A former freight terminal in the heart of Hamburg is being transformed into a creative island. Between the HafenCity district and the central station, musicians will rub shoulders with parkour runners, carpenters with film-makers. There have been some teething troubles, but now there's a sense of a new day dawning at the Oberhafen – our author Lena Frommeyer took a walk around the place and visited some makers.
Sebastian Ploog, nicknamed Batte, carefully lifts the roof of the model hall and sets it to one side, to reveal an interior with all kinds of equipment in miniature: ramps, mats, platforms – every centimetre of the little building is used. The 30-year-old inserts a Ninja Turtles action figure. “It's relatively true to scale”. The model shows the layout of a training hall for parkour – a sport that's a mixture of gymnastics and artistry, which involves overcoming obstacles playfully but with maximum efficiency. For Batte and his cohort it's a tangible part of their vision for the Oberhafen: a hall where kids and youngsters can let their physical energy rip, but where theatre nights and concerts can also be staged. And there's only a few months to go until the scheduled opening date.
The Oberhafen is currently one of the most exciting places in Hamburg for creative artists. They're often elbowed out into peripheral areas, but here a creative district is growing up almost in the city centre. Close to the super-modern glass structures of the HafenCity district and the historical Deichtorhallen, now a museum of photography and international art, lies the 67,000 square metre expanse of the former railway freight terminal. It's just a short walk from the central station and the inner city. Three long industrial warehouses hunker down here on a low-lying site, at the entrance the Oberhafenkantine restaurant extends a welcome from within eye-catchingly lop-sided walls. From mid-day onwards, visitors can enjoy the typical Hamburg dish of lobscouse and other sustenance here.
Pinstripe-wearers meet film-makers
When the weather's good, the Oberhafen gets really crowded: “You get the best experience when it isn't as cold as today,” says Batte, blowing clouds of misty breath into the air. He strolls across the cobblestones and stops on the spreading forecourt, where the path divides to take you to Halls 4, 3 and 2. “It's really bustling in the summer,” says Batte, and sketches a mini-diorama of the Oberhafen in a few sentences: at the entrance to Halle 424 are people in suits, there after work to hear a concert featuring Shostakovich's cello sonata. Younger visitors opposite are gathering after work for a beer on the ramp in front of the Hanseatische Materialverwaltung, a warehouse containing theatrical props of every kind and an inviting place to browse whatever the season. Carpenters and film-makers occupy the halls' co-working spaces, at night electronic dance music booms from the alternative Club Moloch. At the back of the Club there's an outdoor area where you can hide in green papier maché hills or cool your feet in the pink Flamingo Pool, while express trains speed past on the adjacent railway track. Beginner, the famous German hip-hop band, made the video for their single “Ahma” here; guest rapper Gzuz performed bare-chested among the warehouses.
Creatives from the Oberhafen
The Oberhafen comes across as loaded with energy at the moment – but the project is anything but new. Its implementation has been under discussion since 2010, ideas for the use of the warehouses were reviewed by a jury to select projects that would find a home here. The transformation of the former freight terminal into a cultural and creative district is a municipal project, but the process needs more time than expected.
Jean Rehders can give an overall perspective: he forms the link between the city and the new users, so to speak. He's been working as a project manager with Kreativgesellschaft Hamburg since 2014. Together with HafenCity Hamburg GmbH, this municipally-owned company is in charge of the Oberhafen revamp’s implementation. At the same time, Jean, with his woollen jacket, denim shirt and big glasses, could pass for one of the creatives who work here. He sits at lunchtime in the little Das Dinger kitchen, located in one of the brick buildings in the grounds. The entrance is decorated with brightly coloured flags. People eat together here around a long wooden table. Today's menu features pasta with beetroot.
“I'm firmly convinced that this is going to be an exciting district,” says Jean. “We're in the heart of the city here, a stone's throw from major art and culture institutions. And besides, the former station has the charm of an old industrial area. That leaves a lot of scope for ideas”. But there are one or two challenges all the same: “The area isn't flood-protected. Everyone here has to face the possibility of their warehouse hall filling with water at some stage,” says Jean. And the warehouse renovation didn't include insulation. On the other hand, Jean tells me that the rent for the halls, excluding heat and light, is no more than five euros gross per square metre. That's the deal – and the interest continues unabated.
“The work should be completed in the spring”
The front part of Hall 4 is now being renovated. “We're cautious with our forecasts at the Oberhafen,” says Jean, “but the work should be completed in the spring”. The first tenants will move in at that point; up till then they will have been working in alternative premises at the Oberhafen. That includes Batte and the parkour association “Parkour Creation e.V.”. Discussions continue in parallel about the future of the other buildings. The original construction plans envisaged that the roof over the rails that linked Hall 2 and Hall 3 would be demolished – a new initiative wants it to be retained, and has its own ideas as to how it could be used, from an all-year-round garden to restaurant facilities and play areas in old carriages.
Anticipation and frustration often go hand in hand in planning processes. Home design consultant Johanna Schultz, a specialist antiques dealer, is one of the sufferers. Her showroom is decorated to the ceiling with old letters from neon signs. There’s a deep patina on some of her brightly coloured pieces, one of which, for example, previously spelled out the name of a Chinese restaurant. Johanna Schultz is still at the very back end of the one of the warehouses. Occasionally a bird strays into the huge building, otherwise it's pretty quiet. She's hoping for more passing customers when the revamp of her premises further forward in hall 4 is finished. “The intention for my shop is to have galleries and restaurants moving in,” she explains.
A district where there's still a lot going on
Next door, boat-builder and master carpenter Marcel Hahn runs the co-working workshop Bauer + Planer together with two friends. Designers, carpenters and young architects can bring their plans to life here. The workshop offers everything a carpenter's heart can desire. Payment is based on a ticket system. Six months ago, the three designers moved their company to the Oberhafen from the Hamburg district of Wilhelmsburg when their idea was accepted. Marcel stands at one of the workstations in a flannel jacket and blue work trousers and points round about him: “We need a lot of space and we're excited about a district where there's still a lot going on”.
If he had his choice of a future for the Oberhafen, it would be similar to the Artisan Asylum maker space in Massachusetts. “People work there on their own projects in an old warehouse, but there are always materials, capacity and know-how to spare for communal purposes. For example, some of the gigantic installations for the Burning Man Festival are produced there”. Marcel reckons that could work here in Hamburg as well.
“Please let it keep its feet on the ground”
Christian “Chrischan” Wehde, sitting on his couch drinking cola, is also enveloped in bright visions. He's the co-operator of Filmfabrique in the Alte Bahnmeisterei, the former Permanent Way Inspector's building, now a co-working space for film-makers. Creative artists work here alongside promotional film producers. Some episodes of the well-known German cult TV series “Der Tatortreiniger” (“The Crime Scene Cleaner”) were even produced in the communal office. He gazes through the big second-floor window, out over the warehouse roofs. The Filmfabrique is a place of encounter – and if it were up to Chrischan, that's what the whole of the Oberhafen should be. But please, nothing too fancy. “I would love it for this whole thing to keep its feet on the ground. We want to shape the Oberhafen with love, not make it into a polished diamond”. For his contribution, he's planted a wild grapevine in the grounds. A few more plants will be added in the spring. Growth of a different kind at the Oberhafen.