Brick Architecture in Hamburg Follow the clinkers

Residential and office building, Am Sandtorkai H20, Hamburg-Hafencity, Spengler Wiescholek Architekten Stadtplaner, 2005
Residential and office building, Am Sandtorkai H20, Hamburg-Hafencity, Spengler Wiescholek Architekten Stadtplaner, 2005 | Photo: Markus Dorfmüller

Not just since the 1920’s has brick as a construction material defined the face of the Free Hanseatic City of Hamburg. During this period incomparably more of these red brick buildings shot out of the ground as elegant, sometimes defiant and at the same time nautically streamlined Kontorhäuser (office buildings) and workers’ housing projects.

The tradition of this construction material goes back to the Middle Ages and is also fired into the silhouettes of other Hanseatic cities of the North and Baltic Sea region like a connecting raw material under the northern skies. But particularly in Hamburg, this tradition has been cultivated and developed over the centuries to the present with great appreciation by craftsmen, architects and artists. Brick was viewed by builders and their architects as a more effective and durable material in the rough climate of the north than softer cut-stone or ashlar masonry or stucco facades.

Identity-defining construction material

Clay is the basic and main ingredient of each brick. What decides the brick’s character, its surface structure and its incomparable play of red, yellow, blue-violet and black is not so much the clay mixture, but the firing process. The fire, heat and length of the firing process determine the brick’s qualities. Once bricks are cut into shape, they are stacked and slid into the kiln after they have dried. Heat hardens the bricks, above all water-proofs them and protects them from the effects of frost. The hotter the firing temperatures, the darker the brick, and the greater the change in colour. In Hamburg, this hard-burnt brick, the so called clinker, is an identity-defining construction material that to this day is used for all building purposes, public, private and commercial, and starting in the 20th century, was systematically utilised in entire areas of the city.

Brick-built reloading points

Hamburg is famed for its harbour. The Speicherstadt on the grounds of the Hamburg Freeport, built in 1888 and dissolved only in 2013, was listed in July 2015 together with the Kontorhaus office district as part of the World Cultural Heritage by UNESCO. This warehouse complex, the largest of its kind world-wide, arose between 1885 and 1927 on a group of islands in the Elbe in three construction stages under civil engineer Franz Andreas Meyer (1837-1901). The red brick warehouses with their neo-Romanesque and Gothic gables, arches, parapets, towers and bowfronts and connected via bridges, roads and canals, were the reloading points for coffee, tea, tobacco, rubber, rum, raw silk and oriental rugs.
 
  • Glockengießerwall, Hermann von der Hude und Georg Theodor Schirrmacher, 1869 Foto: Markus Dorfmüller
    Kunsthalle

    Glockengießerwall, Hermann von der Hude und Georg Theodor Schirrmacher, 1869
  • Haus der Landherrschaften und Polizeiwache Foto: Markus Dorfmüller
    Haus der Landherrschaften und Polizeiwache

    Klingberg 1, Albert Erbe, 1908
  • Speicherstadt, HafenCity Foto: Markus Dorfmüller
    Speicherstadt, HafenCity

    Bauherrin, Wilhelm Emil Meerwein, Bernhard Georg Hanssen, Hugo Stammann, Gustav Zinnow, 1888-1927, nach 1960: Kallmorgen und Partner
  • Kaispeicher B Foto: Markus Dorfmüller
    Kaispeicher B

    Magdeburger Strasse 1, Bernhard Georg Jacob Hanssen und Wilhelm Emil Meerwein, 1878/79
  • Kaispeicher A am Kaierhöft, heute Elbphilharmonie Foto: Markus Dorfmüller
    Kaispeicher A am Kaierhöft, heute Elbphilharmonie

    Am Kaiserkai, Kallmorgen und Partner, 1963
  • Kaispeicher A am Kaierhöft, heute Elbphilharmonie  Am Kaiserkai, Kallmorgen und Partner, 1963 Foto: Markus Dorfmüller
    Kaispeicher A am Kaierhöft, heute Elbphilharmonie

    Am Kaiserkai, Kallmorgen und Partner, 1963
  • Sprinkenhof  Burchardstraße 46-14, Altstädter Straße 1-8, Fritz Höger, Hans und Oskar Gerson, 1928-1943 Foto: Markus Dorfmüller
    Sprinkenhof

    Burchardstraße 46-14, Altstädter Straße 1-8, Fritz Höger, Hans und Oskar Gerson, 1928-1943
  • Sprinkenhof  Burchardstraße 46-14, Altstädter Straße 1-8, Fritz Höger, Hans und Oskar Gerson, 1928-1943 Foto: Markus Dorfmüller
    Sprinkenhof

    Burchardstraße 46-14, Altstädter Straße 1-8, Fritz Höger, Hans und Oskar Gerson, 1928-1943
  • Wohnquartier Bunsenstraße, Helmholzstraße  Gustav Oelsner und E. Schröder, 1927 Foto: Markus Dorfmüller
    Wohnquartier Bunsenstraße, Helmholzstraße

    Gustav Oelsner und E. Schröder, 1927
  • Wohnquartier Bunsenstraße, Helmholzstraße  Gustav Oelsner und E. Schröder, 1927 Foto: Markus Dorfmüller
    Wohnquartier Bunsenstraße, Helmholzstraße

    Gustav Oelsner und E. Schröder, 1927
  • Wohnquartier Bunsenstraße, Helmholzstraße  Gustav Oelsner und E. Schröder, 1927 Foto: Markus Dorfmüller
    Wohnquartier Bunsenstraße, Helmholzstraße

    Gustav Oelsner und E. Schröder, 1927
  • Krematorium Ohlsdorf  Fritz Schumacher, 1933 Foto: Markus Dorfmüller
    Krematorium Ohlsdorf

    Fritz Schumacher, 1933
Deliveries were handled directly from the water with specially-designed loading vehicles. Longshoremen unloaded the ships with cable winches and muscle-power. During the years of the Economic Miracle, new warehouse facilities were added, such as Kaispeicher A, designed in 1963 by Werner Kallmorgen (1902-1979). This red-brick building is the highest point of the Speicherstadt and was the only warehouse where seagoing ships could dock and be unloaded directly. This building also lost its function with the conversion of maritime trade to a container port. Today, the completely-gutted Kaispeicher serves as the basis for the Elb Philharmonic designed by the architectural firm Herzog & de Meuron, and as a landmark for Hamburg and its HafenCity.

Presence of the Kontorhäuser

The Kontorhäuser that arose starting in the 1920’s are the most beautiful architectural signifiers of the intersections of harbour and life, business and culture that make up the heart of the mercantile and maritime trade city of Hamburg. At that time, Kontorhäuser were an enormous innovation: they separated residence and work, and were conceived solely as the offices of commercial enterprises. With their iron-grey stone surfaces shimmering under the slanting rays of the sun, the ornate facades of the Chilehaus and the Sprinkenhof, both office buildings by architect Fritz Höger (1877-1949), convey more than just physical presence.

Diversity of brick architecture

Hamburg’s architects have often enlivened the homogeneous appearance of clinker buildings with a variety of means. Occasionally an interplay of matte hand-moulded bricks and shiny clinkers suffices for the purpose. Even the formation of joints and the colour of the jointing mortar influence a clinker building’s character. Architect Gustav Oelsner (1879 – 1956), who served as construction senator in the 1920’s, gave brick architecture a new dimension. His design for the residential quarter on the Bunsenstraße arose in 1927 right after his first encounter with social housing in Amsterdam and Rotterdam. With a variety of formats, the exterior walls of the Zeilenbau linear block homes are modelled into a rough, lively and tactile surface in different shades using almost-white, red, deep-blue and violet clinkers.

Architect Fritz Schumacher (1869-1947), who served as Hamburg’s chief construction director until 1933, wished to give the city a sense of community through construction with red clinkers. For him, brick architecture was “the language of everyday life.” The crematorium at the Ohlsdorf Cemetery conveys Schumacher’s vision of this mode of spatial ordering as a guidepost beyond death as well. With its monolithic clinker structure, this building’s sublime presence towers over all worldly concerns.