Tuesday, June 2, 2009


The enormous Chilehaus, massive as it is, is not even the largest Counting House (“Kontorhaus”) within Hamburg’s Counting House Quarter (“Kontorhausviertel”).

That distinction belongs to Sprinkenhof, a truly monstrous building built in three stages between 1927 and 1943. Sprinkenhof, like Chilehaus, is the work of architect Fritz Hoger.

In the photograph below, Sprinkenhof is in the lower right-hand corner. It almost dwarfs nearby Chilehaus—indeed, it almost dwarfs the entire Counting House Quarter—and it is hard to walk around the Counting House Quarter without bumping into Sprinkenhof again and again.

I did not appreciate Sprinkenhof—it stuck me as a large, unattractive office building, nothing more—and no one else liked it, either. Andrew and his mother thought it was an eyesore.

We were surprised, therefore, when we learned that Sprinkenhof appears on UNESCO’s list of protected World Heritage Sites.

In fact, Hamburg’s entire Counting House Quarter has been deemed a World Heritage Site owing to its status as “the first dedicated office district on the continent of Europe”. Of the Quarter, UNESCO has this to say:

The special identity of this Kontorhaus District, which is among Germany's most impressive cityscapes of the 1920s, is due in part to the fact that the ground plans of the buildings coincide with the outlines of the blocks, to make full use of the available land - an approach chosen deliberately in view of the purely commercial purpose of the buildings. The proportions of the buildings are designed to make use of the maximum height, adding further height by means of stepped-back upper storeys. The formal language of the major buildings is a variant of the "New Construction" style of the 1920s, characterised by their proportions and the use of decorative sculptural elements, with a more restrained version of this style used in the 1930s. The combination of the building material used, that is dark-coloured, hard-fired brick (clinker), and use of the Kontorhaus construction style, results in an overall complex that is characteristic of Hamburg, and is not found anywhere else even in related form. The Kontorhaus District includes heritage buildings of the highest calibre within a small area.

Those are strong claims, and surely not everyone accepts them. I submit that most persons, including most architects, that walk around Hamburg’s Counting House Quarter would be quite surprised—perhaps even stunned—to learn that they were traversing an area now under historic preservation protection.

In the U.S., such buildings would have been replaced no later than the 1980’s, and no one would have given a second thought to their passing.

I wonder whether Eero Saarinen would agree that the Kontorhausviertel deserves protected status.

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