Illumination of the Speicherstadt

In April 2001, the city of Hamburg witnessed the realization of a project without precedent: for the first time, an entire city district was set ablaze in light. Over a 1.5-kilometer stretch, the world’s largest historical warehouse complex transformed itself into a fascinating nighttime panorama. More than 60 harbor launches celebrated the moment in a concert of ship sirens. Since then, a picture of the Hanseatic city characterized by beauty, elegance, and ease has been carried throughout the world.

Concerning artistic descriptions of light, there is an urban development ensemble that was put together by ten architects at the end of the 19th century. The architects were all from the Hanover School of church building, which became popular in northern Germany under the names “Neogothic” or “brick Gothic”. The influence of cathedrals in the warehouse landscape is conspicuous. Rich details, asymmetries, variations in the serial elements (gazebos, gables, towers, pointed roofs, wheel roofs) all mark the character and unique atmosphere of the city of products. The color of the building’s components normally ranges from light-yellow to blue-red, enriched through green or black-glazened gemstones. Since the 1950s, damage from the War has been replaced by modern constructions – impregnations of facades have in some places been given lighter colors, renovated bridges stand with lighter indications of corrosion alongside dark rust.

For a century, the Speicherstadt lay in front of the harbor and city center as a foreign land, or “dark animal”, barely set foot in – a massive, horizontal city, vertically synchronized through rows of porthole traces, traversed by canals, and accentuated by bridges. A very sensual place, with wafting aromas of coffee and spices, which today is mixed-up in the transformation into office spaces for the New Media and New Economy. There is a hardly a visitor who doesn’t leave the Speicherstadt emotionally effected. The area is also used as a backdrop for numerous film and television productions because of its distinctive atmosphere.

The light conception in this case had no previous reference to fall back on – no comparable object of similar size and sophistication of architecture that had not yet been illuminated. First experiences concerning the subject of light were made on location in September 1999 during the theater project “Mozart. Amerika”. It was seen how light could provide rhythm and quality. The success of the theater project marked the breakthrough for the idea of an illuminated Speicherstadt. The formulated light concept was the basis for the realization of the project – not least because of the demand for aesthetics, profitability, and environmental friendliness.

The answer is a triumph of weak light. For the entire Speicherstadt, the average number of watts used is 24. The spectrum ranges from 13 watts for the area around the towers to 18 watts for the bridges, and 35 watts for the facades. Only scattered patches have 70 watts – approximately where the buildings are separated from each other. In general, it’s not the plane surfaces that are lit, but rather the divided and plastic elements. Structure, contour, and cubature are the orientation characteristics of the light description.

The result is an extremely captivating event of light and dark – that is, a single model quarter and picturesque approach to the building ensemble, whose street names still remind one of the quarter where religiously persecuted Dutch refugees used to live.

From an art history perspective, an homage is definitely due to the chiaroscuro technique and its perfection in Dutch painting.

Operations in the buildings became co-authors of the light planning. The inner water axle in the canals no longer needed for making deliveries, allowed us to restrict the transportation of light from a single light fixture through each floor, all the way up to the wheel roofs. The parts projecting from the façade with light touches of sandstone; the grounds’ scuffed, round cants; the portholes’ finishing circular arc, all come to light. And the somewhat laid-back doors appear like portals for a performance. The picturesque and imaginative gains in importance. The warehouses hold something mysterious; and the price is not revealed at the first glance. The Speicherstadt does not present itself as a landscape in the first fleeting look. As a place of preserved time, it retains the richness of its impressions for the beholder who is rewarded for taking his time.

The model for the still-active street-side for the delivery of supplies is called pairing. At both sides of the still-operating wind elevator, two cantilevers were set above the profile shape of urban light. The overall larger light owes itself to the position of the old city . The projection side of the Speicherstadt is found directly on the border canal, which is destined to have a promenade as soon as the custom’s fence falls. Thus, the Speicherstadt would serve a portal-like role for the planned Harbor City – the large city development program located directly at the annexation of the Sandtorkai, the world famous address for the coffee trade.

One of the important compositional elements on both the water side and city side is omission. From the outset, completeness was deliberately not executed so that the raw darkness could be preserved and stereotypes avoided. It wasn’t about projecting high zebra stripes of light, alongside each other in rows, but rather recording and reproducing the lively rhythm of architecture in light. Not to be appreciated in a one quick glance, the light work demands a long observation to gather the particular perspectives in time, which proved the intention to be right. Viewed from different perspectives, the Speicherstadt never looks exactly the same.

Another aspect of constraint concerns the development of the district’s lights, and the renovation of street lights. The more offices that come into existence, the brighter the district will be in the future. It shouldn’t be about a competition between the inner light of the offices and the outer light of illumination, but rather a meaningful dialogue. Of particular perturbance, are the pitch lanterns of the public street lights, which should be replaced by automatically timed lighting .

In the area of the facades – for example, in Block E (the Speicherstadt is divided into blocks) – the historical light locations were kept ; only the direction of the light was changed so that the textures of the designs on the walls could be emphasized. Object and facade proximity had absolute priority. Distanse, plane lighting, ledge calculations, and foreign colorings were mainly avoided. Downlights forbade themselves because of the glare, but also because of the dramatic effect – to eliminate fake moonlight projections , etc. A still spectacle, to which the surroundings, as a quiet, nighttime existence, lends itself, without over-dramatizing or romanticizing.

All of the bridges are lit from their substructures. The installation was ensued by pontoons, which because of the tides and electrical environment, were not always easy. From light material lamps with 18 watts lit in each case, the bridges appear like sculptures, artistic objects full of lightness. Especially here, the contrast of the lit metal structures in the water of the canals are very spectacular.

Standard material from Philips was used exclusively. Currently, approximately 830 lights are installed. By the end of the year, approximately 300 more lights are supposed to be put in. The trend toward miniaturization is to be valued as an absolute plus, as is the unique experience of the Speicherstadt.

The illumination project of the Speicherstadt will resume continously.



Illumination der Speicherstadt

Illumination der Speicherstadt

Illumination der Speicherstadt

Illumination der Speicherstadt


Illumination der Speicherstadt





Illumination der Speicherstadt
  Information also at www.lichtkunst-speicherstadt.de


Michael Batz :: Hamburg Art Ensemble :: Auf dem Sande 1 :: 20457 Hamburg :: Telefax 040 - 36 96 23 93 :: E-Mail kontakt@michaelbatz.de