Urban development in hamburg: beautiful new city

In Hamburg, the investor’s view of urban development is law. The presumed next victim: the City high-rises. A protocol of an urban planning tragedy.

Hamburg’s city high-rises were once pioneering buildings, but no one wants to hear about them anymore. Image: Hamburg Department of Culture

When everyone in Hamburg agrees, caution is always in order. This time it’s about the city skyscrapers, four massive buildings from the 1950s that catch the eye of train travelers just before they reach the main station from the south. "An eyesore!" is the unanimous response, whether from political leaders or dwarfs from all factions, the Hamburger Abendblatt, the Welt or Mopo.

When, at the end of April, the relocation plans of the Mitte district office, which resides there, became official, the Bild was full of cheers: "Finally, the time has come," it said in the article. "The four ugly blocks of the district office at the Klosterwall are torn away!" A photo montage showed in addition, how a wrecking ball crashes into the houses, provided with a subline, which gives a speaking example of the tragedy called hate, which comes at its expense: "Rumms! The four City high-rises on Klosterwall are being razed to the ground."

A few days later, the outrage was all the greater when it emerged that the City high-rises from the 1950s are listed buildings. The basis for this is an amendment to the law that came into force at the beginning of May, which placed all monuments that had previously been recognized merely provisionally under legal protection.

The status of recognized monument, which the City high-rises have also enjoyed for some time, meant under the old law that the owner had to notify the monument protection office of any structural changes to the building four weeks before work began. The office could then take steps to preserve and under-protect them, but often lacked the capacity or ran out of time to do so. As a result, Hamburg has lost a great deal of monument stock worth preserving. The new law is now based on standards that have been practiced in twelve federal states, in some cases for decades, and Denkmalschutz light has been abolished in the process.

In a report in the Abendblatt of May 3, however, a "CDU monument protection expert" can’t do much with it. "The SPD Senate should think first and then act," he is quoted as saying. And that the City high-rises are now under protection, the CDU man finds simply "absurd". Without question, these are clear words. But the matter is far from clear, and as always, it is worth taking a closer look: both at the buildings and at the way in which their value is denied, and by whom. Because beyond the case of the City skyscrapers and the, to say the least, unserious reporting about them, what is at issue here is what the city in which we live should look like.

So back to the Abendblatt report, which you should read three times to gain insight into Hamburg’s urban planning process, back to its "CDU monument expert." His name is Andreas Wankum. He probably deserves his expert status because his job involves buildings. He is the managing director of the real estate development company One-Vest and "experienced and steeled for decades on both sides of the Atlantic in the project development business," as the company’s website puts it. Otherwise, he is billed as a spokesman for media, IT and the creative industries. Why is such a man being asked about historic preservation? If one were cynical, one could say: Because he at least has some experience with eyesores. In 2004, Wankum called for the expulsion of beggars from the city center.

It becomes even more absurd when the Abendblatt’s connoisseur of the industry immediately turns to the next project developer after Wankum and asks "industry experts like Frank Bohlander, managing director of Quantum Projektentwicklung GmbH" for information. The company is known for offering participation models for investors in its projects, predominantly new buildings, in the so-called "opportunistic segment". These "opportunistic investments" promise, betting on the favor of the hour, the highest yields at all in the real estate business, however, also with the highest risk. The profits are realized through quick sales as soon as the development measures have been completed. And what is Quantum asking for? "A contemporary new building should be erected at this attractive location." Of course, one can also demand that in the future executioners should pass judgment in court cases.

Furthermore, the Abendblatt text features an SPD district politician who no longer understands the world – "it is difficult to understand why these buildings, which have been disfigured over the decades, should be placed under a preservation order" – and a spokesman for the financial authorities who is involved in the tendering process for the prime piece – "Of course, the aspect of preservation will also play a role in the tendering process" – and, he doesn’t even have to say this explicitly, a rather negative one for the sale. Andy Grote (SPD), head of the district authority, then has the final word: "Only a demolition makes sense from an urban development point of view. The city also knows that and will not put any obstacles in the way of investors."

Andy Grote’s sentence is, of course, nonsense, as is almost every sentence that claims there is no alternative. But in descriptive terms, there is unfortunately something coherent about it. The reason for this is that the urban planning view in Hamburg is now so dominated by investors, by their expectations of returns and their idea of the city as a conglomerate of consumption-events-tourists-and-beautiful-living that one can make the equation: Urban planning view = investor view. Voilà, what Andy Grote really said: "Only demolition makes sense from an investor’s point of view. The city also knows that and will not put any obstacles in the way of investors."

Oh yes, I almost forgot: there is also a woman who has her say in addition to the five men, an "SPD cultural expert" from whom little has been heard politically so far, and who, if not directly defending the City skyscrapers, is at least allowed to use a bureaucratic phrase to defend the new law on the protection of historical monuments.

No sooner had the article been published than the parties passed over by the Abendblatt, the Greens and the FDP, shot off their press releases to plead for demolition. And a day later, the press was already able to wave around the cultural authority’s retraction: "Due to the high need for renovation and the high urban development significance of the site," demolition was permissible despite the monument protection, Welt and Abendblatt quoted an authority spokesperson. To this one would have to add that, according to a Senate response, the costs for refurbishment and modernization would be no less, but also no more than the costs for a new building – in other words, they would be perfectly acceptable. This leaves only the urban development significance as an argument.

The official preservationists saw this in the City high-rises in a special way. Their massive form marks an entrance to the Kontorhaus district, and their staggered design accentuates the topography of the Geesthang. For the facade, the architect Rudolf Klophaus had used an innovative, very light-colored artificial stone, which is still preserved under the present, indeed drab cladding. Looking at the old photos, the former discreet elegance of the houses immediately shines through.

Restored to their old form, they would make the hopeful new beginning of the "Happy Fifties" understandable as Hamburg’s first high-rises after the Second World War. In their contrast to the clinker brick of the Kontorhausviertel, they would symbolize the attempt of architecture to break with the old history – and to imagine a light, egalitarian, even democratic society.

Today, people no longer want to be reminded of this break with history. At least not in the heart of Hamburg. The city’s invitation to tender states that traditional perimeter block construction and dark clinker brick are required for the new building, "in direct connection with the potential world heritage site of the Kontorhausviertel ensemble," as it clearly states. Instead of a break with history, there is now continuity through demolition, and instead of difference in the cityscape, there is identity-political building that focuses on the oh-so-good, old, solid Hamburg – whatever that is supposed to be.

But this has nothing to do with culture. All the more with marketing. The investors and their friends in the Springer press will be rubbing their hands together, because nothing can be sold better than a new building sprinkled with the consecrations of tradition. And the city’s marketing people will be beside themselves with excitement at the prospect that Hamburg will in future have a gateway to the Kontorhaus district that will be immediately comprehensible to every visitor, that will not demand any more knowledge or thought from any visitor, or even a second glance.

No, an eyesore will soon no longer be to be seen at Klosterwall. Possibly, however, a building that in its investor and city marketing conformity will be just as much a turn-off as the spectacle surrounding the City skyscrapers already is.

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