Monday, June 1, 2009


Hamburg is a city of magnificent architecture.

Hamburg has splendid examples of architecture from all periods, but Hamburg is unique among European cities in that it has great 20th-Century architecture. In that sense, Hamburg is the Chicago of Europe.

Good 20th-Century architecture is rare in Europe, and almost unknown in major capitals such as London, where 20th-Century buildings are horrifically bad, and uniformly so.

Great 20th-Century architecture is even more rare in Europe than good 20th-Century architecture. Indeed, some experts claim that it does not exist.

In Europe, Hamburg stands out for the quality of its 20th-Century architecture. Since the late 19th Century, commercial enterprises headquartered in Hamburg have insisted upon quality buildings. The evidence of this may be seen on every street in the center of the city.

I suspect that there are three reasons why Hamburg is such a 20th-Century architectural treasure: (1) the city has long enjoyed the presence of an enlightened business community; (2) many excellent Central European architects lived and worked in Hamburg for decades on end, headquartering their architectural practices in the city; and (3) the rich tradition of Hanseatic architecture cannot help but serve as an inspiration to architects living and working among such fine and noble buildings on a daily basis.

One of the tenets of Hanseatic architecture is the use of fine materials. Only the finest brick, marble and stone are used to erect Hanseatic edifices, an ancient tradition carried over and maintained to the present day. Hamburg buildings, unlike London buildings, do not look cheap and thrown-together. They are exquisitely-wrought and exquisitely-crafted. In fact, I was surprised when I learned the dates of several notable buildings in Hamburg—the buildings were in such excellent condition that I had assumed they were much newer than they were.

Another tenet of Hanseatic architecture is the use of stone moldings. Moldings around roofs, windows and entranceways are one of the most prominent and pleasing features of Hanseatic architecture.

Yet another tenet of Hanseatic architecture is the heavy reliance upon architectural features from the Baroque Era, especially with regard to roofs. Baroque roofs are endemic in Hamburg, even on modern buildings. These roofs often are very sly in their acknowledgement of Baroque models, either minimizing or elongating Baroque features or setting them at odd angles.

A final tenet of Hanseatic architecture is the use of ceramics to decorate building exteriors. Sometimes these ceramics are set into exterior walls in the manner of reliefs. More common, however, is the use of small ceramics to highlight architectural features in the fabric of a building.

The result is that Hamburg is one of the most handsome cities in the world, a great city for walking and gawking. Ancient Hanseatic edifices blend with modern structures inspired by Hanseatic principles. The city has a unique beauty no less remarkable than the beauty of Paris or Venice.

One of the most famous 20th-Century buildings in Hamburg is Chilehaus.

Designed by architect Fritz Hoger and built from 1922 to 1924, the massive Chilehaus is perhaps the finest of Hamburg’s modern office buildings known as Kontorhauser (“Counting Houses”). This famed structure served as a sign of Hamburg’s growth after World War I and, miraculously, survived World War II to serve as a sign of Hamburg’s survival and renewal.

Chilehaus is a perfect example of Expressionist architecture: an elongated building made of clinker brick (a dark, dense brick of the very highest quality, unique to Northern Germany) with a sharp point at one end, designed to evoke a ship’s helm. The elegant façade, the Gothic-style arcades and the intricate ceramic décor on the exterior all combine to make this one of Hamburg’s most impressive buildings. Over 4.8 million bricks went into its construction.

In 1922, a Hamburg businessman who had made a fortune with potassium nitrate (saltpeter) in Chile bought a 5,000-square-meter building site in the center of Hamburg’s business district. There he planned to erect a very special kind of office building, Chilehaus, designed in the shape of a passenger ship. The saltpeter magnate arranged for an architectural design contest, which was won by Hamburg architect Hoger, already renowned for his office-building designs. Chilehaus quickly became Hamburg’s second most distinctive city landmark after Saint-Michaelis-Kirche.

Chilehaus has drawn worldwide attention since the day it was completed. The building has retained its reputation as an architectural work of the utmost importance to the present day.

Its brick façade glitters in a different light at each shift of the weather, and each change of an observer’s viewpoint alters the impression of its stone workings and ceramic ornaments.

The ten-story structure is seen most impressively from the end at which one may observe its acute-angled façade resembling a ship’s bow.

The ceramic-brick decorative designs on the building’s façade are notable.

At night, the building is illuminated.

It shines with a special majestic beauty.


  1. Hi I found your blog while studying about Hamburg. It was surprise to me that you're a lawyer. Thank you for the information and hope you always keep on writing!

    All the best!

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