I think when most people think about the art and architecture of Europe, we immediately turn to cities like Paris, Amsterdam, Berlin, Madrid, Vienna, Rome, and several other Western European cities that are home to centuries-old, grand buildings with cobblestone pathways that paint an almost idyllic and fairytale-esque portrait of what many Americans would imagine when they think of Central and Western European life. In fact, my first time abroad, first in Vienna then Munich and later Salzburg, I too was immediately charmed by how bright, clean, and beautiful the buildings were in comparison to the row-style, brick houses of Philadelphia.
But by the time I flew into the northern-German city of Hamburg, I realized that art and architecture were truly not the same everywhere, even when the cities of Europe are quite close to one another. After living in Hamburg for some time, I can confidently say that the city holds a different charm than that of the cities I have visited in southern Germany and Central Europe. Unlike the white, pristine castles and basilicas of Central Europe, Hamburg is home to brown, brick-styled apartments and buildings and bridges that hug the waterways that flow throughout the city. Like the cold weather that sends a brisk chill throughout the city and the gray clouds that slowly cover the sky as the hours tick by, the architecture of Hamburg conveys a sense of homeliness and comfort, like sitting inside, snuggled up on a cold, rainy day with warm coffee in your favorite mug and a book sitting on the side, just waiting to be read. No, Hamburg does not have the fairytale-like castles and quaint cobblestone paths of other German cities, but it does not need to. The city’s charm reflects the environment or the harbor it surrounds, making it one of the most unique locations I have visited.
But art is not just found in Hamburg’s urban design, it is found within the city itself as well. Though it is debatable as to whether graffiti is considered art, there is definitely no lack of street art within the city, especially in the Sternschanze area. In fact, some of my favorite illustrations have been those in the most obscure of places. Though some may find such art ugly or damaging to the image of the city, I find that all of the art, whether that be chalk on the sidewalk, graffiti on a vacant wall, or words on bathroom walls are simply real, human, expressions of what people think or feel in our lifetime. Such types of art become even more apparent when one steps onto the University of Hamburg campus. Outside of a residential building stands a mural right above the Economic and Social Sciences building. The giant mural depicts Jewish life in the “Grindel” area years ago, a reminder of the community that once thrived in Hamburg before the second World War. Likewise, bathrooms in cafes and within the University bloom with artistic expression. From stickers calling for more action against climate change to small notes advertising a local flea market, each part of the bathroom wall holds either an imperative for social change or a joke that someone found funny. Words of encouragement written by strangers, as well as political discussions, written in inks of different colors, have also found a permanent home in the University’s bathrooms.
Whether you are admiring the architectural wonder of the Elbphilharmonie or reading a debate on words on bathroom walls, art exists throughout each corner of the city. Years ago, I felt that art was nothing more than oil paintings hung up on dimly lit walls in museums. Now, I try to find art wherever I go, not because art is pretty, but because it tells a visual story of the people who inhabited a space, how they viewed that space, and their thoughts on the world at that time. I am no art historian, nor an art expert, but I found that taking the time to just look around, mostly with no phone or camera in hand, helped me better understand the city and its history, environment, and people just a little bit more.