In the previous two parts of this series on Hamburg-style accidental sustainability, I’ve talked about Unilever’s exemplary green headquarters and the backhanded way that a seafood retailer came to create a better and more sustainable packing crate. The final chapter is a Friday afternoon sort of lesson, a tale of R&R and the creative process and the recycling of urban space.


Let’s start like this: if I told you there was a small company that had uncovered a derelict urban space, renovated and rejuvenated it, and kickstarted the fundamental re-imagination of a piece of real estate that had long been seen as worthless, you’d probably guess that I was talking about some idealistic green boutique company willing to put itself out to make a point and save some buildings from the wrecking ball. In Hamburg, though, the sustainability push is rarely so overt and never so earnest. 

And so consider the sort of party/presentation/retreat space established in recent years by the design firm of feldmann+schultchen (the minds behind that aforementioned sustainable packing crate). It’s a funky, loftlike space, adjacent to a couple of other small studios inhabited by artists, dreamers and entrepreneurs. Until feldmann+schultchen arrived, this complex of creative work spaces was a flotilla of decommisioned customs houses at the mouth of the Elbe River.


Here’s what it looks like from the water:



Now, no one at feldmann+schultchen set out to altruistically save an old barge or anything so virtuous. One of the partners simply knew a guy who’d bought a bunch of derelict customs houses for a song, and so the f+s crew paid a visit one day, and what they found, unexpectedly, was an oasis. It was tranquil and meditative, minutes from their downtown office but a world away in a forgotten little eddy of the gently rolling river. They moved in to one of the customs houses not knowing quite why or what to do with it.


In time, its purpose revealed itself: It was their retreat, their lodge in the woods, a place they could take creative teams to dream and invent away from the clutter and bustle of day-to-day work. They had it simply but spiffily renovated, and it soon had enough style to it that they could bring clients for brainstorming sessions or post-deal celebrations.


Visitors loved it, and I can report firsthand exactly why they do: it’s gently but undeniably transcendent. The f+s crew shuttle you there by tugboat, invite you to grab a drink (Hamburg’s beloved local brewery Astra is a longtime client, so there’s always plenty of good German beer around), watch the sun play on the water and the old shipyards across the river. Basically everything a corporate wilderness retreat does using hundreds of miles of distance and much more ceremony, f+s’ little customs shack does just a couple of miles from the center of Germany’s second-largest city.


The larger civic virtue of the place? The fact that f+s took what was going to become landfill and turned it into a funky upcycling project? The way they’ve helped reimagine an urban space that had been all but forgotten in the grander schemes of the city? The way — come to think of it — even the carbon footprints of their visiting clients arriving and departing by ersatz mass-transit tugboat are several orders of magnitude smaller than a car convoy out into the rural wilds? All that was sort of incidental. A byproduct.

And so it always seems to go with Hamburg’s stylish take on sustainability, where simple goals — an office space built for better communication, a fish crate that reinforces the high quality of the product, the happenstance of discovering a think tank floating on the nearby river — seem pretty much by accident to produce models of sustainable business practice along the way. Maybe it’s something in the water. Or the beer.


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All photos by Chris Turner

In Hamburg, a derelict customs house becomes an oasis for creativity
Recycling is too often about virtue, not value. But when a hip design firm discovered some old barges on the river Elbe, they quickly learned that a derelict sp