Port cities, architecture and the return to water

Nadia Alaily-Mattar

Ever since the 19th century, ports have been associated with industrial activity. Ports were dirty, ugly and carried a bit of stench for those with a sensitive nose, and therefore were places that city residents would rather shun. The urban waterfronts were mostly occupied by the port and its functions. This led to a difficult relationship of port cities to their waterfronts, both from a planning perspective and from the quotidian experience of citizens. As cities turned their backs to their ports, they frequently turned their backs to their waterfronts as well. When waterfronts were abandoned in the process of containerization, a window of opportunity opened for port cities to reconnect to the water. In this process, architecture is used to signpost the return to the water. This article shows that using waterfront architecture as a signpost is not new, and indicates the importance of considering the interests such signposting serves.

The return to water is an interesting development for port cities, since historically the waterfront was a “site of exchange” (Hein 2013, 4) that had a representational function as well. Hein argues the waterfront was “both a maritime business card and a welcome sign for travelers coming over the sea… [that] showcase city's international character and the presence of global trade and other facilities to arriving and departing passengers“. The Kaiserspeicher, for example, which was the largest warehouse in the port city of Hamburg, had a landmark tower that could be seen from afar. The tower had a time ball – a black ball with a diameter of around one meter that was dropped three meters down the structure at noon, thus enabling ships within sight to synchronize their clocks.

hamburg water
Fig 1: The port of Hamburg ca 1930. On the right is the Kaiserspeicher with the clock tower and time ball. (Fotosammlung Wilhelm Walther, Bildnummer 8122, CC BY-SA 4.0).

After its destruction during WW2, the Kaiserspeicher was rebuilt in the 1960s as a less remarkable warehouse called Kaispeicher A, lacking a tower and any intent for symbolic outreach. This is quite indicative of how port cities had lost interest in their waterfronts. With the advent of containerization in the 1960s, many cities moved their ports. Waterfronts and buildings, such as the Kaispeicher A in Hamburg, were abandoned in the process, leaving behind infrastructures, buildings, and open spaces, ready to be reclaimed by new activities.

Since the late 20th century port cities renewed their interest for reusing and showcasing these waterfronts (see for example Ponzini & Akhavan 2020). This started in the 1970s perhaps with the Sydney Opera House, albeit for reasons not entirely related to port city transformation. Nevertheless, the success of the Sydney Opera House made a powerful case for port cities to return to the water and to use exceptional architecture projects to support this process. Architecture then could act as a signpost for the beginning of a new era for a city, sometimes even for its region and country. The Sydney Opera House was inaugurated in 1973 by no lesser than Queen Elizabeth. The Australian prime minister at the time stated that “The Opera House is more than an architectural triumph, [the opening] marks the beginning of a new era in the cultural life of our country” (quote in Trumbull 1973). Today the Sydney Opera House has become a symbol for Australia, and its iconic image is recognized around the world.

This story of port cities’ return to the water is quite evident in the city of Hamburg. In a double confirmation to the city’s commitment to the return to the water, its largest urban transformation project is called HafenCity, translated into Port City. Its showcase architecture project, the Elbphilharmonie, carried the name of the river Elbe, the birthplace of the Hamburg harbour. The building, inaugurated in 2017 and nicknamed Elphi, is comprised of a state-of-the-art concert hall, a hotel and luxury apartments. It is placed on top of the Kaispeicher A – the same former warehouse which replaced a warehouse with symbolic value only to become mundane and later on abandoned.

The development of the Elbphilharmonie - as an exceptional architecture project to serve as a unique landmark for the city - reflects the consciousness that port city actors have about the power of images and narratives, and how these actors mobilize architecture to increase exposure of their cities. In that sense, while “the architecture of port-cities is entangled in the social, political, economic, and cultural histories of these places and their wider role in international trade” (Lee, 2013), the development of exceptional architecture projects on the waterfronts can be interpreted as supporting efforts to entangle port cities in other global circuits beyond maritime trade.

Because ports have enabled their cities to be connected to global circuits of capital and goods, investments that supported port functions (such as the optimization of logistics, transportation, engineering of the port, and so on) were often favored above other investments. In the past two decades, however, we have been witnessing heavy investments in the development of exceptional architecture projects in some port cities. For example, the final price tag of the Elbphilharmonie in Hamburg was almost 900 million Euros. Such projects are the result of the commitment of powerful actors to erect signposts that narrate a new chapter in the development of port cities, one that reconnects the city to the water and diversifies its connectivity beyond maritime trade. This commitment is happening in parallel to the city’s support of its port and not necessarily in competition with it.

However, we must also take into consideration whose interests are served by such projects. Such symbolic edifices support new identities and, hence, can be powerful instruments for asserting, legitimizing and even creating political power for new actors in cities. Therefore, while the return of port cities to water signals the intention of “undoing the isolation of the harbor and reconnecting it with the urban structure its functions, spaces and forms“ (Porfyriou, Heleni, and Marichela Sepe, eds, 2017: 2), care must be taken that not new layers of exclusivity are generated. The return of port cities to the water can perhaps serve a more just use of the waterfront, one that serves the totality of a port city’s residents rather than being restricted for maritime functions. However, this is not by default, but rather by design.

This blog has been written in the context of discussions in the LDE PortCityFutures research community. It reflects the evolving thoughts of the author and expresses the discussions between researchers on the socio-economic, spatial and cultural questions surrounding port city relationships. Special thanks to Mina Akhavan, Paul van de Laar, Carola Hein, Sabine Luning and Hilde Sennema for comments and reviews.


Hein, Carola. 2013. "Port Cities." In The Oxford Handbook of Cities in World History, edited by Peter Clark.

Lee, Robert. 2012 "The Social Life of Port Architecture: History, Politics, Commerce and Cultu." In Standentwicklung zur Moderne Urban Development towards Modernism, edited by F. P.  Hesse, 33-52. Berlin: Hendrik Baesslerverlag.

Ponzini, Davide, and Mina Akhavan. 2020. "Star Architecture Spreads in Europe: Culture-led Waterfront Projects Between 1990 and 2015’." In About Star Architecture: Reflecting on Cities in Europe, edited by Nadia Alaily-Mattar, Davide Ponzini and Alain Thierstein, 69-94. Basel: Springer International Publishing.

Porfyriou, Helen, and Marichela Sepe, eds. 2017. Waterfronts Revisited: European ports in a historic and global perspective. New York, London Routledge.

Trumbull, Robert. 1973. "Sydney Hails Its New Opera House." The New York Times Oct. 2, 1973.

Photograph of Elbphilharmonie by Carola Hein.