At the beginning of 1989, the “Fleetinsel” consisted of dilapidated old buildings, which only attracted attention as a result of the banner “Senate eats Street” produced by the artist community Westwerk which hung on the facade of the house at Admiralitätstraße 74.
The Fleetinsel – which is no island in the geographical sense of the term – is bound on the West by the Herrengraben-Fleet, in the East by the Admiralitätstraßen-Fleet, in the South by the Ost-West-Straße and in the North by the Stadthausbrücke. Contemporary buildings as the Steigenberger and Fleethof did not exist in the 1980s. There was controversy over the historical value of the Fleetinsel and the so-called “Kontor- und Speicherhäuser” (loosely translated as historical office and storage buildings) that constitutes it. In terms of construction dates of the various buildings: the Michaelispeicher, located in Admiralitätstraße 74, dates back to 1787; the small four-storey building Admiralitätstraße 76 with its late-Classicist façade was built around 1850. Michaelisbrücke 1-3 located in Admiralitätstraße 77 which had been designed for Gustav Neidlinger was built in 1885/86 whilst the large Admiralitätshof in Admiralitätstraße 71/72 was built in 1889/1890. Overall, one can say that the historic Fleetinselbebauung between Michaelisbrücke and Ost-West-Straße is the last remaining complex in the city centre of “Kontor- und Speicherhäuser”.
In the late 1980s the area with its barely destroyed row of houses on Admiralitätstraße had been unused for years. In the 1960s and 1970s, the City of Hamburg acquired over time the various buildings on Admiralitätstraße and in the early 1970s decided on a completely new development which was later followed by an architectural competition in 1980 also based on a wholly new development concept.
The Fleetinsel is located is an area that is de facto isolated through the Ost-West-Straße which cuts through the City and separates the port area from the new town; this gave this area, despite its central inner-city location, something leprous. Although only 30 steps away from the Neuer Wall, the Fleetinsel did not belong to the elegant city centre quarter. It was probably this ambivalence of the situation that drew the artistic qualities into Admiralitätstraße and gave the old buildings on Admiralitätstraße a new function.
In the mid-80s the houses were vacant, and everything was ready for their demolition. However, the unoccupied old buildings aroused the desire of artists who, at the beginning of 1986, managed to conclude short-term commercial tenancy agreements with an employee of Sprinkenhof AG, which manages the houses on behalf of the City of Hamburg. Nonetheless the tenancy agreement enabled the city to demolish the houses on short notice. Although the rent was extremely low, the artists could not simultaneously use the properties as both a flat for living and as a studio for working. However, contrary to the provisions of the lease, and with the implicit understanding of a well-meaning employee of the Sprinkenhof AG, they ultimately used the spaces as both studio and living quarter and thus had what they wanted: ideal living and working opportunities.
In 1987, all requests for mercy for the condemned old buildings were rejected and inhabitants were sent eviction notice, which sought to put an end to the new ‘artistic’ life on the Fleetinsel.
The artists had no choice but to seek their justice in court. The brave employee of the Sprinkenhof AG, Mr. Bädorf, confirmed as a witness to the courts that he had tolerated that the artists used the rooms not only as a studio, but also as living quarters, so that the court granted in the first instance to some artists tenant protection making a complete evacuation of the buildings impossible.
How court proceedings can turn into theatre pieces can be read in the court ruling in which Peter Mey, who ran the “Imago” theatre on the Fleetinsel until 1994, was provided with an eviction order. At a meeting on site, the High Court decided that the bathtub and the toilet, which at the time were installed in the theatre for a play, were to be defined as theatrical backdrops as opposed to actual sanitary items. On this basis Peter Mey was presented with an order of eviction. In other words: justice in the eyes of the High Court in this instance was defined as taking a man’s living quarters away because he was not able to provide the proof as to the disposal mechanism for his excrements.
It is thus no surprise that, despite some positive rulings in the first instance, the artists did not have much faith in the judicial justice system. The banner with the inscription “Senate eats Street”, which the residents of the house Admiralitätstraße 74 had hung on the facade, informed the public and alerted the Senate. In early 1988, when the final demolition of the houses was once again on the agenda of the responsible department, Ulli Dörrie, who ran a gallery for contemporary art in Admiralitätstraße, called us and said that the demolition should finally be decided in the relevant political body on the next Wednesday. Now, actual commitment to the Arts was needed. Only one day later, on a Sunday evening, we arranged a meeting in the art gallery Dörrie, which had settled on the Fleetinsel sometime before. Despite voicing some concerns the Senator for Culture at the time, Professor Ingo von Münch also decided to attend. It turned out that according to the urban development plans of the City the old houses should give way to a parking lot whilst the urban development plan for the area foresaw a first-class hotel and a large office complex that was not affected at all by the houses of the Fleetinsel. Professor von Münch was spontaneously convinced that it was worthwhile for cultural reasons to fight for the preservation of the houses without disturbing the urban development goals.
It was thanks to the commitment of Professor von Münch that the topic of the demolition was taken off the agenda and that there slowly was a change of opinion in the responsible bodies of the City of Hamburg. This in the end allowed the houses constituting the Fleetinsel to remain preserved and thus also retain their role as a hub for cultural activities.
Supported by Ulli Dörrie and Carsten Dahne, we tried to convince the responsible politicians, as well as the investors behind the hotel development via a detailed conservation concept for the Fleetinsel that that what had been created in the old buildings could be developed further, which ultimately would benefit both the City as well as the planned neighbouring hotel.
The events in the Hafenstraße and also in the Schanzenviertel in connection with the planned construction of the new Flora Theatre determined the thinking of the Hamburg politicians at that time, but in very different ways:
The then Senator for Economic Affairs Mr Rahlfs, to whom we had promoted the conservation concept of the old buildings, was not at all pleased. He was – in the spirit of post-war development plans – interested in a simpler monolithic solution. Moreover, he was not all interested in the presence of artistic activities in a city centre, which should be reserved for the capitalist layer in view of the events in the Hafenstraße and Schanzenviertel. On January 25, 1988 he wrote:
“However, I do not conceal that I personally have significant doubts that the use you have mentioned is compatible with a truly first-class hotel. No one can guarantee in the long run that the cultural experience spaces that you invoke will ultimately become more barbecue parties and suchlike. I do not even want to meditate on other conceivable conflicts of use.
I am sorry that I cannot send you an answer that would be more to your liking. Please understand, however, that from my point of view, realities of economic and financial policy as well as urban development take precedence over possible cultural goals. ”
A personal conversation with the then leader of the SPD, Henning Voscherau, produced, however, a different point of view despite a similar urban development philosophy. He promised to support the project because, as he said, there was concern that the Hafenstraße phenomenon (with side effects of squatters and disorder) would slowly move towards City Hall. In his opinion, it was important that the inhabitants of the Fleet Island pay proper rent, because only then could it be ensured that a similar development as in the Hafenstraße would not arise. Coincidentally, this was a way of thinking that 7 years later provided the political basis for the peaceful conflict resolution in the Hafenstraße.
Eventually, the City said the houses could be preserved if we acquired and restored them. On April 18, 1989, the purchase contract between the Fleetinsel GmbH, which we had founded for this purpose, and the City was signed.
As a sign of the political sensitivities at the time it is noteworthy that a representative of the City called on that same afternoon and asked if now the banner with the inscription “Senate eats Street” could be taken down.
We undertook to maintain the old buildings for the long term and to renovate these with respect to the conservation of historical monuments in accordance with the importance of the buildings’ structure and to rent the apartments for a period of 10 years for cultural activities at a fixed average rent. The 35 tenancy agreements which existed at the time were taken over and many of these tenants still live or work in the Fleetinsel today. Spaces which were unoccupied at the time were restored and rented out to primarily cultural institutions. For further information on today’s tenants please see here.
The concept, which was originally mandates to run for 10 years, was continued also after the initial commitment period. The reasons that at the time spoke for the preservation of the old buildings and its at the time semi-legal use as an artistic space apply equally, if not even more so today after the construction of buildings such as the Steigenberger Hotel and the Fleethof.
The refurbishment concept for the buildings, which were run by the City owned Sprinkenhof AG for decades with a view towards eventual demolition, was intended to only address the minimum requirements for preservation and usability, so as to safeguard the simple character of the warehouse and office buildings as desired by the residents, and to limit the financial expenditure so as to be able to maintain the affordable rents in the long term. Even after the renovation, the houses should clearly distinguish themselves from the newly built environment. In this spirit the windows of the houses were in most cases repaired by hand and only replaced where absolutely necessary. The facade and roofs were repaired and – as far as possible – not replaced. The aim was to preserve the existing occupant and user structure and not endanger it by investing heavily. All this was done with infinite patience and expertise by the architect Bruno Brandi, to whom we are very grateful for this.
The same concept was applied to the commercial areas of the Fleetinsel. The problem of urban dereliction due to the dominance of retail chains is well known. The inner cities of Munich, Düsseldorf and Hamburg are confusingly similar. Contrary to this the Fleetinsel aims to allow shops that do not have and want national marketing budgets a livelihood in the city centre through affordable rents, and thus to complement the utilization structure of the Fleetinsel as a whole.