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

Berlin Train Station
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. Photographer: James S. Russell/Bloomberg

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.)

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