How to summarise a whirlwind of a weekend? After a year or more of planning and three trips to Hamburg we felt well prepared. With a good turnout of almost 40 we all assembled on Thursday at the Sir Nikolai Hotel (strategically located between the City Centre and Hafen City) for drinks followed by a great meal at local restaurant, Brook.

“Why Hamburg?” people kept asking. Well, why not? But we had to let the City speak for itself. So here are some highlights.

Independence and Trade

On Friday, we started at the Handelskammer to hear how the city was both a City and a State. A city that had for centuries been run by merchants with trade and commerce at its heart. With access to the North Sea and the Baltic (via the Kiel Canal) the City was in a key position to import and export.

The Rathaus and Handelskammer are inextricably entwined. Shipping is still a major industry and trade with China, by sea and now rail. Airbus is huge employer but also publishing and media. The UK is still a significant trading partner but for how long? The 1000 or so British residents are worried and uncertain of their futures. Tourism is increasingly important.

On to the Rathaus, where the message of fierce independence and the importance of sound governance and responsible citizenship was reinforced.

The City Centre

Because of the ravages of the Great Fire of 1842 and the Allied Gomorrah raids of 1943 (movingly described in the Saint Nikolai Memorial museum), little in the City Centre (Altstadt) is very old. But the shape of the inner city is still defined by the old defensive walls, long since replaced by a ring road.

We explored the City on foot, Aldstadt in the morning Neustadt in the afternoon, punctuated with lunch at Hamburg’s swishest department store, Alsterhaus.

Highlights of the morning walk were the beautiful 1920’s Expressionist brick buildings of the Chilehaus by Fritz Hoger and Sprinkenhof by Hans and Oskar Gerson. This whole area (Kontorhausviertel) is now a UNESCO World Heritage site.

On to Neustadt, an area being regenerated with new hotels (including Tortue by David Chipperfield) shops and restaurants, all linked around a series of Courtyards. Then on to the Nikolai Monument and the Hamburg Sud office building, designed by Caesar Pinnau in 1963. Newly restored and re-clad, this building was heavily influenced by SOM’s lever House and Mies’ Seagram building.

Final stop of the tour was the St Michaelis Church. Originally built in 1649, two previous churches were destroyed by lightning and fire. The present church was completed in 1912 in a faithful and exuberant Baroque style. The tower, served by lift, provided wonderful view over the city in all directions.

The Alster

The Alster lakes were formed in the 17thcentury when the Alster river was dammed to provide waterpower for milling. Today the lakes provide a superb amenity and recreational area for Hamburg’s residents and visitors. We were fortunate enough to take a private boat ride on the historic steam ship, the St Georg, on a beautiful warm and sunny evening. What could be a more perfect end to the day…… except that we unfortunately left behind Phil and Carly Cooper. The captain returned us to the Jungfernstieg to pick them at the cost of a lot of good-natured ribbing. No matter, it was a memorable evening as we glided past sailing clubs, parks and amazing villas in the setting sun. On arriving back at the landing stage, we wandered to the opulent Parlament Restaurant, beneath the Rathaus, to dine in the over-the-top splendour of the Rose Room ourlocal organiser, Ullrich Schwarz from the Hamburg Architects Chamber and main walking guide, Katrin.

Speicherstadt and Hafen City

Saturday dawned with the sun still shining and we set off to explore the magnificent red brick warehouses of the Speicherstadt. Built in the 1880’s to serve the freeport of Hamburg, this unique collection of neo-Gothic buildings is now a second UNESCO Word Heritage site.

On to the Hafen City visitor centre housed in the old Kesselhaus (boiler house). There, a model captures the Hafen City and the old city centre, showing how the new city district of 380 acres is developing as “a city within a city” The original masterplan was prepared by Kees Christiaansee and ultimately the area will provide homes for 12,000 and 45,000 workplaces.

The walking tour continues through some of the completed sectors with designs by a wide range of local and international architects, all within a strictly controlled design code and a competition system. Mixed use is key, with either retail or commercial uses located in distinct blocks or mixed within a single block. Buildings are interspersed with pocket parks and high-quality hard landscaping. At the weekend all appeared rather quiet, even sterile, until we emerged onto Kaiserkai, with its long promenade faced onto by a wide range of bars and restaurants. We joined the many hundreds enjoying lunch overlooking the water in brilliant sunshine.

 

Eric Parry’s Hamburg

At lunch we were joined by Eric Parry, a weekend resident of Hamburg. Eric had kindly agreed to show us some of the lesser known aspects of Hamburg’s architecture and, the work of Bernhard Hermkes (1903-1995). By coach we travelled a short distance to Hamburg University to view the 1960’s Audimax auditorium, a fiendishly clever lecture theatre capable of use as a single space or as two smaller theatres, divided by a falling screen, all under an elegant concrete shell roof.

 Particularly striking was the foyer space with its elegant staircases and refined use of exposed concrete.

On to the housing at Grindelhochhauser. Designed as part of a large development of high-rise apartments in 1946, the two blocks designed by Hermkes were originally to have been occupied by the British Army after the War. This never came to pass, and they became part of Hamburg’s housing stock. Steel framed and brick clad, they remain elegant, well detailed examples of immediate post War housing set in an attractive mature landscape.

Our final Hermkes revelation was the extensive glass houses at Planten un Blomen. This beautifully landscaped public park to the north west of the City was packed with families and visitors enjoying the warm Spring sunshine. The glasshouses are extensive and are constructed using a steel exo-skeleton on a diagonal grid from which the glass is suspended. Elegant and well ahead of their time (1963) they rounded off a brief exploration of an architect of whom I had no knowledge until planning the trip.

 

Thank you, Eric!

Friends

Whilst some retreated to the hotel to nurse aching feet and limbs, a small group of us visited the home of architect friend Gudrun von Schau and her husband Dierk. Gudrun and family welcomed us to their apartment within the Atelier 5 development in the district of Rotherbaum. Dierk gave us a slide show of the area and its development over time, culminating in the competition won by renowned Swiss architects Atelier 5 in 1993 and completed in 1998.

Gudrun and Dierk had managed to pull of the architects’ dream of expanding their apartment laterally to accommodate their growing family by buying additional units as they came available. They entertained us royally with sparkling Sekt and (appropriately) mini-Hamburgers.

At dinner that evening the group dined at Vlet restaurant on the edge of the Alster in company with Eric and his partner Merit and Gudrun and Dierk and reflected on a fascinating day.

Elbephilharmonie and the Harbour

Sunday and time for a leisurely breakfast before the concert. Some of us walked to Wasserschloss in the Speicherstadt and were welcomed with multi- tiered plates of delicious breakfast goodies, followed by bacon and eggs. Well, lunch was some way off.

A chance to walk it off as we meandered towards the Elbphilharmonie, at the prow of Hafen City. This startling building by Herzog & de Meuron had a notorious genesis with huge cost increases, a suspension of work for two years and a bailing out operation by the Hamburg authorities. It was finally completed and opened in 2017. Was it all worth it? Any reservations were dispelled for most of us when we finally arrived inside the Grosser Saal, described by Peter Murray “one of thegreat architectural volumes of the world”.

The Elbphilharmonie has worked wonders for Hamburg in terms of raising its profile, attracting visitors and providing a world class music venue. Concerts are sold out months ahead and we were extremely fortunate to acquire 30 tickets through the influence of Herr Nikolaus Schues, one of Hamburg’s must influential burghers, introduced via City Livery connections.

The concert was simply stunning with Beethoven, Mendelssohn and Shostakovich performed by the Hamburg Philharmonic Orchestra providing a beautiful conversation between music and architecture.

 Slightly dazed, we made our way into the bright sunshine and onto the awaiting boat for our final tour of the weekend. Hamburg is proud of its harbour. It is the third largest port in Europe, and it is rare to find an active container port so close to a city centre. It was a chance to get up close and personal with the huge container ships and cruise liners over delicious fischbroetchen and beer and to view Elbphilharmonie and Hafen city for one last time and from a different perspective.

 

From there we dispersed, some to the airport and other to enjoy a few more hours in a city we had begun to know a little better. Why Hamburg? Well for me the ultimate test is whether I would be happy to live there, and I am pretty sure I would.

Thanks to all the group for your companionship and to those who provided photo, including this one of Peter and his long lost cousin and Mike Stiff for the lovely sketches