Pleasing an entire island
von Thomas Edelmann | Apr 30, 2013

In March this year, the International Building Exhibition (IBA) finally opened in Hamburg. This was followed in April by the International Garden Show (igs) on the neighboring site (only accessible in exchange for an admission fee). A subsidized PR stunt by the horticultural industry, it is hoped that its visitors will also bring some life to the building exhibition. Since 2006, a total of 60 projects has emerged as part of the IBA, the majority of which have now in the reached completion “in the year under review”. The nature and extent of the venture is complex, ranging from apartment blocks to the energy-related modernization of entire housing estates, new school buildings, a nursing home for elderly immigrants with its own hammam bathing facility, to the transformation of a World War II flak bunker into an “energy bunker”, whose roof and south-facing façade has been fitted with solar panels. On the inside, the bunker now conceals an enormous buffer with a 2,000 cubic-meter capacity. The bunker monster has also been repointed giving it a new more friendly appearance and, if everything goes to plan, will soon supply close-by with both heat and electricity. This edition of the building exhibition is being held in Wilhelmsburg, a district in the south of the city, which boasts an unusual mix of nature, concrete fortresses, detached houses and a whole string of unsolved issues relating to urban development and congestion.

The exception to the rule

Welcoming experts and citizens alike, the preluding conference “IBA meets IBA” featured a talk by Chief Planning Officer of the Free and Hanseatic City of Hamburg, Jörn Walter, where he mad one point that was definitely not to be expected: “Anyone who is just walks around looking at the buildings but not beyond their façades will never understand what we have done here.” Thus, Walter places the Hamburg building exhibition in an intermediary position between the major IBA exhibitions held in Berlin between 1984 and 1987, which concentrated on both new builds and measures to repair the urban fabric; the Emscher Park IBA, which took to an entire industrial landscape in the north of Germany’s Ruhr region; and the smaller shows “Fürst Pückler-Land” and “Urban Development in Saxony Anhalt”, which dealt with the themes of renaturalization and shrinking cities and were completed in 2010.

All of these are issues that also affect the city of Hamburg – yet in some ways not at all. “We’re not holding the IBA just because we feel like holding the IBA,” emphasizes Jörn Walter, “we are facing some major problems in Germany’s cities and rural regions, problems that desperately need to be solved.” According to Walter, this is something that simply cannot be overcome using those planning structures currently in place or with the current lack of manpower in Germany’s public authorities – and other planners are certainly in agreement with him. The IBA is merely a temporary exception to the rule, backed by a concentrated taskforce that otherwise rarely gets assembled.

Inward growth

Hamburg isn’t a shrinking city, but already qua example a “growing city”. The Senate of the City-State (then a coalition between the CDU and the Shrill Party) had already prescribed to the idea of inward growth as early as 2002. The project was later put into concrete terms during the CDU’s one-party term in government. A “leap across the Elbe River” was on the agenda, which refers to pushing urban development in the southern districts of Veddel, of the Elbe island of Wilhelmsburg and towards Harburg. All of these areas that the traditional Hamburger wouldn’t even include on the mental map of his city. In the meantime, a one-party SPD government has made it into the Senate and the IBA was opened by Olaf Scholz, now First Mayor of the Free and Hanseatic City of Hamburg.

In the south of Hamburg, the district of Harburg-Wilhelmsburg spent ten years as a city in its own right before becoming part of the Greater Hamburg region in 1937. Both districts, and their northern neighbor Veddel, are starkly characterized by their industrial past and still massively affected by the decline in industrial jobs and the structural changes in the city’s port. Furthermore, during the North Sea Flood of 1962, the dykes in Hamburg and the surrounding areas ruptured leaving the low-lying district of Wilhelmsburg as good as destroyed, while 200 people lost their lives.
Now 50 years back, instead of getting straight to work redeveloping the area, the city’s economics and transport ministries drew up plans to completely demarcate the entire island (the largest river isle in Europe) as an industrial area. These and other plans led to an intervention by local citizens, culminating in the release of the white paper “Conference of the future of the Elbe island”, which would go on to form the point of departure for the IBA planners.

Sociologist Dieter Läpple and like many other speakers at the conference he was also a member of the IBA board of trustees spoke of a downward spiral in Wilhelmsburg that has to be stopped. The building exhibition succeeded in attracting investments totaling almost a billion Euros, 70 percent of which were private investments, 30 percent coming from the public purse. The IBA’s Managing Director Uli Hellweg explained that state investment – e.g. in the form of the new build for the State Ministry of Urban Development and Environment – must precede private investment and that they cannot afford to rest in their promotion of the rather unusual location of Wilhelmsburg, an area property developers would not ordinarily set their sights on.

Mixed reports

Both Hellweg and Jörn Walter still consider it too early to draw balance on the IBA and its outcomes. And not because many of the construction projects are yet to be completed (some haven’t even begun yet). The IBA has come under some sharp criticism, which Hellweg is taking with a comparatively large pinch of salt. “IBA? What a load of tripe!” declares one campaign “for a social and self-determining city”. Other protest initiatives want to “sink the IBA” – clearly bypassing the buildings it has produced a constructed testimony in concrete and wood. If nothing else, the IBA has created new housing, among other things, which is more than can be said for the igs garden show whose organizers had any urban vegetation, hedgerows and even a prized tree population cleared and marshland drained in the run-up to the show, just to be able to present their perfectly pruned horticultural display greenery for a few weeks.
Many of the active citizens feel that the outcome of the construction work carried out to date cuts both ways. Their main concern, namely, orderly traffic planning that reduces congestion rather than sacrificing ever more public spaces, has never been fully addressed. While their fears of gentrification and displacement in the existing residential areas are proving quite real. New rental properties on the IBA site are currently on the market for 12 to 15 Euros per square meter, an unprecedented rental level for the Elbe island.

Building with words

The notions upon which the building exhibition is based are in themselves somewhat peculiar. Here are the three new buzzwords that have emerged:

“Cosmopolis” is a term that references the fact that, owing to the encouraged immigration schemes from the 1970s onwards, a significant proportion of the some 56,000 Hamburg citizens in the plan area do not have German roots but come from an unusually large number of different countries. The IBA wants “all Hamburg citizens from all cultural backgrounds” to profit from the initiative. But how exactly that is supposed to work and what that actually means remains rather vague.

“Metrozones” are areas of the city that urban planners tend to abhor: Disorderly, unplanned areas that are impair one another when used; areas that do nothing more than function. Rather than realigning them completely and cleaning them up, cleverly designed interventions can help to improve the quality of life in these areas. Is that the idea here?

And finally there is “Cities and Climate Change” – a topic that was only afforded more weight during the planning phase, although looking back on history it has only really gained any real significance or attention since the North Sea Flood of 1962 in Wilhelmsburg. “Using our own energy to protect the climate,” preaches the IBA’s motto. But it should be more than reduced energy consumption that sets new builds apart from their predecessors; they should also make a contribution toward creating an intelligent energy network in the immediate area. For example, one adjustable façade on the BIQ building (architects: Splitterwerk, Graz/Austria) has been designed to generate warmth and biomass using microalgae. But could this lead to the efficient, independent generation of energy? Will any of this actually work?

A global neighborhood and gateway to the world…

Even the individual projects were given some strange names. One estate that has been given an eco-friendly revamp and is to date home to occupants from all corners of the world is now officially referred to as “Weltquartier” (Global Neighborhood). Then there is a newly designed school forum for all ages that has been named “Tor zur Welt” (Gateway to the World) – both a reference to Hamburg and its port and the education that will take place there. And the neighboring International Garden Show pulled out all the stops to take visitors on a journey “Around the World in 80 Gardens”, whereby one can’t help but think of Michael Palin’s rounding the world before Jules Verne springs to mind.

If we look back a hundred years, we see that Wilhelmsburg’s expansion was just as imminent back then, leading to the construction of the Neo-Gothic redbrick town hall that now stands on the Elbe isle. Of course, if this had been built as part of the IBA initiative it would have featured timber cladding not brick. In later years the Town Hall would eventually be flanked on either side by access roads to a federal highway that now cuts right through the center of the Elbe isle. The new “Wilhelmsburg Central” area has now mushroomed close-by, which the IBA has dubbed a “building exhibition in a building exhibition”. Still under construction right now, the new build that will soon house Hamburg’s State Ministry of Urban Planning and Environment, designed by Sauerbruch Hutton from Berlin, is also set to shape the new cityscape. As Louise Hutton recently lamented in an interview with Helmut Schmidt from German daily “Die Zeit”: “It’s a rather strange situation because we don’t really have an actual client, no one that we can really establish a working relationship with. Instead we are working with a municipal management company that only has a clue about one thing and that’s management.”

Are architects a splitter in the eye?

The new State Ministry building stands opposite the “Inselpark” (Island park) and thus the entrance to the International Garden Show, but most notably it also faces a clustering of generic residential housing built for the IBA. The “CSH Case Study Hamburg” was conceived a way of constructing “smart-price housing”. Its design was originally drafted by Adjaye Associates an international architectural firm, but despite the company having an office in Berlin it never got off its feet when it came to implementation. In the end, Hamburg-based firm Planpark was brought in to realize the project. But while such a solution is of course pragmatic, it does in fact come to the detriment of both offices. For Adjaye is named as the planning firm, although many of the details in the finished building are in fact modifications.

IBA Hamburg may have an international appeal, which is clearly how Uli Hellweg wanted it. Yet the choice of architects who were actually allowed to realize their plans fails to back this up. And as Jörn Walter stresses, the IBA maybe precisely the kind of project that is actually feasible in times of debt brakes and burgeoning problems in the area (the rate of early school leavers in Wilhelmsburg is 25 percent). Additionally, considering such aspects, one must admit that this project will probably have a positive and indeed sustainable legacy in the area. And yet the IBA has made it all too easy for its critics: In the core area in particular, it has failed to create any truly convincing urban spaces at all. A plethora of formal concepts, materials and surfaces have simply been left to compete against one another. The prospects, catalog and apps present images from the planning phase, which in each individual case prove significantly more interesting and inspiring than the actual buildings themselves.

Preliminary disillusionment

As such, a sentiment of disappointment is already becoming noticeable. In particular since this is a show that promises to opens doors to “new spaces”, “new energy” and “new opportunities” for the city. Does it really make sense to parcel out an entire district for experimental building and in doing so allow individual architects or firms to go toe to toe, each championing a particular design and backed with a small army of investors? All this does is leave no room for any them to really develop their ideas, let alone prove their salt. Are architects taking part in such a building exhibition simply destined to be the “fifth wheel on the wagon”, as Paul Kulka recently put it in reference to public building initiatives? Dresden’s Senior Building Officer expressed his concerns that architectural firms are nowadays filled with nothing but technocrats and lawyers. So who’s doing the planning?

Another thing that is really lacking at IBA Hamburg is the distanced view of a real exhibition isn’t a sales exhibition or promotional event (cf. the “IBA Dock” an info-point that describes the projects in a way one might expect to see at a real estate trade fair) but instead offers critical studies of the architecture and the city. If the IBA really were more than a run-of-the-mill program of planners-trying to please the citizens, a self-portrayal of the active citizenship that accompanied the IBA could have had an extremely motivational effect. In 1987, the extensive representation of architectural history in Berlin called itself “Adventures of Ideas”. But is this only is of interest to experts alone? They could have at least included a small display of the district’s checkered architectural history in Wilhelmsburg.

There’s certainly no lack of material on the topic: rural construction, the first bridge that Napoleon’s troops conquered on their way into Hamburg, housing estate concepts from the 1920s (architect Erwin Gutkind drew up plans to fill the south side of the Elbe isle with terraced houses and an El-Lissitzky-style “cloud hanger”), half-timbered houses for new “settlers” built by the Nazis in the 1930s, industrial architecture, makeshift post-War housing, the dire “resettlement” plans of the 1960s and the large housing estates of the 1970s. All of these things form a part of the district’s striking architectural panorama. Anyone who simply takes a look at the buildings but not beyond their façades will never understand what the organizers were getting at, said Jörn Walter – and he was quite right. And yet, a building exhibition whereby the architecture has completely slipped out of focus is ultimately a rather disconcerting thing.

IBA Hamburg

Presentation: 23 March to 3 November 2013
At Wilhelmsburg, Veddel and Harburger Binnenhafen
800 guided tours and 12 exhibitions
63 IBA projects, thereof 46 projects completed
71.5 hectares of green space and 100 hectares of igs
Over € 1 billion investment

Rich with sun – the solar paneels on the roof of the „energy bunker”. Photo © Thomas Edelmann
Inside of the bunker. Finishing expected in 2015. Photo © IBA
The „Smart Price Houses“ offer living at low cost: On the left hand „Hamburg“, a project by Adjaye Associates, on the right hand the BIQ, by architects Splitterwerk, Graz, which can generate via the façade with algues heat and biomass. Photo © IBA
Due to IBA there were investments of one billion euros. Beneath the projects “smart price houses”, in the middle model „Hamburg”. Photo © IBA
At Reiherstiegviertel there is the Open House, built cooperative and climate-friendly. Photo © IBA
Open House: 44 new residential units have been constructed on the 5600 square metre area of former waste land, directly on banks of the Ernst-August Canal. Photo © IBA
People of 30 nationas are living at the „Weltquartier“. On the whole are of IBA there are about 55’000 people of 100 nations. Photo © IBA
New building added to the former working class quarter „Weltquartier“. Photo © IBA
As the largest urban development project taking place as part of the IBA Hamburg, Wilhelmsburg Central is a vital building block in the “Leap Across the Elbe”. Photo © IBA
The “Tor zur Welt” (Gateway to the World) educational centre is being established in central Wilhelmsburg. Photo © IBA
This is a „energy bunker”: with solar paneels on the roof and an intern buffer storage the bunker will provide Wilhelmsburg with heat and electricity. Photo © IBA
Many buildings were realized for IBA at the quartier Wilhelmsburg since September 2006 - as like as the transformation of a bunker of the Second World War into an energy bunker. Photo © Thomas Edelmann
Since september 2006 there were 60 projects realized. Introducing three main issues: „Kosmopolis“, „Metrozones“ as like as „City in Climate Change“. Photo © Thomas Edelmann
The IBA-Dock constitutes the information point of the exhibition - but seems to be rather a booth at a fair for real estate. Photo © IBA
Inside the IBA-Dock, the information point if the exhibition. Photo © IBA
In the south of the Reiherstiegviertel a former working-class quarter has been transformed and completed by new buildings. Till 2014 the new “Weltquartier” should be accomplished, a project for intercultural living. Photo © IBA
ing office Agence Ter. Photo © IBA
The Smart Price Houses have harnessed experience in the fields of ready-built structures, modular construction, mass production, and prefabricated units. Photo © IBA
Smart Price House by Fusi & Ammann Architekten, Hamburg. Photo © IBA
The IBA’s Largest Project: New Building of the State Ministry for Urban Development and the Environment. Design by the Berlin-based architects Sauerbruch Hutton and INNIUS RR GmbH, Rosbach. Photo © IBA
The „Wälderhaus“ (forest house) at Wilhelmsburg Mitte, by Andreas Heller Architects & Designers, Hamburg, contains the exhibition “forest and sustainability” and offers also rooms for workshops and accommodation. Photo © IBA