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The history of the site

Quay walls, harbor basins, historic buildings: in HafenCity the past is omnipresent

Even though the newness and originality of HafenCity might suggest it, the new district is not taking shape on a greenfield site – far from it: this place oozes history. To understand HafenCity, you really need to know something about the history of its site. And that history is rich in illustrious names. To begin with, it is reputed to have been Emperor Barbarossa who in 1189 granted the then young town of Hamburg exemption from customs duties. Shortly afterwards the first river port evolved where the Alster meets the Elbe, very close to the present-day HafenCity. The port was a dynamo for the development of the city, the seed out of which a metropolis grew. Over the years it grew continually, adapting to the demands of changing times. And its position was moved several times. But the importance of the port for the Hanseatic City has never waned.

A propos the Hanseatic League: Hamburg played a key role in the medieval trade alliance. By the 14th Century, the port was already the premier German transshipment center between the North and Baltic seas. So it was mainly Hamburg merchants who were hit when the legendary privateer Klaus Störtebeker began to attack Hansa shipping. In the end a Hamburg fleet caught up with him off Heligoland and brought him back to Hamburg, where he was beheaded in Grasbrook – part of today’s HafenCity.

Even in those early times, Hamburg and its harbor were closely intermeshed. This continued to be the case for almost half a millennium. It was not until the 19th century that port and residential areas were finally physically separated. Previously, many areas and even many buildings belonged to both categories. The classical merchant’s house combined storage, business and living areas and was built right on the banks of the canals or the Alster, if not directly on the River Elbe itself. Hamburg citizens benefited from its duty-free status, which meant that goods imported through the port could be stored or processed anywhere in the city and then re-exported without levies. Goods from ocean-going ships were transported along the canals in small feeder barges.

Port traces

And the city grew. In the 17th and 18th centuries, a magnificent Baroque quarter grew up on the canal islands of Brook, Kehrwieder and Wandrahm, the site of the present-day Speicherstadt warehouse district. Hamburg merchants resided in imposing buildings, massively gabled, with elegant entrances. It was not long, though, before wealthy residents moved on – the port was getting too close for comfort – and tradesmen and dock workers became the new occupants. Then the last gaps between the buildings were filled by merchants’ and manufacturers’ premises, and warehouses. Even then, residents could be found taking a stroll along the water’s edge on Sundays. The port continued to grow, particularly at the rear of the area where HafenCity is situated today.

From the first half of the 19th century, newly founded South American states became important trading partners of Hamburg ship owners and merchants. Cargo volume increased dramatically, so much so that it could no longer be handled in the river. The answer was the first modern harbor basin, Sandtorhafen, built between 1863 and 1866, which allowed the new steam ships to sail right into the city. Vessels berthed alongside the newly built quays and loaded and unloaded by crane. Previously, ships had to use pile moorings in deeper water while lighters transported the goods to land – a laborious process. But now goods could now be loaded directly onto rail or road vehicles, or they could be kept in dockside storage sheds. This cargo handling system was the most modern anywhere, and Hamburg soon had a reputation as an exceptionally fast port.

During the 19th century, the characteristic port structure evolved that continues to shape HafenCity. In the wake of Sandtorhafen came construction of further harbor basins: Grasbrookhafen between 1872-81, Magdeburger Hafen (1872), Brooktorhafen (1880) and Baakenhafen (1887). To protect the port facilities from flooding, the previously low-lying marshland was progressively raised to four to five meters above sea level – a process that still continues in HafenCity today, with buildings being constructed on flood-secure plinths. Speedy onward transport of goods was also now guaranteed by the bridging of the River Elbe in 1872 and construction of a railroad link to central and southern Germany. Its starting point was Hanover Station, situated at Am Lohsepark, also now part of HafenCity. Thus Hamburg continued to evolve as a transportation hub, providing transshipment between ocean and inland waterway routes, rail and road.

Free-port status

For centuries, the boom in the port was driven by the exemption from duty that Hamburg still enjoyed. But when the Free and Hanseatic City of Hamburg became part of the newly established German Reich in 1871, it was clear that the city would not be able to hold on to this privilege much longer. In the end, the Senate and the imperial government agreed on a compromise: duty-free status would be revoked in the city area, but would continue to exist within a defined area of the port. But in order to control this free trade zone, port and warehousing facilities had to be centralized for the first time in Hamburg’s history. To achieve this, construction on a grand scale would be necessary. The plan was to build the most modern warehouse complex in the world on the canal islands of Brook, Kehrwieder and Wandrahm. And although around 20,000 people were still living in old town quarters on the site, priority was given to the commercial interests of the merchants and businessmen. Residents were not even provided with alternative accommodation.

A city within the city now began to grow. The new warehouse ensemble had its own energy supply (Kesselhaus, the old boiler house, is now the HafenCity information center) and the latest technology was employed for goods storage and transshipment. The area was separated from the rest of Hamburg by a canal (Zollkanal); anyone wanting to cross the canal was subject to customs control. Now those who could afford it lived on the shores of the Alster Lake and conducted their business in Kontorhausviertel, the merchant district. The Speicherstadt became the heart of the warehousing complex within the freeport. The port area was also gaining significance as an industrial location. By the middle of the 19th century, Hamburger Gaswerke had built gas works on Grasbrook island to supply large sections of the city and surrounding areas.

The gas producer gradually evolved into a modern energy supplier and the original works on the present-day HafenCity site were extended and upgraded many times. When the rubber boom began, its effects were also felt in Hamburg: crude rubber from the Amazon, and later from Asia, was shipped to the Hanseatic City and processed on the spot – it was an almost revolutionary material at that time, much in demand in many industries. Only the Hamburg shipbuilding yards had a bigger workforce than the rubber processing factories. 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 modernization – 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, on the rooftop of Kaispeicher A, has become 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 are reflected in the Prototype Museum. And the Speicherstadt will, of course, be retained as a complete ensemble. It has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 2015 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.


Prizes and accolades

Buildings, parks, squares and bridges in HafenCity have won more than 20 awards over the years

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