Freifrau visits Andreas Hanitsch at Waterworks Falkenstein

The old Altona waterworks is located on the banks of the Elbe in Hamburg. Almost 6 years ago it was advertised for sale - hotel- and restaurant concepts were immediately excluded. Andreas Hanitsch prevailed with his concept and was awarded the contract. We talked to him about the project and brought some furniture with us.


Andreas Hanitsch was sat outside on a rooftop terrace in Tarifa, enjoying the sun with his family, when he first heard that the old waterworks at Falkensteiner Ufer, by Hamburg's western stretch of the Elbe, was for sale. As a property developer, Hanitsch didn't need long to decide to put in a bid. He did, however, need the next three days on that sunny Andalusian roof-terrace to hammer out a concept convincing enough to win over the seller, Hamburg's water board. A few years later, the old waterworks aren't just home to Harnitsch, but to many others who have moved into the buildings on the site and turned it into something of a village. The over 400m² of loft space that Hanitsch shares with architect Giorgio Gullotta is furnished in much the way anyone who has met him would expect: authentic, cosmopolitan, and open.

Freifrau: Andreas, even just looking it at from the outside, the old waterworks look like it was an intense project which needed a lot of work. I know that you, as a developer, get deeply involved in many of the projects you take on. How did you get the expertise? Have you taught yourself on the job or did you learn the skills beforehand? 

Andreas Hanitsch: Yes and no. At university, I did business studies and art history, but read up on architecture a lot in my free time. It became a kind of hobby which I eventually turned into a job. I just love developing buildings. It's not the only thing I do professionally, however: I also invest in start-ups and work with them as a business angel, which leads to a lot of travel. And as I can work from anywhere, in many ways, my work and my personal life are hard to distinguish. I am aware that I am in a very luxurious position: I have a lot of free time and can wait for inspiration before I start my next project.

Is there a particular place that always inspires you?

I wouldn't name any one place. What I can say is that I like big cities, bustling metropolises bursting with life and energy - all the more so if they are close to water. Whether town or country, though, when I travel, I like to stay wherever I end up for several months; often, I take my family with me. We've stayed In Tanzania, for instance, as well as Morocco. I've also lived in Vancouver, New York, and Rio de Janeiro. More than anything, I love change and always keep my eye out for inspiration. 

And so you're always working when you travel?

Yes, I really am. Wherever I am, people I am currently doing business with can always get hold of me: I wouldn't want them to think that I'm always holiday and never pick up the phone! In my profession, there's nothing to stop you working while you travel, and so I've always seen that as a huge opportunity - an opportunity I haven't let go unused.

NDR, the northern German public service broadcaster, made a documentary (click here to get to the film) about how you redeveloped the old waterworks. You said that you had three days In which to submit a bid. What made you feel ready to take the plunge so quickly?

I was on a rooftop terrace in Tarifa enjoying the sun with my family when a friend rang from Hamburg and told me that the site was up for sale. I didn't know the old waterworks at all, I'd never been here; like a lot of Hamburgers, whenever I walked along the Elbe, I'd stop at Blankenese. Then my friend sent me photos and I just got this immediate feeling that this was an opportunity I just couldn't pass up. I sent architects to go and have a look at the buildings and take some more photos for me. Then, I got on the phone to the planning authorities and the office responsible for listed buildings. The next step was to produce a concept - and, of course, to make a bid. Price wasn't the only determining factor, however, and so the concept was not unimportant. Relatively quickly, it became clear that there wouldn't be a hotel or hospitality here. We flew back on the Friday and I managed to get my portfolio through the letterbox that evening. The next morning, we drove straight down to the site and that's when I realised that I'd done exactly the right thing. 

What was in the concept which led to you being selected as the buyer?

The waterworks site is part of a far larger riverside property with a stretch of sandy beach along the Elbe, so a decisive issue was what the planned use was. While I was brainstorming, I went through all sorts of ideas, from a cemetery for urns with a view of the water through to guerrilla gardening on small allotments for Hamburg residents; I even thought of a boat harbour. In the end, though, I decided to give two thirds of the land, which was being sold by the public water board HamburgWasser, back to the city authorities so that they could expand an existing park. My feeling was that, nowadays, it's no longer acceptable to block public access to the waterside with private use concepts. 

That's a very lovely, community-orientated way of thinking!

Yes, sharing is a key principle here. I see the site as a community in which different types of people live together and come together to shape their neighbourhood. It isn't just about having a nice apartment - although everyone does, of course, have one - but it's about spending time together as a community. 

I'm sure that yours wasn’t the only strong concept the city authorities had to evaluate. Do you know what it was specifically that put yours ahead?

Actually, afterwards, we found out that there hadn't been that many serious offers. With hotels and hospitality excluded from early on - and with the authorities also having vetoed boot storage - it was probably, alongside the concept and the price I offered, my personal passion for the project which carried the day with HamburgWasser.  Now, we are both delighted with the end result.

When your bid won, were you aware of what you were getting yourself into?

No, because there was no way of really knowing. When we started digging work, we came across cellars and vaults that nobody even knew existed! What is more, given that we are on land prone to flooding during storm surges, that is a serious issue. That is just the way it is with old buildings: they are full of surprises! And we certainly did have a few surprises here. The problem with surprises, of course, is that they usually end up costing money. Then again, you do get some pleasant ones every now and then, too: we found some beautiful period tiling and graffiti in doorways that dates back one hundred years, as well as some old tools and even a small locomotive! It was all very exciting. 

When and how was the site first built? 

Work began in 1859 and, over the years, an ensemble came together. At that time, the British were far ahead in terms of water provision and sewage, so the engineers came from there. Originally, they had come to build a gas network, but then they saw how bad the Hamburg water supply was and that we were drinking unfiltered water straight out of the Alster and the Elbe. So that's how the idea of setting up a decent sanitation system came about, and Altona - today a part of Hamburg, back then a separate town - is where it happened. The fact that Altona was filtering water is what got it through the cholera epidemic better than Hamburg, where thousands died.

The residential space in this loft is fantastic: so spacious, so airy - you could almost get lost here! What are the most important characteristics of a living space for you?

For me to feel comfortable, I need plenty of options to move around, and because I work here a lot and lots of clients visit me, I like to be able to move through the space throughout the day. That’s why I have various seats, both inside and out, with different views; as the day goes by and the sun moves, I often move with it. Another thing that is key for me is the art around me: these photos, paintings, sculptures are things that I have had for many years and that I like having around. They make me feel comfortable and happy at home. 

It sounds like you are very attached to these works. If you had to pick up and leave with no time to think, which ones would you take with you? 

What's crazy is that I would be able to leave all of it behind. You could uproot me and stick me down in any country (well, maybe not North Korea) and I would be happy there. If you can take that attitude, I think that is the most precious thing you can have. Creativity, imagination, memories, a positive outlook: besides my family and my friends, those are the essentials. If you've got that, the value of material things is relative. With those qualities, you can always start all over again anywhere. 

Looking around here, it becomes clear that you don't follow "a concept" in terms of interiors. So how do you select the things you put into your living space?

What's important for me is that what is visible here is authentic. I do not like new-builds - and I dislike anything done purely for effect. What I do like is a combination of old and new. Moreover, I need to be able to identify with everything here, whether that's a simple rocking chair, an elegant chaise longuefrom a theatre, or a Le Corbusier day bed like the one I bought at auction in France. I would rather take a little longer to look for something special until I really get the feeling that it suits me perfectly and fits into the room.

What attracts you? How would you define good design?

Good design is something that stays in your memory and is useful. In terms of my personal taste, I like designs that are little out of the ordinary, preferably truly unique. If something is a rarity that you long for, then it's great design. 

Many of things around you are vintage items you picked up at antiques markets or at auction. What is it that you find so attractive about period pieces?

I think there's something exciting about contrasting the old with the new. Each of us had a past, yet we all live In the present. I like contrasts, especially in an old machine room like this one. When I have something old, I try to understand Its history, and if you are willing to make the effort, there is a lot you can find out from archives or from talking to people who were around at the time, to antiques dealers, to architects. Often, antiques can be brought to reveal their story - and if they don't want to tell it, then I'm happy to make one up for them! (laughs). Every house I have, wherever it may be, has a name as a way of giving it a personality. Here in Blankenese there is a house called Villa Klara, for instance, built in 1909 - but it didn't have a name to start with. I named it after my grandmother and everyone is happy with it. 

Do you have a favourite find from a market or an auction? If so, why is It your favourite?

Yes, it would be the small white and blue porcelain figurine on this table: a small girl with a cat on her lap, although the girl's head is missing. Years ago when I was in Marseille (and, incidentally, living in a fantastic Le Corbusier building), it was stood in a niche in a wall: it spoke to me because it reminded me of a very painful, very personal loss. I went past it for weeks before, one day, deciding to take it in and give it a new home. Now, it's here and we're talking about it. 

If we were to ask you for tips on interior design, what would you answer?

Be brave! Find your own combinations and don't let whatever the current trends are limit your thinking. Also, I think it's very important to be relaxed and not try to get everything right immediately. When you move into a new space, it will take you time to decorate it, bit by bit and piece by piece. 

So there's always development, always change: a room is never really finished? 

No, indeed it isn't. Look at the entrance with its twenty-foot high ceiling: I've just had a steel girder put in that looks like it was always there. I've attached a pulley to it so that I can put up decorations to match the season. For spring, my plan is to hang a forest of upside-down miniature birch trees, but for the moment, there are blue gymnastics rings hanging from it. They're from a school in Lisbon; nobody has worked up the courage to use them yet.


Andreas, thank you so much for a very interesting conversation - and for inviting us (and some of our furniture) into your home!