Each region of the world has a different spirit, which is expressed through the visible elements of its streets: paving stones, window grilles, lampposts, the displays in the shops… Sometimes, the mystery of a place is reflected in a material. In parts of Northern Europe, this is the case with red brick. There are mansions, public buildings, even churches built of a material which, when seen in photographs, take us to Germany, Poland or Denmark. A number of historical buildings show the material combined with the architectural style of the late medieval period, making for Brick Gothic, which defines the region and represents the diversity of our continent.
If we were explorers and we trekked north through Europe from Spain, one of the first instances of this style that we would come across would be Hanover’s Altes Rathaus, or Old City Hall. “The experts say that it is the most southerly example of this architectural style, together with the city’s market church,” explains Fabian Boehmer from the city council. It is also one of the most beautiful. Its striking façade has a triangular pediment that rises above the roofline, ready to pierce the sky with its hedgehog of spikes.
Work began on the Altes Rathaus, Hanover’s first city hall, in 1410. “During the time it was being built, Hanover joined the Hanseatic League. The traders’ guild in the city was very strong here. The red brick Gothic style of Northern Germany could have been chosen in order to emphasize a connection with the larger and better known cities of the League,” says Boehmer.
The Brick Gothic style originally arose from a lack. “It is only common in northern Europe and the Baltic Sea area, because in that region there were not many stone quarries.” Sources of natural stone are, on the other hand, common throughout most of the rest of the continent. The default material was brick. It had previously been used for Romanesque buildings, and there are later, Renaissance, buildings in this material. Little by little, it made itself a part of the personality of Germany, and fine examples can be seen across the north of the country: Bremen City Hall, St Mary’s Church in Lubeck, and the City Gate in Holsten.
The old city chambers in Hanover has, on its walls, an enigmatic sculpture, with unusual figures. As Boehmer explains, this clay relief over one of the entrances is a reference to a traditional game called Luderzienhen or Strebkatzenziehen. Two people are shown, pulling on a rope, with one at each end. “The fact that the game is shown here might represent the battles that occurred within the building, or it could have been a warning to the people who entered, since many people made fools of themselves, or lost money. This is expressed by the fact that the skirt of one of the figures is raised, and the person’s husband is trying to pull it down,” says Boehmer.
In 1863, Hanover’s seat of municipal government was moved to another site, but this building did not die. It did, however, suffer for a time, and deteriorated. In recent decades, however, a thorough renovation has restored its magic. Inside, the décor is modern, and there is a bank, a cafeteria and a number of restaurants. This ancient building has a new life.
There are monuments that last and others which disappear, and the line separating one destiny from the other can be hard to predict. Sometimes the reason is a colour, or a texture that perfectly expresses the soul of a city. Such is the case with this fine old building of elaborate brickwork.