Preferred method of transportation
von Thomas Edelmann | Dec 19, 2012

On December 9, a new subway line went into operation in Hamburg. Tracing a large curve, the tunnel winds its way across the city beneath several bodies of water and up to 30 meters below ground, ducking under other tunnel routes and parts of Hamburg’s old and new town on the way. Of course passengers are barely aware of any of this. From “Jungfernstieg” it takes just four minutes to reach the first (and for the time being last) stop “Überseequartier”. The actual end station “HafenCity Universität” may be complete below ground, but currently finds itself in an urban no man’s land, such that they have decided to only run trains there for weekend viewings. Two minutes are scheduled for this final stretch; though it is nowhere to be found on the network map.

The area around “HafenCity Universität”, the eastern part of HafenCity, is still under development and it will be a few more years before it really bears fruit. If you leave the station and head up to street level, you are on the one side greeted by a huge pile of sand. The sea of flat, elongated sheds, functional structures that once served as short-term storage for incoming goods, have long since been razed to the ground and Hamburg Freeport, which has occupied the area since 1888, will be closing in January 2013. The customs posts are set to disappear and the former harbor area will (or so the planners hope) become a vibrant new city district. The site of the former Hannoverscher Bahnhof will now become home to one of the few parks in Hamburg’s new district, as well as a memorial for the Jews, Roma and Sinti deported from the harbor between 1940 and 1945.

HafenCity University, the subway station’s namesake, will be a school of architecture, which has in fact been around since 2006, pieced together from degree programs and staff from other universities; though the various departments will not leave their respective current premises throughout the city to move to the new site until fall 2013. A rather ambitious timeframe considering the new building designed by Dresden-based architectural firm Code Unique is still nothing more than a concrete skeleton; its topping off ceremony took place in September.

Anyone who ever traveled to Hamburg on the city’s Pfeilerbahn, an elevated railway once supported by 126 brick archways, would have had the chance to take in some of the city’s main sights along the way: Hamburg’s Wholesale Market and its undulating roof, St. Michaelis Church and the port, though back then it was more a seemingly chaotic landscape of storage areas and wild vegetation; a mass of cranes, storage containers, tracks and pathways. All of this is now gone. German national railway company Deutsche Bahn had the crumbling brick archways pulled down and replaced them with a “combination of anchored sheet pile wall, ground slab on deep foundations and transverse GEWI drilled micropiles,” as one of the engineering offices involved in the project so fittingly described the construction measures. The result was a kind of railway architecture in reference to which Meinhard von Gerkan once said: “Elevated standards have caused an upward surge in costs, which then has to be recovered by cutting back on design quality.”

For budding architects who will soon be moving into the district, this is a prime example of how things shouldn’t be done.

Underground luminosity

So perhaps we are better off heading back underground, where the visitor is greeted by a quiet marine gurgling and sloshing that proves more annoying than amusing. An instinctive search for the restrooms ends in vain; there aren’t any. Both of the new underground stations are around 16 meters below the current ground level; the new construction will not be protected by dikes, but erected on terps, or artificial dwelling mounds. But it must be said: The large glass panes on the intermediate level above the platform itself certainly make for an impressive view.

Once complete, HafenCity will provide new homes for 12,000 of the city’s residents. In its current state, there are just 2,000 living there. These are joined by the approx. 9,000 people who work in the area as well as the daily flood of visitors arriving in their thousands. Nonetheless, it will still take quite some time before the number of passengers reaches the figures projected in the construction plans for the subway line; that is around 35,000. Which gives us an ideal opportunity to explore the contemplative nature of the subway station.

Lighting heavy with symbolism

Following a call for tenders in 2007, the task of designing the station was placed in safe hands in Munich: Architectural firm Raupach, lighting planners from Pfarré Lighting Design, design agency Stauss Grillmeier and colored lighting specialists D-lightvision all joined forces to create the design for the ten-meter-high, 16-meter-wide and 130-meter-long space. The walls and ceilings are covered in brushed steel panels, while high above the platform hang twelve luminaires designed by Stauss Grillmeier; housed in semi-transparent glass, each is 6.5 meters long, 2.8 meters high and weighs a hefty six tons. Every one of these light objects is fitted with 280 red, yellow and green LEDs. The architect’s project report reveals that the design is an allusion to the “various identities to be found in and around the harbor city,” as well as “the colors of the brick façades as they change with the seasons, the hulls of the ships, the mighty superstructure of the cranes and the stacked shipping containers” – so now they hang there beneath the ceiling symbolically repurposed as light sources. Whereas the striking colors and their slow transitions present a plethora of shades and nuances, the white light that radiates downwards remains constant in its brightness.

The next station “Überseequartier” is so close that you could just as easily walk there. With construction work going on all around, footbridges are still the only way to reach the station entrance. But in places they are much further ahead here at “Überseequartier” than the sites at “HafenCity Universität”. One is already able to discern the block that will soon become the “Elbarkaden”, earmarked to house Greenpeace Deutschland, iF industrial design forum and the Hamburger Initiative.

Underwater world at “Überseequartier”

“Überseequartier” station also boasts its own distinct design theme. The competition for the contract was won by Darmstadt-based firm Netzwerkarchitekten, whose design for the platform hall at “Überseequartier”, which is somewhat wider but the same height as its counterpart at “HafenCity Universität”, immerses the passenger in a symbolic underwater world. When planning the lighting concepts for the station, the Darmstadt firm teamed up with lighting designers Schlotfeldt Licht from Hamburg. As soon as you step foot onto the entrance level, you can’t help but notice the squeaky clean tiles in an array of light-blue tones, slightly reminiscent of the tradition seen in Hamburg subway stations in the 1950s and 1960s, whose stairwells however didn’t seem quite as generously proportioned. Once again, they have installed a large glass façade separating the entrance hall from the platform.

For reasons relating to fire safety, all existing subway and overground railway stations were not only robbed of their suspended ceilings (without doing anything to the shoddy metal structures beneath, now exposed for all to see), but the entrance and exit areas were most notably fitted with full-length aprons, intended to keep the escape routes free of smoke. As had been the case in many prior renovation and installation projects, the subtle design that once characterized the existing stations suffered greatly at the hands of such remodeling work. So it’s a pleasure to see that at least the new buildings boast some far more elegant designs.

The design at “Überseequartier” is characterized by the coated wall paneling which features a blue gradient that becomes progressively lighter and ultimately transitions into bare metal. In addition, stainless steel panels create an irregular pattern high up on the ceiling. If you choose to go with the architect’s interpretation, you might just recognize “the water’s surface from a diver’s perspective”. In combination with the artificial stone on the train platform, the bright, even light (no disco lighting effects here) takes on an even brighter hue, but to a rather pleasant effect. By contrast the accentuating light strips in the stairwells can prove rather blinding on occasion. And in the area where the HVV informs its passengers of its routes, schedules and tariffs, the tiles, stainless steel frames and glass are so reflective that you’re better off looking to your trusty smartphone for such information (if you have one that is).

One thing that is particularly astonishing here is how little effort was put into integrating the access buildings into the new district in comparison to earlier examples of Hamburg’s subway architecture. During the post-War years, Hamburg architects created a large number of small monuments to everyday life here in the midst of the urban hustle and bustle. Anyone who ever used them will remember the entrance to the Feldstrasse station (1954) built by Hans L.M. Loop, the reinforced concrete dome on Lübecker Strasse (1960–62) designed by Horst Sandtmann and Friedhelm Grundmann and the glass pavilion at the Schlump subway station also realized by Horst Sandtmann, in collaboration with Dieter Glienke and Gerhard Hirschfeld.

The new stations have waived putting any stamp on the cityscape whatsoever. One can presume that this aspect was simply left out of the tender. With dynamic lighting and symbolic imagery, the new subway stations present themselves as transportation structures that are well built, fun in parts, but most certainly distinctive. The overall cost, according to official records 326.6 million Euros (that makes 81.65 million per kilometer or 163.3 million per station), provides yet another reminder of their curious backstory.

Subway over streetcar

In 2001, Hamburg was governed by a coalition of the Social Democrats (SPD) and the Green party. A headline in the local daily “Hamburger Abendblatt” read “Stadtbahn kommt” (“The Stadtbahn is coming”). This is a reference to an economical and efficient means of transportation that had already been a given in other major cities for years, while for Hamburg it came as something of a culture shock. Back in 1956 the city decided to gradually do away with the existing streetcar network, a process that would ultimately last until 1978. Suddenly, with the development of HafenCity, they needed a modern streetcar network, now called the Stadtbahn, to connect the new district to the rest of the city. The route was set to run over an existing bridge via the shopping boulevard Mönckebergstrasse to Hamburg central station: It was considered a done deal. Then in September 2001, the Conservatives (CDU) and the Schill party (a minor protest party) won the election and cut the cord on the Stadtbahn project despite the fact that plans were already complete. If you’re going to do it, do it right: According to the new city government, what Hamburg needed was an extension of the subway network. 34 variations were put up for consideration. The costs surely wouldn’t go up that much (of course they did) and besides, the state would pick up its part of the tab. And the most important factor of all: cars would still have the green light to flood into the city each day.

Yet owing to fears in the department stores and independent stores on Mönckebergstrasse regarding the years of construction work that would be required for the subway expansion and subsequent loss of business, a simple, uncomplicated link between the new route and the existing network was thrown out of the window and replaced by the long, winding route we see today. But by the time the CDU was in league with the Greens (years later) the expensive subway branch line was already under construction. Nonetheless, in 2008 the coalition partners unanimously decided that the Stadtbahn was indeed the mode of transportation of the future – if not in HafenCity then elsewhere in Hamburg. Run by Hamburger Hochbahn AG, the Chamber of Commerce and the CDU were thrilled with the new plans. After all, streetcar networks require less energy, transport more people while using the same space and today have little in common with their screeching counterparts of times past. Wanting to demonstrate this to Hamburg’s citizens, in 2010 they even exhibited a streetcar carriage from Bremen at “Jungfernstieg”.

Plans foresaw the creation of a 28-kilometer-long streetcar line within a ten-year construction period and with a budget of 1 billion Euros (this also included the provision of new streetcars and the construction of a depot). And Hamburg would only have to foot part of the bill. Of course, the costs of this project likewise shot through the roof, Conservative mayor Ole von Beust resigned, the Greens fought with their coalition partners and took their leave from the municipal government. The CDU swiftly brought all plans for the Stadtbahn to a halt, prompted among other things by public opposition (protests against “Stuttgart 21” were flaring up in the south at the time). And to sweeten the deal, it must have been quite fun to trash a project created by their political opponents. The SPD was back in power in Hamburg, with no coalition partner and no real ideas of its own. Mayor Olaf Scholz has long since distanced himself from the SPD’s Stadtbahn project. For good. Instead the municipal government is now working to expand bus lanes; an expensive initiative that promises little environmental benefit or monetary savings. So there is just one political party in Hamburg that is convinced the Stadtbahn is a really great idea, but one they don’t have to realize at present. Right now that’s the CDU.

The coated wall covering of the station “Überseequartier” is characterized by a blue color gradient, photo © Thomas Edelmann
The materials used for this station lead to almost excessive mirror effects, photo © Thomas Edelmann
The design of the station “Überseequartier” is based on the topic of “underwater world”, photo © Thomas Edelmann
On December 9, Hamburg’s new subway U4 was put into operation, photo © Thomas Edelmann
Darmstadt-based Büro Netzwerkarchitekten was responsible for the creation of the „Überseequartier“ station © Thomas Edelmann
A glass wall separates the access area from the platform, photo © Thomas Edelmann
The changing light sequences are reflected in the steel-clad walls, photo © Thomas Edelmann
The lighting concept for Hamburg’s new subway station “HafenCity Universität” represents the “change of seasons” of the city’s harbor, photos © Thomas Edelmann
“HafenCity Universität” is one of two metro stations of Hamburg’s new subway route “U4”, photo © Thomas Edelmann
While the colors of the light objects continually change at their sides, the platform underneath is illuminated with a uniform, white light, photo © Markus Tollhopf
The 12 light objects are made of semi-transparent glass and filled with 280 red, yellow and green LEDs, photo © Markus Tollhopf
As the waiting hall itself, the entrance to the “HafenCity Universität” station is clad in brushed steel panels, photo © Thomas Edelmann
Compared to the platform areas, the architecture of the tube buildings received poor treatment, photo © Thomas Edelmann
The area of Hamburg’s Hafen City, in which the “HafenCity Universität”, a school of architecture, will move at the end of 2013, is still a developing area, photo © Thomas Edelmann
Until today, the last stop of the „U4“ lies in “urban nowhere”, photo © Thomas Edelmann