Hamburg: Acoustics and Architecture in Wunderland

Text and images by John Patrick I. Allanegui

Nobody ever told me that Hamburg was all about acoustics and architecture.

I arrived in the city almost clueless on a night train from Zurich, the coach slowing down at one of the platforms of Hamburg Hauptbahnhof, the city’s central station.

Upon alighting from the train, I was greeted by a colossal hall made of glass, steel, and lights. The place was abuzz with activity: the rush of passengers and the chatter of German Federal Police securing every corner of the station. K-9 units were sniffing random luggage while members of the polizei were arresting a man in tattered clothes.

I came to Germany without pretense, meaning my daydream of the European giant was without images of the Berlin Wall, Oktoberfest nights, and a hefty serving of bratwurst. It was, after all, a transient stop for me before going to the Scandinavian region.

My sole idea of the city was tethered to one attraction, the Miniatur Wunderland, renowned for its largest model railway system in the world and tiny installations of global cities and landmarks elsewhere around the world.

And yet, upon stepping out of the central station, I realized that no famous miniature museum would ever contain the poetry of the built environment around me: from modern glass and steel façades to roads lined with striking Art Nouveau buildings. 

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I commuted to Reeperbahn in St. Pauli to drop off my luggage at a hotel that I found online. Little did I know that the district where I would be staying was the city’s major red-light district, where the smell of beer, cannabis, and human flesh would waft in the air and puncture the rest of my senses.

Evening fell as images of women exposing their breasts on glass windows of sex stores were abundant, as were homeless people sleeping on rags outside them. I knew there was much more to Hamburg if I only knew where to look, way past the neon flashes that shrouded the district I was in. 

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Gateway to the World

Nestled along the banks of the River Elbe in northern Germany, Hamburg is known as the “Gateway to the World.” This metropolis is Germany’s second-largest city, next to the capital, Berlin.

Hamburg is known to be a port city, famous for its maritime history that wades through every turn, with the busy seaports serving as a constant reminder of its seafaring heritage.

In the morning, I walked the entire district of Reeperbahn and came across a seemingly abandoned amusement park. Crossing the road, I was en route to the Old Elbe Tunnel.

I approached the entrance to the subterranean landmark, an ornate, green-domed entrance building that was hidden in plain view. I then descended the spiral staircase to embark on a short walk beneath the River Elbe.

Built in 1911, the Old Elbe tunnel is an enmeshment of brickwork, wrought-iron trimmings, and vintage light fixtures that seem to endure until an invisible vanishing point. The soft, warm glow of the antique light bulbs illuminated the pathway, casting intriguing shadows on the tiled walls. The echoes of my footsteps bounced off the curved ceiling, creating a symphony of sounds that mingled with the steps of other commuters.

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On the other side of the tunnel, I ascended the steps to a riverbed that offered panoramic views of the bustling port and waterways of Hamburg. From a distance, Hamburg’s skyline became a blend of historic red-brick warehouses and sleek glass skyscrapers. I watched ships of various sizes pass overhead, the play of light and shadows on the river’s surface, combined with the distant sounds of seagulls and boat horns.

Indeed, one of Hamburg’s most iconic landmarks is the stunning Elbphilharmonie, a concert hall that seems to float on the waters of the Elbe River. Its striking wave-like architecture and world-class acoustics define its very existence.

That day, I entered the concert hall with a wave of tourists who wanted to have an eagle’s eye view of the city. I lounged around the viewing deck of the concert hall, capturing one photo after another of the city.

None of us here were attending a world-class performance within its acoustically perfect auditorium, yet here we were, exploring the Plaza’s breathtaking scenic views and admiring its architectural wonder from the top. 

Small worlds in time

As big as the city of Hamburg is, everything culminates in a place for tiny things.
From Elbphilharmonie, I walked towards the historic Speicherstadt district and came upon a nondescript brick building, where the museum is housed. After grabbing a cup of hot chocolate from Speicherstadt Coffee Roastery next door, I lined up at the entrance to begin my trip to the tiny world.

Needless to say, the scale of Miniatur Wunderland is overwhelming. Within its galleries, I found meticulously detailed, handcrafted miniature landscapes that span countries and regions around the world. Each display was filled with tiny cities both real and fictitious, bustling towns, and quaint landscapes.

I followed the crowd from one miniature world to the next. I found small vehicles journeying long and winding roads, trains chugging through rail networks, and airplanes taxiing on tiny runways. It was an awe-inspiring sensory experience. In a different room, I found a quirky installation of a miniature Oktoberfest and musical festival that came alive to the beat of DJ Bobo's “Superstar.”

In the exhibits, the shifting day-to-night transition enhances the surreal encounter by enveloping the reduced-scale landscapes in a cozy ambiance during sundown. Once, I encountered the snowy mountaintops of the Swiss Alps, and in the next, I whisked away to the lively streets of Las Vegas, replete with mesmerizing lights and a bustling Strip. The encompassing auditory environments and strategically placed interactive controls within the display enabled me to take the world at large into much smaller realms. 

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The perfect shot in Speicherstadt

It was late in the afternoon when I emerged from Miniatur Wunderland and back into the historic district of Speicherstadt. While strolling, I approached the edge of the Elbe River, and the red-brick facades began to emerge before me, seemingly floating on the water as though it was a mirage at sunset.

There was supposed to be an entrance to the UNESCO World Heritage site that welcomed its visitors, but I was overcome by an intricate wrought-iron gate adorned with delicate latticework. The district’s cobbled streets led me to a built environment marked by bricks and iron, its historical allure built upon the foundation of a warehouse.

In my mind, I thought that what was most striking about Speicherstadt was its uniformity in design, the heart of the city. The imposing warehouses, with their gables, stood shoulder to shoulder and were material witnesses to the commerce and trade that had defined the story of Germany’s second-largest city as a port hub.

It was almost sundown by the time I had reached the end of a particular road, whose name I now forget. Parallel to it was a labyrinth of narrow canals crisscrossing an area. In the background, steel bridges arched gracefully over the waterways, connecting the warehouses and other structures.

Almost a pilgrimage for many photographers, the journey to Speicherstadt culminates at the Wasserschloss or Water Castle. This edifice, with its turrets and spires, is undoubtedly one of the most iconic landmarks in the city. 

I was waiting for the sun to sink behind the enclave of structures surrounding the Water Castle. I, along with other tourists, were pointing our cameras at the scene, waiting for the building’s lights to turn on, which would give a warm orange atmosphere all over. Positioning my camera on the opposite side of the canal, I framed the castle against the tranquil waters, allowing its reflection to complete the picture.

After waiting for what must have been already thirty minutes, the lights never came even in complete darkness. Disappointed, other photographers grunted under their cold breaths, leaving the scene one by one. I snapped a photo, anyway.

It was a failed and funny attempt to capture the most picturesque scene in Speicherstadt, but its allure remained picture-perfect in my mind, waterways crossing the surroundings and all.

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It would be the whitest of lies to say that my trip to Hamburg was one in which I found myself hard-pressed to try the culinary scene of the city. Essentially, I had been living on items from convenience stores because food was already becoming too expensive.

And yet, on some easier days, I discovered the hearty delights of northern German cuisine. The Labskaus, a traditional sailor’s dish, was a standout. It was a comforting blend of corned beef, potatoes, and onions, topped with a perfectly poached egg and pickled beets. With a glass of crisp local beer, the Labskaus made for a truly authentic experience.

Hamburg’s culinary scene seemed to generously embrace international influences as well. From Turkish kebabs in Sternschanze to Thai curries in St. Pauli, the city’s multiculturalism is celebrated through its diverse array of eateries. That same night in Speicherstadt, I treated myself at Viet Bowl Hamburg to savor a bowl of pho and a plate of spring rolls.

As though it was a last stop after the Vietnamese restaurant, I walked to the Chilehaus, a ten-story office building whose façade, designed by the architect Fritz Höger in the 1920s, resembles the prow of a ship, emerging from the ground. Its dark red brickwork, intricately detailed with terracotta ornaments, was the Chilehaus’s design that evoked a sense of movement of Brick Expressionism, a contrast to the brick architecture surrounding it. I must have stayed for an hour in that place, taking photos of various angles of its perfectly symmetrical windows,

Finally, it was time to go. I descended into a murky and abandoned tunnel back to the mouth of waterways that led me to the foreground of the Wasserschloss once again.
The lights were still out. They never lit up.

On a night so gentle and dark in the Speicherstadt district, I waited for a bus that would take me back to the flashy neon lights and loud atmosphere of Reeperbahn, where the acoustics of its world were so piercing, a telltale variation of a big city nurtured by a mighty river, this little wunderland.

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