Urban Innovation, Model Trains, and Wiener Schnitzel

This past week was Core Course Week at DIS, which means that I spent the week traveling and learning with my urban studies class. We spent the first three days in Hamburg, a city of 1.7 million people about an hour south of the Danish border, and then returned for the last two in Copenhagen. Below are my biggest takeaways from what was such a fun week:

The view of the harbor front from the spire of St. Nikolai’s Church

Don’t sleep on Hamburg: To be totally honest, Hamburg wasn’t on my list of cities to see while I was in Europe. When I thought of Germany, my mind immediately jumped to Berlin, but I am grateful I saw a whole new side of urban Germany this past week. Hamburg is full of stunning history, such as the St. Nikolai Church that which was mostly destroyed during the bombing of Hamburg in World War II. The church’s spire is still intact today and you can take an elevator up to the top for some of the most beautiful views of the city. I found it to be a particularly humbling monument to the scars of World War II and a pertinent reminder in a city that has rebuilt so much. The red light and entertainment district on Reeperbahn is another historic part of Hamburg, which is actually where the Beatles got their start alongside a number of other popular bands!

Hamburg is also a rapidly developing and growing city. We toured a section of Hamburg known as HafenCity.  The HafenCity initiative was created to revitalize the old harborfront that was left mostly derelict until about 20 years ago when the city created a massive joint public-private effort to develop the area into a vibrant part of the inner city. HafenCity features the Elbphilharmonie, which was an industrial warehouse converted into a hotel and a concert hall with some of the world’s finest acoustics. We arrived right at sunset to check out the view from the deck, which was a beautiful view of the city. In the popular American imagination, European cities are static places of the past, but Hamburg (along with Copenhagen and many others) are developing and innovating at a rapid pace.

German Ministry of Urban Affairs and Energy, newly built in the lower to middle class Wilhelmsburg neighborhood

Waterfront public space designed by St. Pauli residents, initially created in opposition to the government plan but was eventually adopted as the design for the space

Genuine public participation and public-private partnerships are key to just and sustainable cities: One of the coolest moments for me from an academic perspective in Hamburg was seeing newly redesigned public housing in the Wilhelmsburg neighborhood across the river from the city center. Instead of architects making plans and then looking for approval from residents and advisory boards, the process of designing didn’t even begin until there was information about needs and interests from current residents were collected. The people who lived there said they wanted balconies and outdoor space, so architects kept that in mind and built a balcony into each living space. Especially considering the weakness of the US to create public housing, it was so good to see and example of public housing done right.

Hamburg, in many areas, is working to have a collaboration between government and developers to invest in areas in a way that prevents gentrification (such as headquartering a government agency in a lower to middle class neighborhood and having cooperative housing or price controls). A lot of this has come from grassroots advocacy, such as the group we visited called PlanBude which works to organize residents of the St. Pauli neighborhood that is resisting gentrification by empowering them to visualize what kind of neighborhood serves their needs while remaining affordable and liveable. It’s also so good to see that good design is not (and should not) be exclusive to those who are middle or upper class and that good design, when created in the image of residents of a community, empowers them to live better lives.

Model map at IBA Hamburg Dock used to display current projects throughout the city

I’m obsessed with maps and models (even though I already knew that): This past week has been full of maps and scale models of cities. I have been obsessed with maps and models ever since I can remember. I loved seeing models in action this week, partially because of the craftsmanship and creativity inherent in them, particularly how they are an awesome tool for visualization and understanding the big picture of cities, and then seeing these same sites in person and contrasting what daily life looks like on these streets and in these buildings.

The ultimate scale model I saw this past week was Miniatur Wunderland, which is the world’s largest model train exhibition. It showcased some dioramas of German history and then massive landscapes and cities from Europe and the American west. They had a model of the Elbphilharmonie, which we just saw in person the day before, that opened up to reveal micro-musicians actually playing along to a symphony, lighting that changed from night to day, as well as an entire airport with planes going down the runway and taking off! I’m still marveling at the level of detail that goes into creating and maintaining these displays and I could go back many times and still not pick up on all of the details and easter eggs hidden throughout.

Overexposed and shook was definitely the mood for the night after dinner

Wiener schnitzel is NOT sausage: This realization came from a dinner which has been one of the most embarrassing and memorable experiences so far studying abroad. After my friends and I toured Miniatur Wunderland, we decided that we were craving some classic German sausage for dinner, so I did a quick Google search and picked out a place near our hostel that had highly rated wiener schnitzel (which, at the time, I was under the impression was sausage). We arrived at the restaurant only to have to order through a Ghanaian man who was the only person that spoke English at the restaurant and then receiving a slab of fried chicken over fries before finally realizing that wiener schnitzel is, in fact, not sausage (Anna—a fellow DIS student blogger!—already wrote a whole post about this dinner in its full glory so be sure to check it out on her blog)! I guess this is one of those learning by doing experiences, right?

The Mountain, co-operative housing designed by Bjarke Ingels in Ørestad to include both private gardens and parking into the housing complex to maximize space use efficiency

I have “starchitecture” in my backyard: My class spent the last two days of Core Course Week back in Copenhagen, where we toured Ørestad and the city center. Ørestad, which is a brand new urban development in the southeast of Copenhagen on the island of Amager, we saw yet another city model (bless) which one of my friends pointed out featured buildings designed by architect Bjarke Ingels, who is a rising star (hence starchitecture) with prominent buildings being built throughout Denmark and the world as a part of Bjarke Ingels Group (BIG). The housing complexes designed by BIG in Ørestad are actually the topic of an episode of Abstract, a Netflix documentary series, (which I promptly watched later that night—much recommended!) where I learned that he designed a high school only a few blocks away from my homestay in Hellerup! It is so cool to be in a place where innovative architecture and design is not a distant monument, but imbedded into the spaces where you live and your community.

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