Sterile City or Brave New World? Hamburg Builds Its Better Half

It's the largest development project in Europe. But as Hamburg seeks to reclaim its old harbor by building a brand new HafenCity, has it bitten off more than it can chew?

By in Hamburg

Listening to Jürgen Bruns-Berentelg talk, it's sometimes difficult to remember what exactly his job is. He gets animated about flood control. Lines of sight are a favorite topic. And should he go off on a tangent, there's a good chance he'll start talking about diaper changing stations and ice-cream parlors.

But a quick glance out the window of his offices is the only reminder necessary. Mounds of freshly moved dirt stretch almost as far as the eye can see. Pile drivers, earth-moving equipment, dump trucks and workers in hard hats are likewise in plentiful supply. So too is noise. After all, Bruns-Berentelg is a municipal planner, and these days, he is in charge of building an entirely new city.

The northern German port city of Hamburg is undergoing a facelift. Or, more accurately, the city is getting a second half. HafenCity -- Harbor City -- is its name, and the hugely ambitious project is the largest such development project currently in progress in Europe. Fully 12,000 new apartments are to be added to the current 14,000 that already exist in Hamburg's city center. Vast quantities of new office space are also being built along with shops, culture facilities, a new science center and a shiny new university campus.

What's more, each apartment complex, office building and public space is being opened up for architects to submit their designs, meaning HafenCity, when it is finished somewhere around 2020, will be an architectural smorgasbord with few equals. Rem Koolhaas is already on board to design the science center. Italian architect Massimiliano Fuksas has come up with a dramatic new cruise ship terminal and hotel. And Herzog & de Meuron have designed a stunning new home for the city's philharmonic orchestra.

Hamburg turns toward the river

The final price tag for the city won't be too high either. Because the city owns much of the land, it is funding its share of the development project -- some €1.3 billion to be spent largely on roads and other infrastructure -- with lot sales. The rest is being carried by private investment. Bruns-Berentelg is hoping that the finished product will be a lively, new city center that fits seamlessly together with Hamburg's bustling old town.

"Urbanity doesn't develop by itself," he says. "One needs squares that function well as community spaces. You have to create the conditions for people to move around. It's a question of the mixture of the various uses. We have tried to do that by including residential buildings, office space, cultural offerings and shops."

The biggest advantage, though, is that HafenCity will once again extend Hamburg's downtown right up to the banks of the Elbe River. For decades, the city ended at the "Speicherstadt," an elegant collection of 18th century warehouses meant to served the harbor behind it. But with the arrival of mega-container ships, Hamburg had to relocate its harbor to make room for the bigger slips and larger machinery necessary in the new shipping age -- a story familiar from similar harbor reclamation projects (think Melbourne, London, and Hong Kong) the world over. In Hamburg, too, the old harbor area remained largely an ugly, barren wasteland. Until now.

"Right in the center of Hamburg we have the possibility to grow. Not by expanding outwards, but by changing the use of land that is right in the heart of the city," says Axel Gedaschko, in charge of development for the city-state of Hamburg. "Hamburg is once again turning towards the water."

License to play

Or rather, has turned. Many of the residential buildings have already been completed -- standing rank and file on the edge of what used to be a harbor slip -- carefully placed on concrete pedestals to allow for the inevitable flooding and making way for a romantic walkway along the water. The philharmonic is likewise well under way and is scheduled to open in 2009.

Only at the very end of last year, though, did the project turn towards what will eventually be its centerpiece: the Überseequartier -- or Overseas Quarter. Now merely muddy earth crisscrossed by bulldozer tracks, the 8.5 hectare (25.4 acre) area will eventually become 16 brand new buildings with 275,000 square meters (2.96 million square feet) of living, office and shop space. This is also where many of the world's premier architects will have license to play. Bruns-Berentelg reckons some 40,000 people will stream through the quarter every day.

And if it's up to him, he will have a large say in exactly how those 40,000 people move through the quarter. Indeed, Bruns-Berentelg's vision of urbanity often seems one of careful calculation and studied omission. There will be no shopping mall, with Hamburg opting instead for street-front shops. The exact location of subway and bus stops was a matter of intense planning, as was the ratio of footpaths to roads. There will be five kilometers of road to 10 kilometers of footpaths -- "Only 30 percent of the footpaths will be next to the streets. Pedestrians can use the other 70 percent to get around away from the roads," Bruns-Berentelg explains.

Post-modern amalgamation

But is there any room for spontaneity? "No, not really," Bruns-Berentelg admits. "It's not easy because with a newly created city, the question is how it holds together," he says. "The danger is that of creating a post-modern amalgamation."

That, in fact, is what many such ambitious development projects have turned into in the past. Berlin's shiny new Potsdamer Platz -- a project likewise directed by Bruns-Berentelg -- may have turned into a tourist magnet, but it hardly fits seamlessly into the city. The London Docklands, while now a popular place to live and work, took years before it was accepted as part of London. And La Défense in Paris -- an eerie collection of skyscrapers built in the 1980s -- somehow jumped straight from futuristic to passé without ever really capturing the hearts of Parisians.

Dr. Michael Bose, a senior lecturer on regional planning at the HafenCity University -- which is getting a new campus just next to the Überseequartier -- says that city planners have learned from such difficulties. But have often tended toward more control.

"We want something that has a specific identity," he says, referring to European city planners. "Some buildings should look nice and surprising and everything, but the identity of the city should be reflected. We don't want chaos and we don't want monotony. But within that spectrum, I think Europeans are more afraid of chaos. They tend toward more planning."

Mostly very sterile

Indeed. As of Monday, one can go to the visitor's center in Hamburg to check out the entries in the latest design contest for the Überseequartier -- detailed proposals for how the quarter's empty spaces should look.

But in the end, it may not really matter. Interest is high in Hamburg's new center, many companies have already committed to building new headquarters -- including Der Spiegel -- or moving into new office space there. Likewise, many Hamburgers have expressed an interest in living in HafenCity with the first wave already having moved in.

And at the end of the day, it may not matter how much planning has gone into the project. "When you look at new city quarters across the world, they are mostly very sterile," says Bose. "Life takes awhile to arrive. It happens when people begin using the new area in ways that the planners didn't really foresee."


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