Von hier aus noch viel weiter: the Magdeburg Hubbrücke

The turbulent tale of a disused railway bridge at the center of a war for art

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Magdeburg is to Berlin what Rotterdam is to Amsterdam: the older cooler brother who gets overlooked far too often. Much how I regret paying Rotterdam just one visit, it irks me to think I was in Berlin and Braunschweig for so long when Magdeburg was so close by. It’s where I discovered the German toilet shelf and, also like Rotterdam, it’s home to a bridge that holds a special place in my heart.

Say hallo to the stunning Hubbrücke (‘lift bridge’) of Magdeburg, spanning across the Elbe river. Built in 1846, blown up in 1945, restored in 1946, railway route closed in 1998, and locked in a raised state in 2001.

Stairs between the lower parts and the raised section were installed in 2002, allowing pedestrians to cross, but when the neighboring Sternbrücke (‘star bridge’) reopened in 2005, the stairs were removed and the hero of our story — the humble Hubbrücke — was closed once again.

Magdeburg’s Hubbrücke had started to evolve into something bigger than a bridge, however, gradually gaining popularity as a public space where you’d regularly find people hanging out and playing music or creating street art. In 2002, the Elbe flooded something awful, and became the center of attention of the city. Annegret Laabs, a director at the nearby Kloster Unser Lieben Frauen art museum, was inspired.

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She invited ten sculptors to create works inspired by the Europe-traversing river, including Italian light artist Maurizio Nannucci, who, in 2008, used Venetian-made Murano glass to create a vibrant lettering installation affixed to the sides of the Hubbrücke. ‘Von so weit her bis hierhin’ (‘from so far, to here’) on one side, and ‘von hier aus noch viel weiter’ (‘from here, so much further’) on the other. A nod to those venturing down the Elbe.

 

But it wasn’t quite that easy. After Annegret first invited Nannucci to Magdeburg and strolled beside the river with him, she heard nothing for a few months. When Nannucci eventually got in touch to share his idea for the Hubbrücke installation, Annegret was nervous bureaucracy would stand in the way. Sure enough, the shipping office in Koblenz killed the project, saying the bright letters would clash with cargo lane signals.

Then came along the Magdeburg Maritime Administration, who were like, “yo my dudes, how about we ask the skippers and sailors what they think instead of leaving the decision-making up to some tight-arsed fuck in an office on the other side of Germany?” (or something to that effect) and people nodded and agreed.

A nighttime test followed, during which one heroic skipper uttered the words which would change the course of history (and it’s an actual direct quote this time):

“Man, that's great. It’s going to make this part of the river special, and our colleagues — from the Czech Republic to Hamburg — will talk of how this epithet conquers the river.”

Nannucci’s idea was realized. At sundown, the letters ignite, firing plumes of bright blues and reds into the shimmering reflections of the Elbe water. The Hubbrücke becomes more than a bridge. It becomes something for skippers to tell their families about when they get home.

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More ugly news rears its head in 2012 when a bunch of NIMBY assholes begin vandalizing the piece. They start by yanking the cables out to power the letters down, but quickly escalate to smashing the glass tubes outright

Backups are installed, but promptly destroyed. The Venetian glass is incredibly expensive, and it looks like the end of the road for Nannucci’s lettering.

Annegret, the museum, and Magdeburg’s thriving arts scene were having none of it, swiftly pooling together donations totalling €10,000 to order replacement glass and get the illuminations back in place. Impressed by people’s love for his project, Nannucci waives most of his fees and says:

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“Now it is no longer my work of art — now, it belongs to Magdeburg.”

How was the Hubbrücke itself getting along? Well, it was still closed in 2012. One of the reasons it became disused in the first place was because the train station its rails served — the Elbbahnhof — fell out of service. The hero of this next chapter in the bridge’s story is investor Rolf Onnen, who bought the Elbbahnhof to turn the abandoned site into a residential location. Alas, the Elbbahnhof was a package deal that also came with the Hubbrücke. And so, our struggling Elbe crossing had a new owner.

Rolf, aware that Nannucci’s light installation had prevailed thanks to a crowdfunding campaign led by publicly-financed art museum, turned to Magdeburg for help. He transferred ownership of the Hubbrücke to an association dedicated to the revival of the bridge and announced that anyone willing to donate time or money to its renovation would have their name engraved on one of the hundreds of wooden planks used for resurfacing the walkway.

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1,100 planks were sold, raising €150,000. Artists got involved, selling one-off pieces depicting the Hubbrücke to boost the funds. Magdeburg’s authorities provided support, too, helping manage employment contracts to assemble the workforce needed for the renovation.

In 2013, Magdeburg’s Hubbrücke reopened to pedestrians, quickly reestablishing itself as an unspoken social space. Once again, people were sitting on the steps, talking, strumming guitars, painting pictures of the Elbe, taking long-exposure shots of boats passing beneath. From time to time, you’ll see little stages being cobbled together for impromptu gigs, organized by local bands in Facebook groups. The Hubbrücke’s history is, to this day, rooted in collaboration and expression. ‘From here, so much further’ indeed.

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