Heart of Glass Elbphilharmonie Hamburg LHM November 2016
© Jörg Modrow

Heart of glass


Hamburg’s brand-new HafenCity district took shape on wasteland and the old freeport site. Now the Elbphilharmonie, its monumental flagship building, is about to open

Just one kilometer away from the historicist splendor of Hamburg’s palatial town hall, a new edition of the city has emerged on the banks of the Elbe: HafenCity. A prime 157-hectare area at the heart of the city, it is unlike anything else Hamburg has to offer.

Born just 15 years ago, its development was driven by the need to reinvent the eastern harbor beyond the Old Elbe Tunnel, where the river is no longer deep enough for the colossal container ships. In 2000, a master plan established the basics for the area’s development, including provisions to ensure an ideal balance between profit and quality of life.

Since then, HafenCity has been a giant open-air lab with a unique blend of commerce, housing and gastronomy. Now, this triumvirate is being joined by culture. “Few cities have such vast, contiguous sites under development; certainly none in Europe,” says Gesa Ziemer, 47, Professor of Cultural Theory at the HafenCity University of Architecture and Metropolitan Development.

“The use of space, of public spaces, the architecture, the question of urbanization and enlivenment… as a teacher, I can simply go out onto the street for almost any topic.”

There are surprises around every corner. In Lohsepark, in the east of HafenCity, you can help yourself to fruit from the trees. Some amateur soccer players have set up a pitch beside a major construction site.

Even experienced taxi drivers lose their way here because of daily changing diversions due to roadworks. Several swarms of bees have made their home on the roof of the Ecumenical Forum.

Heart of Glass Elbphilharmonie Hamburg LHM November 2016

Artistic director Christoph Lieben-Seutter and the heart of the Elbphilharmonie ...

© Jörg Modrow
Heart of Glass Elbphilharmonie Hamburg LHM November 2016

... the Grand Hall which seats 2100

© Jörg Modrow
Heart of Glass Elbphilharmonie Hamburg LHM November 2016

New glass on old bricks: the Elbphilharmonie...

© Jörg Modrow
Heart of Glass Elbphilharmonie Hamburg LHM November 2016

... in Hamburg's HafenCity

© Jörg Modrow
Heart of Glass Elbphilharmonie Hamburg LHM November 2016

Hamburg's new mountain panorama: the roof of the Elbphilharmonie

© Jörg Modrow



 It took some years for the people of Hamburg to open up to HafenCity’s charms. Some critics still dismiss it as a mere test-tube neighborhood for tourists and higher earners with streets devoid of life in the evening, but the area’s increasing buzz is swiftly silencing them.

While prices for apartments in prime locations remain hefty, planners have learned from early mistakes and are now prioritizing housing rather than still more offices.

“I was a big HafenCity fan from the start,” says Christoph Lieben-Seutter, 52, from Vienna, the appointed director of the Elbphilharmonie, Hamburg’s new concert hall, which officially opens January 11, 2017.

Starting November 4, the building’s Plaza will be open to the public. When Lieben-Seutter accepted the job, his future workplace existed only on blueprints. Construction of the Elbphilharmonie on the western tip of HafenCity was dogged by complications, price explosions and delays, but now eager anticipation of a superlative concert hall outweighs the old negativity.

We needed a city landmark with charisma

Jost Deitmar, hotelier

The birthplace of composer Johannes Brahms is famous for its successful musicals and now aims to make its mark as a city of classical music: the Elbphilharmonie is the perfect setting.

Swiss architects Herzog & de Meuron, who also designed the Tate Modern Art Gallery in London, the Olympic stadium in Beijing and the Allianz Arena in Munich, had the vision of erecting a glass wave cresting at 110 meters on top of a heritage-listed warehouse bounded on three sides by water.

Unusually, the Elbphilharmonie unites several functions beneath its roof of giant sequins: The main auditorium with nearly 2100 seats and a vineyard design inspired by the ancient theater in Delphi is surrounded by a hotel. Forty-five luxury apartments have been built to the west of the glass facade with an unobstructable view of the Elbe.

Daytime visitors have free access to the Plaza, the interface between the old Kaispeicher A warehouse and the new complex, and can enjoy the panoramic view.

Below the Plaza, there are restaurants, a car park and the Kaistudios that run programs designed to get young people interested in classical music. The most spectacular way into the concert venue is on the Tube, a futuristic tunnel with a curved, 80-meter moving walkway.


Heart of Glass Elbphilharmonie Hamburg LHM November 2016

Dinner with a view: sunset in HafenCity

© Jörg Modrow


the first occupants moved to the new quarter beside the Elbe River. In the futuer, 14 000 people will live here.

in size is HafenCity, increasing the area of Hamburg’s city by 40 percent.

HafenCity projects have been completed so far. With 53 still under construction, that’s just half of those planned.

euros is the minimum prize per square meter and can be as much as 10 000 euros in a penthouse.

years is the time it took to build the “Elphi”; its most complex structure is the sound-proof concert hall.


 Less than two decades ago, few locals knew this part of town, which had been Hamburg’s freeport for over 120 years, i.e. foreign territory from a customs viewpoint, with roughly 18 kilometers of fencing, checkpoints, and endless documents. 

Residential property was prohibited here, as were cafés and restaurants. Once a faraway, foreign world, tourists now stroll along the quays. In the first few years of HafenCity’s realization, the HSH Nordbank Run track crossed little more than wasteland – four kilometers of panting alongside excavations in no-man’s land.

These days, modern architecture closes most of the gaps, a vibrant mix that contrasts pleasingly with the classic brick buildings of the neighboring warehouse district.

If HafenCity ever needs a foreign minister, it already has two ideal candidates in Frederik and Gerrit Braun, 48. In August 2001, the twins set up their Miniatur Wunderland model railway in the Hamburg warehouse district, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

It soon became a tourist magnet. Talking to the Brauns about the Lilliputian countries in what is the world’s largest model railway, you get a sense of listening to God explaining his seven-day Creation plan. The Brauns’ latest big project was Italy.

As they walk through the exhibition, people gape as though they were film stars. It’s obvious why: The brothers love what they do, and people love them for it. They receive almost daily requests to open a branch somewhere in the world, but they’re not interested. Investors pressuring them with expectations of steep returns? They don’t need them.

Miniatur Wunderland started small. “There was patch of grass next door and HafenCity was merely a twinkle in the eye of some politicians back then,” Frederick Braun recalls. “In 2001, the warehouse district was a Sleeping Beauty. The first ground-breaking ceremony, the first buildings that went up – I loved it here from the very first second.”

With so much enthusiasm for the district, it makes perfect sense that Miniatur Wunderland has not only its own little Hamburg, but also a miniature HafenCity, and a small-scale Elbphilharmonie that can even do something its big sister “Elphi,” for all her high-tech architecture, cannot do: It opens out.

Braun is an ardent fan of the concert hall, which despite its emphasis on classical music, is intended as a “space for everyone.”

His favorite concert in the first season was the avant-garde band Einstürzende Neubauten, who played a few days after the venue opened. Forgotten now are the naysayers who said it would never be completed and that it would be better, quicker and cheaper to demolish its bare bones.

Heart of Glass Elbphilharmonie Hamburg LHM November 2016

"Mini-Elphi" architects Frederik and Gerrit Braun of Miniatur Wunderland

© Jörg Modrow

 Half a kilometer west of the Brauns’ wonderland, another HafenCity pioneer is about to reap the fruits of his labors. Hotelier Jost Deitmar, 54, is manager of the luxury hotel Louis C. Jacob on Hamburg’s upmarket Elbchaussee and, since October 2008, also of the Carls restaurant across from the Elbphilharmonie.

“At the time, I wouldn’t have opened a restaurant anywhere but in this prominent location,” he says, but “when we opted to open in 2006, there was no absolute certainty that the Elbphilharmonie would be built at all.”

The first years were tough. Restaurants and cafés opened in rapid succession nearby – and soon closed again because roadworks made them all but inaccessible. The drawbridge to the Elbphilharmonie was closed for months.

In a bid to set down roots in the district, Deitmar organized neighborhood evenings. “All we had here was the Kaispeicher warehouse; the Kaiserkai boulevard was basically all there was to HafenCity,” he recalls. “It all came right in the end, but it was a really rocky road.

That’s all water under the bridge now and Deitmar no longer has to hold out; instead he is preparing for the foreseeable onslaught of daytime and evening diners.

“Tourists won’t feel they’ve seen Hamburg unless they’ve visited the Elbphilharmonie,” he prophesies, “it will be like with the Eiffel Tower in Paris, you can already tell. We needed a landmark with international charisma to symbolize the city.”

Incidentally, Werner Kallmorgen, the architect who designed Kaispeicher A in the 1960s, played a leading role in the faithful reconstruction of the warehouse district after the ravages of World War II. 

Heart of Glass Elbphilharmonie Hamburg LHM November 2016

Lean on me: the Oberhafen-Kantine was built 91 years ago

© Jörg Modrow
SHeart of Glass Elbphilharmonie Hamburg LHM November 2016

With over 10 kilometers of waterside walkways, there‘s always something to see

© Jörg Modrow
Heart of Glass Elbphilharmonie Hamburg LHM November 2016

Urban kicks: railside

© Jörg Modrow

 The Oberhafen-Kantine, 91 years old, stooped and leaning precariously, cowers beside a bridge east of the warehouse district.

Originally a “coffee hatch” for dockers, its specialty is home cooking. “People say our labskaus is some of the best in the city,” says a proud Sebastian Libbert, “and our kale is world class.” The meatballs are legendary, too. His diner has a five-degree tilt – one degree more than the Tower of Pisa.

Peering out the window, you could be forgiven for doing a double take: Did I have one beer too many? This little eatery is a firm fixture on the list of local attractions along with the Deichtorhallen exhibition halls just a meatball’s throw away, and the Spiegel building.

It is also the gateway to the Oberhafenquartier district, an area of rambling, old industrial buildings with ample space for artists, creatives and startups. Libbert is one of the founders of a club that does a lot for the district. “We fought for a long time for Oberhafen to be transformed into an area for active creatives.”

Elphi Director Lieben-Seutter is one of the neighborhood’s fans: “This is an incredibly atmospheric place and vital if HafenCity is not to become an over-organized model for success.” T

he Oberhafen-Kantine is in the high-water area of the city. In 2013, the kitchen in the basement was flooded and the water came up to the windowsills on the floor above, but Libbert held out. You don’t just give up a wonderful spot like this.


Heart of Glass Elbphilharmonie Hamburg LHM November 2016

1 Elbphilharmonie | 2 Restaurant Carls | 3 Miniatur Wunderland | 4 Infocenter | 5 Elbphilharmonie-Pavillon | 6 Oberhafen-Kantine | 7 HafenCity Universität Hamburg

© Cristóbal Schmal