hamburg. It seems a fitting aggregation for this elemental city.






Posted 29 April 2021 based on a few days in the city in 2018


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A similar progression is seen here, in reversed order. On the right is Block B, from 1879 and by Bernhard Hanßen and Wilhelm Meerwein. Its design was echoed by Ulrich Arndt in 1984 when he added the top two floors to the block in the middle, which he then reclad completely in 2005. To its left is gmp’s 2016 extension, taking a different line but still one with shared heritage

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The Chilehaus by Fritz Höger thrusts into the sky to its east, flagship of the clinker brick administrative office buildings north of the docks. Each is a different iteration of the same theme. Its flank, below is a dazzling display of craft and the manipulation of view

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The majority of the Sprinkenhof was by Fritz Höger and Hans and Oskar Gerson. Its primary elevation of ‘stitched’ brick panels looks to the future in many ways

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Otto Paradowski’s Kajen, 2-10 office block from 1955 actually completes the circle back to the original dockside warehouses, with its tightly defined elevation, gridded articulation and careful use of materials

Chris Rogers  |  Writer on architecture and visual culture

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