HafenCity is the largest urban redevelopment project currently under way in Europe. It involves the transformation of an underused, 388-acre section of the Port of Hamburg, Germany, into an upmarket, inner-city district with mixed residential, work, cultural, and recreational uses. One of the centerpieces of the redevelopment plan is a new home for HafenCity University Hamburg, which was founded in 2006 as Europe’s only higher education and research institution dedicated solely—according to the school’s website—to “contemplating and concretising what the future of metropolitan areas could and should look like.” To service the new quarter and university, the city expanded its subway system—the U-Bahn—with the construction of a new station, the HafenCity University subway station, which opened in November 2012.

Designed by Munich-based practices Raupach Architekten and Pfarré Lighting Design, the new station seeks to establish an associative connection with the activities of the port and the architectural character of the harbor district. “We took our inspiration from the brick façades of the warehouses changing their appearance due to daylight, and the steel hulls and modules of transport containers changing their colors with the seasons,” says Christian Raupach, principal of Raupach Architekten. In the station, the design team translated these inspirations into a moody yet sleek subterranean space where light and material interact in much the same way as they do above ground.

The designers clad the interior of the station, with its soaring 30-foot-high ceilings, entirely in steel panels with a bluish-brown gunmetal finish that is somewhere between glossy and matte. Above the platform, they hung 12 light boxes made of shipping-container-size steel and matte-white glass, each of which measures 21 feet long by 9 feet high by 9 feet wide and weighs 6 tons. “We were thinking of many different materials for the light containers such as layers of fiberglass or resin to make them lighter,” says Pfarré Lighting Design principal Gerd Pfarré. “At the end, we decided that it had to be glass. Glass is the best from the standpoint of lighting quality and [light] transmission, and in terms of achieving a surface that is easy to clean, which is an issue in such a project.”

The light boxes are each equipped with two distinct lighting systems. The bottoms of the containers are outfitted with fluorescent fixtures that provide the necessary soft white illumination to the platform. The side and end panels of each box, on the other hand, are brought to life by 280 RGB color-changing LED fixtures. Each container requires 1,100W of power, a large amount and one that would not be possible in the U.S., where energy codes for public projects restrict such power usage. In Germany, there is no such code. Access doors at the end panels of the containers allow entrée for maintenance. The station’s ticketing and entrance areas are lit with recessed, compact fluorescents and a smattering of 35W metal halide downlights.

The light boxes, which are connected to a central control system, can change color individually or as a coordinated unit. Pfarré’s intention was for the containers to morph color in calm, smooth transitions, moving slowly through the boxes like a ship moving through a harbor—extending the design’s metaphorical connection to the Port of Hamburg. “The entire concept for the containers and colored light was not to turn it into entertainment,” Pfarré says. “It’s more like a color composition that you would like to look at while listening to classical music, rather than something funky.”

Whether or not the city’s transportation department will carry out the slow-style color change was unknown at press time. Pfarré withdrew from the project during the third phase due to difference of opinion with the client on this point. “This project resulted from a competition initiated by the city government inviting architects to design a subway station that would be [more than just] an infrastructure project,” he explains. “When we won, we thought we’d explain our concept and find open-minded people, but it was the opposite.”

Despite client–designer difference of opinion, there can be no mistaking HafenCity University subway station as another run-of-the-mill infrastructure project. The interaction between the light—whether white or colored—and the mottled surface of the steel paneling, which is reflective without creating glare, makes for a brooding yet animated experience. In Pfarré’s words, it’s “a breathtaking atmosphere.”

Project: HafenCity University Subway Station, Hamburg, Germany • Client: Hamburger Hochbahn AG, Hamburg, Germany • Architect: Raupach Architekten, Munich • Lighting Designer (competition schematics through Phase 3): Pfarré Lighting Design, Munich • Lighting Designer (phase 3 to project completion): D-Lightvision, Munich • Light Box Designer and Fabricator: Design Stauss Grillmeier, Munich • Project Size: 51,667 square feet • Project Cost: Not Available • Lighting Cost: Not Available • Watts per Square Foot: Not Available • Energy Code Compliance: In Germany, there is no energy code regulation that restricts energy usage for public spaces. • Manufacturers/Applications: Alexander Weckmer GmbH (custom color-changing LEDs for light boxes); Erco (35W metal halide downlights in the ticket areas); manufacturer unknown for fluorescent covelights throughout station.