HafenCity Project

HafenCity: dialog between old and new

Containerized shipping continuously increased the area’s importance for industry, until the HafenCity plan was finalized. The first cruise ships began berthing during the construction phase of the new district (© Staatsarchiv Hamburg)

But Hamburg's port was not just growing in significance for industry; it was also the port of embarkation for the increasing number of European emigrants bound for North and South America. For them, Hamburg was the gateway to the world. One of the first emigration terminals was built at Strandkai and it was not until the 20th century that the so-called "Emigrant City" was established on Veddel island in the Elbe. For several decades the site of HafenCity was therefore the setting for unprecedented growth, a focal point for events of (often worldwide) historical significance. This continued, with the port having to be extended and upgraded, until the First World War put the brakes on. Afterwards, business remained slow. The economy finally picked up in the 1920s but was stifled by the subsequent worldwide Great Depression.

The Second World War then changed the face of the port forever. To begin with it became a setting for Nazi crimes: between 1940 and 1945, at least 7,692 Jews, Sinti and Roma people were deported from Hanover Station to ghettos, concentration and extermination camps, where more than 6,000 of them died. After the war, the remains of the railroad station were demolished, and the place was forgotten. It was not until the inception of the HafenCity project that it came back into public focus. The station was located in what is now the area of the planned Am Lohsepark neighborhood. Conception of an appropriate and dignified memorial and documentation center has been one of the foremost considerations in planning around Lohsepark.

But the port was not just used by the Third Reich for deportations; it was also a vital wartime transportation hub and industrial location - which made it a target for Allied bombing. Around 70 percent of the warehouses and almost 90 percent of the dockside storage sheds were destroyed. After 1945, rebuilding was soon under way. There was even another wave of modernisation – the economic miracle promised robust growth in cargo handling. But waiting in the wings was another revolutionary change: the invention of the freight container in 1956. The existing harbor basins close to the city were too small and shallow for the new, bigger container ships; storage areas nowhere near large enough. Deep, wide expanses of water were needed now, more storage capacity but shorter quay lengths.

This is why the southern bank of the Elbe was chosen as the site for dedicated container terminals. Although harbor basins, quays and dockside storage close to the city center were still used by conventional ships, goods were still stored and processed and energy produced, the area’s importance as an industrial location continued to decline. Finally, in 1997, the Senate made the decision to create a new city, HafenCity, and also to finance the port extension in Altenwerder.

Vestiges of a stirring history will still be omnipresent in the new district. The brick-built Speicherstadt warehouse ensemble acts as a connective element and entrance portal. Listed as a historic monument, it will remain visually largely unchanged. But behind its imposing clinker brick facades, new occupants have already moved in. Besides museums and traditional goods storage, there are also now multimedia agencies, creative and culture-related businesses. Since 2008, the Speicherstadt and the HafenCity redevelopment area together have defined the new HafenCity city district.

For HafenCity itself, the old harbor basins are an outstanding feature. Quay walls are being restored and the broad tracts of water contribute to the attractiveness of HafenCity. And in places, tradition is being reinterpreted; for example, in the Sandtorhafen basin, where a Traditional Ship Harbor with historic steamers, sailing ships and cranes has been created.

Some historic buildings have also been retained: the Elbphilharmonie Concert Hall, taking shape on the rooftop of Kaispeicher A, will be a new Hamburg landmark; the International Maritime Museum of Hamburg has moved into Kaispeicher B; the old Port Authority building will be a gastronomic center; in Überseequartier and Shanghaiallee, traces of the old industrial past will be reflected in the Prototype Museum. And the Speicherstadt will, of course, be retained as a complete ensemble. It is on the Tentative List for the status of UNESCO World Heritage Site and will influence and lend distinction to HafenCity as the latter opens up new business possibilities for the Speicherstadt through its development.

Beyond such tangible influences, history has played an important part in many planning and architectural decisions. Numerous historic references are clearly recognizable, others are more subtle and almost subconsciously perceptible. Old and new will come together in many parts of the district and perhaps even bond. Whatever happens, the dialogue between them will be stimulating, even though HafenCity itself - with a few exceptions - will consist of new buildings.