Volcano Victim Takes in Hamburg’s Harbor, Berlin’s Splendor

Tap for Slideshow
Photographer: James S. Russell/Bloomberg

Travelers crowd platforms at the main train station in Berlin, Germany. Ash from an Icelandic volcano scrambled travel plans, and forced flyers to try and find seats on Deutsche Bahn's fast intercity trains.

Close
Photographer: James S. Russell/Bloomberg

Travelers crowd platforms at the main train station in Berlin, Germany. Ash from an Icelandic volcano scrambled travel plans, and forced flyers to try and find seats on Deutsche Bahn's fast intercity trains. Close

Travelers crowd platforms at the main train station in Berlin, Germany. Ash from an Icelandic volcano scrambled... Read More

Photographer: James S. Russell via Bloomberg

A view of the interior of the Neues Museum in Berlin, Germany. Opened in 1859, the museum was extensively damaged in World War II. London architect David Chipperfield left evidence of the extensive damage to the building in his painstaking rebuilding, which opened in 2009. Close

A view of the interior of the Neues Museum in Berlin, Germany. Opened in 1859, the museum was extensively damaged in... Read More

Photographer: James S. Russell/Bloomberg

A view of the 18th-century Babelplatz is shown in the center of Berlin, Germany. The city has restored much of its Prussian splendor over the last 20 years. Close

A view of the 18th-century Babelplatz is shown in the center of Berlin, Germany. The city has restored much of its... Read More

Photographer: James S. Russell/Bloomberg

The Elbphilharmonie rises as the capstone of the Hafen City redevelopment of docklands in Hamburg, Germany. It is a concert hall and hotel perched atop a massive warehouse structure, located on a wedge-shaped point by the Elbe river. Close

The Elbphilharmonie rises as the capstone of the Hafen City redevelopment of docklands in Hamburg, Germany. It is a... Read More

Photographer: James S. Russell/Bloomberg

View of the esplanade at Hafen City, a 157-hectare docklands redevelopment in Hamburg, Germany. Designed by Barcelona architecture firm Enric Miralles - Benedetta Tagliabue, the esplanade opens a long-neglected length of the Elbe river to the public, and fronts what will be a $10-billion of commercial and residential projects. Close

View of the esplanade at Hafen City, a 157-hectare docklands redevelopment in Hamburg, Germany. Designed by Barcelona... Read More

Photographer: James S. Russell/Bloomberg

A view of the Unilever building along the Elbe river in the new Hafen City section of Hamburg, Germany. The building, designed by Stuttgart architect Stefan Behnisch, appears wrapped in plastic film, but is a layer of ETFE, a strong transparent material that protects the building from excessive wind and heat. Close

A view of the Unilever building along the Elbe river in the new Hafen City section of Hamburg, Germany. The building,... Read More

At the edge of the Elbe River, I stare longingly at Hamburg’s empty cruise ship terminal.

To think that my mother, an army nurse in World War II, made the Atlantic crossing in five days. (Churchill was on board.) A volcano victim flying economy, I was threatened with nine.

So I have become unexpectedly acquainted with Hamburg.

The panorama from that river edge is impressive. I stood on a handsome, terraced esplanade that swirls with pipe sculptures that play off the harbor cranes you could see in all directions.

Europe’s second largest port after Rotterdam has made a thrilling infrastructure of transaction.

This view is new. The city is recapturing obsolete sectors of its harbor.

HafenCity, for instance, is a $10-billion, 20-year, 157- hectare redevelopment of old docklands a short walk from the city center. Its centerpiece, a scaffolded building site, will someday, possibly in May 2012, reveal the towering Elbphilharmonie hotel and concert hall, which the city’s overlords hope will become Hamburg’s Sydney Opera House.

Designed by celebrity Swiss architects Herzog and de Meuron, it had better be great because it is two years late and hugely over budget at $500-million and counting.

Unilever Headquarters

I stroll into the lobby of the new Unilever headquarters and receive a free ice cream. The building is hard to miss because Stuttgart architect Stefan Behnisch wrapped it in what looks like plastic film. They call it ETFE foil, though it is transparent, and it deflects the frigid winds so that staffers can open the windows without being blown from their desks. (The building has a low-tech, ultra-low-energy system.)

Earlier, I had a look at the recently completed Empire Riverside Hotel, which presides with bronze-clad confidence from a bluff overlooking the waterfront at Landungsbrucken, the tour-boat landing near the city center.

Designed by London-based architect David Chipperfield with dark woods and leather furniture, it combines stunning harbor views with an austere yet clubby serenity. A top-floor bar is a Hamburg hotspot, where you can view millionaire yachts getting refitted at a nearby shipyard.

Before Hamburg, I visited Berlin. Are you stuck there? Take a trip to the Neues Museum, Chipperfield’s masterpiece on the romantically classical Museum Island, which will soothe your jitters. Chipperfield painstakingly rebuilt a structure that had been left to rot since it was severely damaged in World War II.

Train Stations

He didn’t erase the heartbreaking evidence of the cost of war. He kept the blasted bricks and reassembled shattered marble columns, letting the cracks show. Where nothing remained, he deferentially rebuilt in softly textured cast concrete and planks of glass.

Twenty years of non-stop construction have left the heart of Berlin more beautiful than a city with such a grim past has any right to be.

At the new main train station, air-service refugees are prettily bathed in dappled light from vaulted skylights half a block wide. (Got an hour to kill before departure? Stroll five minutes to the handsome Hamburger Bahnhof contemporary art museum.)

The rebuilding has tied together this sprawling city more than I thought possible. Beautiful promenades have appeared along the city’s handsome canals. Unter den Linden is again a great boulevard -- though so much Prussian splendor made me queasy.

The elegant, crumbling Staatsoper is set for a makeover. You couldn’t get tickets to Richard Wagner’s “Ring” cycle until scrambled air service left empty seats.

Speaking of “Gotterdammerung,” the murderous Third Reich is understandably more visible here in Hitler’s capital than in the Hanseatic city, never a Nazi hotbed.

Gestapo Central

Daniel Libeskind’s Jewish Museum remains a searing architectural experience. Near Brandenburg Gate, there’s the Holocaust memorial by New York architect Peter Eisenman -- a grey field of mute slabs, whose sadness is undermined by tourists snapping shots of each other posing.

After years of problems, the Topography of Terror museum will open not far away in May. It’s on the obliterated headquarters of the Gestapo and SS.

In contrast to Hamburg’s bustle, this is a city still sorting out the past.

(James S. Russell is Bloomberg’s U.S. architecture critic. The opinions expressed are his own.)

To contact the writer of this column: James S. Russell in Hamburg at jamesrussell@earthlink.net.

Bloomberg reserves the right to edit or remove comments but is under no obligation to do so, or to explain individual moderation decisions.

Please enable JavaScript to view the comments powered by Disqus.