As a child, shuttling back and forth between continental relatives and our home in Essex, nothing heralded adventure like the sea crossing. The honk of a horn in early morning fog, the crash of metal on metal as ferry doors closed, cavernous customs halls and ubiquitous seagulls. Everything that followed was inevitable disappointment.
In a post sea-travel era, invoking these associations has become a major selling point in harbour and port re-developments the world over, tidily domesticating the high seas from London’s Canary Wharf to Sidney’s Darling Harbour. Ships in a bottle.
Conceived in well-planned steps from the mid 1970s onwards when its extensive harbour became superfluous after the decline of regional industries, Dusseldorf’s Media Harbour on the Rhine river is a successful case in point. The more recent development work carried out in the second, post 1989 phase has retained elements of warehouse architecture, combining red brick gables with glass fronted office blocks in which retail headquarters, big-name law firms and media companies coexist affably and profitably with sky-line bars and quay-side restaurants, hairdressers and cinemas, post offices and hotels. Listed structural elements (railroad tracks, cast-iron bollards) and contemporary solitaires by Gehry, Chipperfield, Piano confidently evoke the district’s economic incarnations, past and present.
Is it before or after I catch sight of a disused warehouse on the harbour’s outer perimeter that I start grumbling to myself? About coerced neighbourliness? In which old cranes – grandfatherly totem poles – squat not affably but uneasily close to grandchildren reared on a diet of post-war prosperity: new and vastly superior steel ogres, noiselessly swinging bars and beams into the present, casually voiding the lost generations of times and territories that existed between industrial and post-industrial places.
And would I have bothered to explore that disused warehouse if a white and red logo on faded, light green trimmings hadn’t sounded, still illegible in the middle distance, the foghorn of memory? The company name Muskator, when I came close enough to read it, irredeemably linked to the animal feedstuffs supplier whose trucks regularly backed up the narrow drive of my uncle’s small battery chicken plant in Bonn. Summer holidays that began on the ferry crossing between Harwich and Hoek van Holland were spent helping him, collecting eggs in the nose-withering stench of ammonia, watching as he pulled dead chickens from cages, checked water drips, turned off the lights and put 500 fowl to bed. And, being a child, thinking nothing of all this.
Those days, the days of thinking nothing of it, are long over. For myself. For my uncle, whose farm is now a moderately successful organic enterprise founded by his son, my cousin. And most certainly for Muskator, which went out of business in 2013, its bankruptcy hastened, according to some, by the city of Dusseldorf’s failure to pay Muskator for leasehold buildings that the company had returned to the city (rp-online.de). An old story that’s lost all traction to the glissando of growth and the prospect of more voided territories available for re-development.
It’s just for this moment, the very brief moment of a testimony likely to fade as soon as it is formulated, that these factory buildings are go-between spaces, burned at the edges by the charred skeletons of conveyor belts and commercial ledgers that litter the factory floor in an auto-da-fé of impermanence. Filling the gaps between then and now. Between water as an economic life-force – rivers, seas and markets – and water as an incidental, a life-style adjunct.
Stepping out from the canopy of corrugated roofs, turning back towards level-headed, sensible commerciality, I see a framed poster yellowing under cracked glass. A smudge of something modern. Nothing special – except for the significance of my finding it. Did this hang on the wall of an office? Did it ever hear my uncle placing an order, discussing delivery dates? I call my cousin. Might he want it, this memento mori of his father’s livelihood? My cousin doesn’t answer. I leave the poster leaning against the door to a dead-end stairwell. Let somebody find it. my. Message in a bottle.
Another grumbler maybe.
Or another accidental tourist of transience.