The World Heritage renovator

Architect Alexandre Rombourg works for HHLA at a very unique site: the historic Speicherstadt warehouse district.

Anyone who tries to keep up with Alexandre Rombourg in the dead heat of summer will quickly break a sweat. The 42-year-old bounds up and down the stairs and scaffold ladders of his construction site at such speed that one struggles to follow him. The steep steps lead up to Boden 5, as the floors of the buildings in Hamburg’s historic Speicherstadt warehouse district are called. There are no elevators here – not yet, at least.

The shining copper roof shields the current workplace of the HHLA architect from the sun. He is coordinating the first phase of the renovation of Warehouse Block L from this site office. This Block consists of six warehouse units (Speicher) with the numbers 31 to 36. "The first construction phase includes reservoirs L31 - L33", explains Rombourg. "Here we are currently working on an area of 17,250 square meters gross floor area, in the entire Block L it will then be 34,500 square meters".

HHLA’s predecessor HFLG (Hamburger Freihafen-Lagerhaus-Gesellschaft) constructed the building and the whole ensemble – which is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site – and opened the first buildings in 1888. What was the world’s most advanced logistics centre at the time was erected in the new duty-free port for Hamburg’s merchants.

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“Today, all the buildings are listed,” says Rombourg, a son of French parents. “Because of its status as a World Heritage Site, every structural effect on the appearance of the ensemble is reviewed with an especially critical lens.” It’s Rombourg’s job to make sure that the past can still be experienced in the future, which is what he’s currently doing with the renovation of Block L. The HHLA architect monitors the work of the executive planners and construction workers, with whom he is in close, constant contact. “It can also be a bit uncomfortable at times,” he says. “If the quality demanded isn’t met, then we as the contractor must insist that everything be done again.” Rombourg justifies the high quality standards with the wishes of the potential tenant in mind, saying, “The new standard should last for 50 years!”

It’s still not long ago that the Speicherstadt was opened to the public – the customs barriers and fences were removed just after the start of the new millennium. Since then, HHLA has been renovating and modernising the building complex, which has become quite a tourist attraction, block by block. The plan is ultimately to lease out the 350,000 square metres of floor area, thus continuing to manage the property on its own account.

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As Rombourg darts up a few flights of stairs, he points excitedly to one of the project’s milestones. Boden 3 of warehouse L33 overlooks the block which houses the world-renowned Miniatur Wunderland (MWL). For a few weeks now, a glass-enclosed pedestrian bridge has run across the canal and into Block L. “MWL rents four floors on this side in order to carry out its plans for expansion,” says Rombourg. “The new bridge, across which miniature railways will be laid one day, guarantees that the owners will continue to hold the record for the world’s largest model railway.”

Rombourg and his team want to complete the first phase of the renovation of Block L by mid-2022 with full occupancy. The second phase, which includes warehouses 34 to 36, is planned to be completed in 2027. Warehouse Block L will keep Rombourg, who came to HHLA in 2017 and has led this project since, busy for a long time to come. The charm of the Speicherstadt, which draws in flocks of tourists from around the world every year, also captivates architects time and again.

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