From coffee storehouse to port for new ideas

Interview with Rainer Schluff, technical managing director of HHLA Real Estate, about the development of the Speicherstadt historical warehouse district. Together with the Kontorhaus office building area, the Speicherstadt makes up Hamburg’s only World Heritage Site.

Mr Schluff, the term “World Heritage Site” usually conjures up images of historic buildings from days gone by. What do you picture when you think of the Speicherstadt historical warehouse district?

Schluff: Of course I see the historic warehouses and counting houses, the red brick, the projections and recesses, friezes, cornices and alcoves. But that’s just the façade – granted, a very beautiful façade. The exterior belies the true modernity of the Speicherstadt: hardly any other place in Hamburg is as economically versatile as the red-brick ensemble between the Baumwall and the Deichtor.

What does that mean?

Schluff: The Speicherstadt is not a museum; it’s a living World Heritage Site. Behind the historic façades there are workplaces, culture, entertainment, restaurants, cafes – and yes, also museums. People from Hamburg are just as attracted to this place as are visitors from around the world.

At the same time, the Speicherstadt is a symbol for the maritime development of the Free and Hanseatic City of Hamburg, which is closely intertwined with the port.

Schluff: Right. The district is very important to local identity. This is something that we at HHLA should never forget. We have a duty to preserve this heritage. However, that doesn’t mean we should freeze it in time. We continue to develop it carefully and sustainably without changing its original character.

The location and architecture of the Speicherstadt certainly make it one of the most popular and attractive districts in Hamburg. In other cities, these buildings would have already been converted into expensive lofts and trendy office palaces. Hamburg takes a different approach. Why?

Schluff: HHLA Real Estate follows a clear development concept for the Speicherstadt, which was created in close cooperation with the Free and Hanseatic City of Hamburg. Of course we also need to act economically, but it’s not about maximising profit. 

We want to avoid having monodimensional tenants, as is the case in other old port districts that have been converted. We focus instead on an attractive, multifaceted mix of tenants.

The Speicherstadt has established itself as a modern working environment where creatives set the tone.

Can you elaborate on that? 

Schluff: The Speicherstadt has established itself as a modern working environment where creatives set the tone. For example, there is a creative warehouse with ateliers, workshops and exhibition spaces for Hamburg-based artists and creative workers. Numerous large advertising agencies have found their new home here in the Speicherstadt. And don’t forget the very active start-up scene, ranging from drone developers to virtual reality nerds. Tech pioneers are tinkering here with the innovations of the future.

It has developed from a coffee storehouse to a port for new ideas, so to speak?

Schluff: Yes, you can look at it like that. And the old traditional companies are still here. Our oldest tenant, the Hälssen & Lyon tea trading house, has operated in the Speicherstadt since 1887 and has adapted well to changes. 

What do you see as HHLA Real Estate’s task in the development of the Speicherstadt?

Schluff: The operating environment is very complex and involves the daily interplay between world heritage and urban development, historic monument and contemporary rental, and tradition and modernity. Meeting all these different needs is an exciting but by no means easy task. We don’t see ourselves simply as property managers; that would involve merely preserving what exists. We are district managers and real estate developers who actively shape the structural transformation of the Speicherstadt. 

The Speicherstadt was designed at the end of the 19th century as a duty-free goods enclave. Yet almost nothing is stored any more in the world’s largest historic warehouse complex. Why is this?

Schluff: It has very practical reasons. The Port of Hamburg has experienced an extensive structural transformation since the 1970s and has shifted towards the west. With the establishment of containers as standardised means of transport and the construction of large container terminals, classic bulk cargo handling has almost completely disappeared. The Speicherstadt was built to store this break bulk – sacks, cases, bales and casks from the hundreds of barges in the canals – directly in its lofts. Containers have replaced the old warehouses as storage yards; the Speicherstadt thereby lost its original purpose. A new utilisation plan was needed.    

However, this development is not a feature that is specific to Hamburg. Former port quarters are being converted in many European port cities such as in the Docklands of London or the eastern port district of Amsterdam.

Miniatur Wunderland is one of the Speicherstadt’s new tenants. The model railway exhibition is the most popular tourist magnet in the Hanseatic City. Things are happening there at the moment, aren’t they?

Schluff: Yes, Miniatur Wunderland’s trains have been rolling for 20 years in Warehouse D. Due to its great popularity, the operators have constantly expanded the Wunderland world and rented additional space. But even that is no longer enough: we are currently renovating Warehouse L on the other side of the Kehrwieder canal. This will free up an additional 3,500 square metres for Miniatur Wunderland. As a special attraction, we are building a delicate pedestrian bridge – which seems almost to be made of glass – across the canal, so visitors can move directly between the Wunderland worlds independent of the weather. A railway line will also be laid across the new canal bridge.

A new bridge in the middle of a World Heritage Site? Is that possible?

Schluff: The new bridge construction was included in the original application for the Speicherstadt to be added to the UNESCO list of World Heritage Sites in 2015. The Speicherstadt was awarded the title with the new bridge. With its delicate design and reduced architectural language, the new connecting element in the structural ensemble meets the requirements of landmark protection.

HHLA is connecting the old and the new worlds of Miniatur Wunderland with the new bridge. That has a certain symbolic power. 

Schluff: Yes, the bridge also represents the development of Hamburger Hafen und Logistik AG. The Speicherstadt is the birthplace of HHLA. The company was founded as the Hamburger Freihafen-Lagerhaus-Gesellschaft in 1885 to build the Speicherstadt. The Speicherstadt is in our DNA, so to speak. From these beginnings, HHLA has developed into one of the leading European port and logistics groups. Real estate management and development are only one part of our business. We operate port terminals in Hamburg, Tallinn and Odessa, where goods from all over the world are handled. We have our own construction company. Every week, more than 500 trains depart to distribute containers which have arrived at the seaports throughout Europe. At the same time, we are also expanding to new sectors such as drone logistics and 3D printing. Global networking is our daily business. And it all began in the Speicherstadt historical warehouse district.