Creative Warehouse

For many people in Hamburg, this is where the heart of the city beats: In the Speicherstadt historical warehouse district. Nowhere else do tradition and contemporary change merge to create such an attractive location.


If the term “innovative logistics centre” had been in common use at the end of the 19th century, it would have been perfect for Hamburg’s newly built clinker district. HHLA’s predecessor, which had been specially established for this purpose, began construction of the aesthetically pleasing warehouse complex in 1885, which was not just the biggest in the world at the time, but also the most modern. Prior to that, warehouses had been scattered around all parts of the city. Now they were centralised here at a state-of-the-art facility which featured hydraulic winches and electrical lighting and was easy to reach by barge, horse-drawn carriage and train.

The construction of the Speicherstadt historical warehouse district was prompted by a political decision: In 1881, the Senate of Hamburg, which had been a sovereign trading city-state before then, signed a customs union agreement with the German Empire. Only after driving a hard bargain, however. The result: Hamburg was allowed to establish a free-trade zone, where merchants could continue to import, store and refine goods such as coffee, tea and spices without paying customs. The Speicherstadt historical warehouse district became part of this enclave under customs law – which included a high fence and customs posts. So much for the history.

The port industry, customs regulations and urban development have arrived in the 21st century. Alongside the warehouses that are still used for their original purpose, mostly the storage of oriental carpets, continuous change is happening amid the canals and bridges: Residing behind the neo-Gothic façades today are advertising agencies, architecture offices and fashion labels as well as museums, exhibitions and restaurants.


Artists & consorts

As landlord and project developer, HHLA Real Estate has fostered this change in a targeted manner. A milestone on this journey is the extensive renovation of Warehouse M28 on Am Sandtorkai. From summer of 2018, its eight floors is a new home for Hamburg’s creative scene. As part of this process, the building is being energy-insulated. 

The mansard roof is being covered in copper and the windows and characteristic hatches are being restored, or if necessary replaced. Modern bathrooms and kitchens are being built and all the technical facilities in the building are being modernised. A new stairwell with lifts will ensure barrier-free access. “Many of the original details such as the historical signs, old window grates and handrails are being retained,” explains HHLA architect Rabea Abayan. “Existing surfaces are being restored so that the loft character of the warehouse floors is preserved. New features can be clearly identified, thereby creating the aesthetically desired, appealing contrast between old and new.”  

Approximately 5,000 m² of space on the seven upper floors will be available for studios, creative workshops and workrooms. Artists and others from the cultural and creative sectors can move in here at favourable conditions by applying to the cultural authority. “Each floor has space for up to twelve separate rooms arranged around a communal area which is also suitable for exhibitions,” says project manager Rabea Abayan. “The ground floor has a special function: It acts as a showcase for the creative warehouse” – while also catching public attention for the cultural and creative activities on offer.


Paying respect

HHLA Real Estate owns all the historical warehouse blocks and has already renovated most of them. Another example is hard to miss: Anyone arriving at the Zollkanal (customs canal) from the Kontorhaus office building area, which is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site, will see an ensemble with particular architectural appeal on the opposite side: The four buildings were constructed side by side in 1899 for the customs authority and were once resplendent with their ornate façade details and intricate rooftop landscape. 

Unfortunately, they did not emerge from the war unscathed, with the reconstruction and renovation work after the war also leaving its mark: “Generous spaces were divided into tiny offices, and many of the outstanding details were concealed behind walls or simply painted over. Some original structures were no longer visible,” explains Peter Modlich from Building Management at HHLA. Since 2008, he and his team have been working to revitalise the entire ensemble. Customs Houses 3 and 4 have been completed: Where freight papers were once stamped is now home to an advertising agency, and the former main customs office serves as an event location. 

Architect Peter Modlich says that the challenge with projects like this lies in modernising the buildings in a contemporary manner while retaining as many of their original features as possible in view of their landmarked status. However, this means having to make compromises. According to Modlich: “This is only possible as a result of close coordination between everyone involved – which is especially important when dealing with a World Heritage Site.” The result makes the effort worthwhile: The construction work on the customs ensemble has revealed some original details again such as filigree cast iron brackets, wall borders from that architectural period, and outstandingly hand-fashioned granite stairs.