HAMBURG -- As Germany's second city, Hamburg tries harder. Travellers have tended to focus on Berlin and its transformation since the fall of the Wall, but Hamburgers aren't sitting idly by. This major port is taking its passion for all things nautical and turning it into a reflective, modernist pool of maritime regeneration. And it's doing it through architecture.
A showcase of contemporary buildings is rising next to Victorian-era warehouses and canals. Unlike dockland makeovers in cities such as London and Barcelona, HafenCity (Harbour City) is rising less than a kilometre from the centre of town. In the process, the single largest construction project in Europe is becoming a tourist destination in its own right.
I'm on a crowded tour boat plying the waters that lap against the monolithic red-brick buildings that stretch as far as the eye can see through Hamburg's Speicherstadt (warehouse district). At the turn of the 19th century, these buildings stored anything and everything coming into Europe from carpets to coffee to bananas. With the advent of container shipping in the 1960s, however, new docks were built and the old warehouses languished.
Our boat ducks under a low-slung bridge and enters the 21st century. A shimmering row of compact glass towers lines the quayside. This is the front line of the advancing new city, which will eventually encompass 155 hectares, about half the size of downtown Hamburg today.
"The 1990s were Berlin's decade, but the first decade of this century belongs to Hamburg," says Jorn Walter, the city's chief urban planner, who, when pressed, admits that HafenCity reflects a bit of "Berlin envy." These rival cities, just 90 minutes apart by high-speed train, do have one thing in common: They're both spending like drunken sailors to make their mark on a reunified Germany. HafenCity is expected to cost $11-billion, including private and government backing.
At the year-round information centre in a former boiler house, models and plans outline the mixed residential, commercial and cultural components. A webcam provides a bird's-eye view of buildings from an international roster of architects, including David Chipperfield, Richard Meier and the best designers on the continent. For fans of urban design, it's an opportunity to see individual styles come together as a new city takes shape.
Many of the low-rise buildings are cantilevered over the quays, such as the striking China Shipping Company office, with its exposed red girders. Others are whimsical, such as a cruise-ship terminal constructed from containers. (Part of the grand plan is to make Hamburg a regular port of call for cruises bound for the Baltic Sea.)
I spot a group of visitors pointing from a viewing platform and picking out their favourite buildings, as though they're choosing a preferred toy. All the buildings are located on raised embankments and pedestrian walkways and bridges crisscross the area at varying heights because tidal floods can inundate parts of HafenCity by as much as six metres.
Hamburg has deep maritime roots, yet it sits 100 kilometres inland on the Elbe River, a busy shipping channel that flows into the North Sea. There's no bracing smell of the ocean or crash of waves upon the shore. But this "Venice of the North" claims to have more bridges than Venice, Amsterdam and London combined, with canals that course through the city to Alster Lake, an inner-city oasis of sailboats and parkland. Hamburgers love their water, perhaps to compensate for the lack of seafront.
Across town, the Fish Market is another tradition for the landlubbers of Hamburg. The weekly bash gets under way at 5 a.m. on Sundays with some locals dropping in for pickled herring and pilsner on their way home from partying in the red-light Reeperban district. Live and loud music gets the crowd dancing dockside when the "Bietles" take the stage around 8 a.m. The band covers the early hits from when the lads from Liverpool first made their mark at Hamburg's Star club.
The barren lots of sand and gravel in HafenCity that await development have long been a no-man's land, cutting off the city from the Elbe. As building progresses, riverside promenades, parks and housing will reconnect the city with its watery life line.
New life is also being breathed into the neo-Gothic warehouses whose sculptural details reveal the commodities once stored within. Museums now recount the history of shipping and smuggling, offering a close look at some of the goods that passed through here. There's a museum dedicated to goods from Afghanistan, and a spice museum with such oddball items as a ship made out of cloves.
One warehouse is home to Europe's largest model train set. Minatur Wunderland is an intricate replica of Hamburg -- with some far-flung destinations such as Las Vegas and the Alps thrown in -- through which a busy network of trains pass in daytime and simulated night. In the miniature version of the very building in which I stood, a flickering light came from the windows. Would I see myself in miniature if I looked through them? I didn't want to find out.
Another surreal experience awaits at Dialogue in the Dark. This exhibition about blindness has toured the world, but its only permanent location is in Hamburg. Blind guides help visitors "see" their way through seven rooms of darkness. It's a disquieting encounter that helps the public understand the life of a blind person. Another part of the exhibit is a boat tour along the warehouse canals where passengers sit in a darkened "noise room" and listen to the passing world around them from the perspective of the blind.
Not all the buildings proposed by the 200 architects' flights of fancy will be realized, but HafenCity certainly dares to dream big. A five-storey "Living Bridge," designed by Hamburg star architect Hadi Teherani, has been proposed to span the Elbe River and include luxury apartments, shops and businesses rather than traffic. The Peter Tamm Maritime Museum, meanwhile, is right on schedule to open in 2006. It will feature 27,000 model ships and an archive of shipping and marine history. Elsewhere, pedestrian pontoons will lead to docks where historic ships such as the Rickmer Rickmers -- now an exhibit hall and restaurant -- will be moored.
The signature building for HafenCity has yet to break ground. Architects Herzog & de Meuron, the Swiss firm that did the Tate Modern museum in London and the National Stadium in Beijing, took an unusual approach to their project. To win public support, they lined up an investor and took the model directly to the public rather than through the usual channels of design competition. The Elbe Philharmonic Hall will appear to float above a hulking warehouse that juts out into the harbour. The striking venue with a soaring tent-like top has stirred groundswell support and is likely to open in 2008.
When HafenCity is completed around 2020, its collection of architectural bravado will set a standard for modern urban design. To see it now is to witness the evolution of new ideas made tangible in bricks and mortar -- and plenty of water.
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