The Elbphilharmonie has opened


(Published in The Produktkulturmagazin issue 1 2017)

Germany has a new landmark. On the 11th of January, the Elbe Philharmonic opened in the Hamburg harbour district. The question may be asked if 10 years of building and 800 million euros of investment have been worth it. Time will show if a definite answer can be found to this. However, it can already be confirmed that this impressive building, planned by the Swiss team of architects Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron, is the missing piece filling the gap in the jigsaw of the Hanse town.

The city of millions on the Elbe has made a virtue out of necessity and has built a new freight port for the huge container ships. Given their ever-increasing draught, they could not pass through the Elbe tunnel any longer, which runs under the docks. This freed up an area of 160 hectares near the city on which construction of the harbour city has been ongoing since 2004. It is meant to provide housing and even work for 14,000 people by 2030.

In terms of city planning, the Elbphilharmonie is the hub around which harbour city, city centre and the new harbour landscape are arranged. However, it is also a city within the city. In addition to the new concert hall providing room for an audience of 2,100, the new flagship includes a hall with space for 550 guests for a variety of uses. Furthermore there is a space for music education with another 170 seats, and all this, including the backstage and the seven-storey car park, is housed in the hull of the former Kaispeicher A, the old quayside warehouse. Around and above is room for 44 luxurious apartments, a hotel with 244 rooms and suites and a range of catering outlets. Not surprisingly, the entrance and passages simulate urban infrastructure rather than simple corridors.

This is particularly apparent in the almost 90-metre-long, smoothly white rendered escalator tube, which carries the visitor through the solid body of the old warehouse building. The escalator is curved, which makes it impossible to anticipate how high up it will carry you. After an intermediate stop at a panorama window with views across the harbour, a second, shorter escalator leads you through a solid brick body out onto the Plaza. The Plaza serves as the interface between the old existing and the newly added building of the Elbphilharmonie.

The 18-storey new addition, together with the old, 37 metres Kaispeicher, reaches an impressive height of 110 metres. From the Plaza, visitors have access to the concert halls. Hotel and restaurant customers, too, use this area as they would an urban space. You could easily forget that you are not located at the base of a building but on top of the roof of the biggest warehouse in the city. The view, which visitors can enjoy across the old town and the harbour area, however, leaves you in no doubt that you are above the majority of the surrounding buildings. During the day and into the late hours, the Plaza is accessible to all.

The clear division in hull and build on deck is reminiscent of a giant ship, and the slim, high frontage at the tip of the Kaiserkai, which appears to pierce into the sea, is no coincidence. Yet, the new philharmonic displays a lightness that seems irreconcilable with the dimensions described above.

The shell consists of 1,100 large-sized glass elements, many of which are complexly curved. Depending on the position, the curvatures form small gills with integrated vent flaps, as for example in the hotel rooms; others swerve far out of the frontage to evolve into balustrades. The horseshoe-shaped bends are evocative of giant tuning forks. The interplay of straight façade grit and organically shaped panels makes the building structure glitter like a diamond in the changing daylight. 

The precious, crystal-like character is intensified by small chrome dots, which give added structure to the glass panels and have an optically vibrating effect. This extra layer not only protects from overheating but also makes the building recognisable to the radar sensors of incoming ships. The production of the frontage parts was a technical challenge and required a whole year of development; never before have glass panels of this magnitude been printed and then shaped to millimetre precision at highest temperatures. The same care was taken with the roof covering. What seems like a giant sea wave at the front resembles a mountain range made of 6,000 white lacquered and point-punched aluminium sheets when viewed from above.

In the centre of the building, the curved shape, also repeated in the minimalist logo of the concert hall, takes on the form of a tent roof, below which the big concert hall is situated. From inside, it hangs like a soft sail above the space. In reality, it is lined with specially made gypsum fibreboard, as are the walls of the hall. Almost 10,000 such panels have been custom-made for the lining. Depending on their position, they have been covered in altogether one million fist-sized spherical indentations and grooves, using a computer-controlled cutter head, to optimise sound distribution in the hall. Every single panel was marked with a barcode at the plant to ensure that its exact position could be identified at the building site.

When it comes to architectural surface cover, Herzog and de Meuron are well known for questioning common solutions. Few architects know how they manage to create tension between tangible material effect and abstract appearance. Not surprisingly, the technical specifications were seen not as constraints but as a source for inspiration. The ‘white wall’ envelops the hall in a fractal surface and turns the Elbphilharmonie visit into a sound as well as a tactile and visual experience. It goes without saying that in this space, you are encouraged to touch the 4,765 organ pipes, which are arranged in an openly accessible manner.

The two architects found support for the ambitious acoustics from Yasuhisa Toyota.  The Japanese specialist has been involved in acoustic planning at the renovation of the Sydney Opera House and in the construction of the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles. He concurred with the planners about arranging the terraces for the audience according to the vineyard principle, in a manner similar to the Berlin Philharmonic, for which this concept had been so successfully developed by Hans Scharoun in the 1960s. The audience is distributed on interlocking, sometimes cantilevering galleries, which completely surround the orchestral stage. This way, the visitor is never more than 30 metres away from the conductor or performing musician and is under the impression, looking at the audience opposite, of being at the centre of the event.

In future, the Elbphilharmonie is likely to play a central part in livening up the Hanse city, attracting visitors to the Elbe and, last but not least, in redefining Hamburg’s self-image.

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Picture credit © Maxim Schulz

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