Joachim Schultz, Jorg Sieweke: Building Blocks for a Metro Zone Plan

The Usual View

A sojourn in the centers of Siena, Paris, or Münster raises no eyebrows. Church steeples, town hall towers, and familiar squares attract our attention and comply with our image of the city. The world appears to be in order here; our spatial awareness finds confirmation here. We are able to orientate ourselves effortlessly and instinctively, enjoying the cappuccino on the piazza. Everything is as it should be.

This does not appear to be the case in Hamburg’s Wilhelmsburg district. A visit to Europe’s largest river island is disappointing at first because you pass through it before you even arrive, and without even noticing anything of what you actually expected to find there.

Commuters, pouring in from south of the Elbe via the infrastructural corridors in Wilhelmsburg, experience the area as a green rush. Unassuming features are barely perceived: a green hill, electricity pylons, and all kinds of other useful facilities that are of little interest to us. It is only with the next bridge over the northern arm of the Elbe that you reach the “city proper.” We have arrived in Hamburg.

The Unusual View

Wilhelmsburg motorway journey: the cultivated boredom is suddenly transformed into a loss of orientation. Am I there already? Is there still something to come, where does it go after that? I actually wanted to go in the other direction … The transit traffic corridors now form barriers that can be crossed in just a few places. The situation is complex and orientation difficult. A look at the map is not much help and merely confirms the impression of fragmentation. A lack of legibility might be one explanation for why this island has been able to remain largely undiscovered by the “real” Hamburg residents. Maintaining the prejudices seems easier: “Pit bull mauls child to death”― it is certainly not somewhere you would go to voluntarily.

But what is Wilhelmsburg really? What holds the neighbourhood together? These were questions that inspired curiosity. Enough of the espresso machines! Out into the world that is so difficult to categorize, out into reality!

The unease resulting from the loss of orientation is replaced with curiosity about the diversity and economic status of eccentric and intransigent places. Investigation instead of prejudice: single family homes, container stacks, railway embankments, motorways, a mountain of refuse visible from afar, fields, meadows, squares, bunkers, dykes, ditches, fences, nature reserves, containers, ships, reeds, and a colourful ethnic mix. All the building blocks making up an urban and rural inventory are to be found here in very close proximity and in seemingly arbitrary formation, side by side and on top of one another.

The Planner’s View

There is a clash of diverse utilisations and building forms, creating diverse borderline situations that are either hardened fronts or green buffer zones. It is as if the covered identity of the individual islands in the Elbe shines through beneath the marshland reduced to a single polder, islands resisting homogenous categorisation.

The no man’s land is the result of weak overall planning. A lack of economic pressure enables the niche utilisation of the area. Colonies of residential properties on the poverty line between the sheds of garden plots, Turkish gardens, and weekend cabins, accessible only via winding paths through subways, are embedded in a seemingly idyllic landscape, its lack of development constituting both a risk and the opportunity for niche existences.

The ambivalent places have developed against the background of a forty-year planning vacuum and the indecision as to whether to develop the Elbe island as a residential and commercial location, or to give it up entirely. This standby mode caused investment to stop when it came to the provision of public and technical infrastructure. The space kept aside for harbour/city expansion has since become home to those who have not exactly been at the receiving end of Hanseatic prosperity.

The planned revival and implementation of Hamburg’s minimum standard of utilities and urban welfare is accompanied by concerns that this comes at a price that many will not be able to pay.

Wilhelmsburg’s Man-Made Environment

During the compilation of an alternative framework for the IBA Hamburg1 the issue of the Elbe island’s context was raised from 2005 as criticism of the existing land use plan. Development to date has pushed the man-made environment towards the southeast as an ostracised remnant. A “line of defence” was to be set up along the A1 motorway to protect this reserve. The Atlas IBA Hamburg proposes an integration strategy to counter this trend towards the spatial exclusion of city and landscape. How can the harbour, agriculture, and settlement be further developed as diverse elements or layers in a man-made environment?

As the existing land use structure resists description using conventional urban planning and landscape models and patterns, and the term “transurban” was of no help here either, another version borrowed from ecosystem research was used: the Patch-Corridor-Matrix model.2 It was developed in order to study the interactions of spatial structures and their use, and constituted an open-ended structural observation of living environments.

Using this method, the distinction is made between spatial phenomena in selective, extensive, field-like areas referred to as patches on the one hand, and linear, strip-like corridors on the other hand. The term matrix also refers to the issue of the contexts existing between the elements mentioned above within a living environment. The matrix can be made up of different criteria: the largest surface area, elements with the highest degree of networking, or elements exhibiting the strongest development dynamic. Thematic maps of Wilhelmsburg can be produced in this way, which highlight the Elbe island’s different qualities or features. They describe the potential networks of wasteland or public access areas. Superimposing these maps creates images of spatial character and talents. This multi-matrix can serve as the basis for up and coming negotiation processes. The negotiation of boundary areas and functional mixes is a key criterion in any process of urbanisation2 of what was previously a largely rural neighbourhood.

“It is not the lifting of a boundary that is indicative of an urban culture, but its transformation as part of the productive momentum of such a culture. The form and the nature of the boundary is a key criterion for the type of urban culture prevalent in an area.”3

Instead of the fruitless attempts to date at establishing new central locations, this method’s approach is one of acknowledging the island’s diverse reality levels. The international garden show (igs) will perhaps provide an opportunity for implementing the idea of a park in the metrozone, not as a clearly delimited central city park, but developing it from networked spaces comprising a wide variety of disused land areas. For the IBA and igs comes the question of whether, in addition to the inclusion of new patches (individual projects), it might not be possible to develop their context in the sense of the matrix of the Wilhelmsburg island as outlined above. The conversion of Wilhelmsburg’s Reichsstrasse transit corridor from a caesura in a living environment is a major step in this direction.

New Planning Tools

Urban land use planning, largely established in the 1970s, is not familiar with transurban areas, not to mention the term metrozones. The version of the multi-matrix presented with the Atlas IBA Hamburg could help to update and expand the building code tools. Looking at spaces from a wide variety of perspectives, namely from below, from above, and from the outside, provides new insights regarding spatial characteristics and features, and thus also new bases for democratic planning workshops. In contrast to classic planning approaches, which were conceived for European city centres, the Atlas proposes a tool capable of capturing the actual informality of our man-made environment. Instead of the conventional alignment with other Hamburg neighbourhoods, the island’s particular spatial character can be acknowledged and developed further.

This is especially relevant to our concept of the protagonist who is to inhabit the spatial paradigms. With the notion of the noble savage Jean Jacques Rousseau describes the ideal of mankind untainted by civilisation, always appearing in different roles as a trailblazer through the course of history: while it was the Indian following the discovery of the Americas, the sans-culotte at the time of the French Revolution, and at the end of the nineteenth century the flaneur, still a welcome guest as far as our diligent city fathers are concerned, it has to be said that the noble savages of the metrozones have not yet made a name for themselves.4 To keep with the imagery, what are needed now are the untainted and everyday creative skills of the “Wilhelmsburg island people” in appropriating unique places and reclaiming unconventional spaces. Perhaps, by addressing the issue of metrozones, the declared intention of the IBA Hamburg to reform our approach to space might contribute to planning notions approximating real life experience.


1 Jorg Sieweke / Joachim Schultz: Atlas IBA Hamburg. Berlin 2008.

2 Richard T. T. Forman: Land Mosaics. The Ecology of Landscapes and Regions. Cambridge 1995.

3 Christian Schmid: “Theorie.” In: Die Schweiz. Ein Städtebauliches Portrait, Vol.1. Basel 2003.

4 Cf. “Utopia―Niedergang und Untergang?”. In: Colin Rowe, Fred Koetter: Collage City. 5th, expanded edition, Basel/Boston 1997, pp. 25ff.

download: Building blocks for a Metrozone-Plan;_Sieweke/Schulz, 2010

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