Thursday 3 October 2013

Planet Hugill in Hamburg: Elbphilharmonie

The Elbphilharmonie rises above the river Elbe in Hamburg, (c) Thies Rätzke
The Elbphilharmonie rises above the river Elbe in Hamburg, (c) Thies Rätzke
Up until the war, Hamburg had two concert halls with the Laeiszhalle as the more recent one, built in the early 20th century. The Laeiszhalle is where the Hamburg Philharmonic Orchestra has its orchestral concerts. The idea to replace the other hall, destroyed during the war, is a relatively recent idea. The ElbPhilharmonie will, when finished, house a large concert hall and two smaller ones, plus a hotel and apartments, in a spectacular building on the edge of the river Elbe. Designed by Heurzog and de Meuron, it is certain to become a destination venue, it is also set to cost a record amount. The project has become somewhat notorious, both for the cost and for the fact that it has been under construction since 2007. On Friday 27 September 2013 I was given a guided tour of the unfinished but still striking building.

The original idea was to transform an old 1960's warehouse into a media centre, but the ending of dotcom boom put paid to that. Instead a private initiative put forward the idea of a concert hall in its place, in a building designed by the Swiss architects Heurzog and de Meuron (best known in the UK for Tate Modern). In a move which would prove to be costly the new building was to be placed over the top of the warehouse. The resulting building is, even now, spectacular despite being unfinished. At its tallest the building is 26 stories, which is very noticeable in a city like Hamburg where high rise building is non-existent.

The contract for the building was eventually taken over by the city of Hamburg, and a disagreement over the complex structural calculations led to a suspension of building for 18 months. Costs have, inevitably, spiralled and the result might even cost 10 times what was originally planned.

The façade is made up of almost 1,100 individual panes of glass © Oliver Heissner
The façade is made up of almost 1,100 individual panes of glass © Oliver Heissner
The building is covered in glass, which has had to be specially treated to cope with the combination of sun and bad weather that the building will get in its exposed position. The moulded glass panels form the balconies and give the facade its distinctive sculpted feel.

Much of the building is structurally complex, not only does it sit on a 1960's warehouse, but the weight of the concert hall must be supported and the fact that the eighth floor is open all round as an external walkway means that the weight of the upper floors must be supported in another fashion. The main foyer is on the 8th floor, on top of what was once the roof of the old warehouse. During our visit we accessed this by lift, but the general public will arrive via a long, curved escalator which will be 85 metres long and will take four minutes to ascend. The foyer has fine views north and south, as well as giving access to the walkway round the building and you ascend further to the concert hall.

The interior of the main concert hall seems to be inspired by the Philharmonie in Berlin, with balconies jutting out all round the playing area. It will seat some 2150 audience members. As the hall is so high in the building, wood is not allowed so a special textured white skin has been developed. The acoustician involved is Yasuhisa Toyota. The ceiling of the hall will contain a reflector which will act acoustically, whilst also containing lighting and other technical kit, as well as the pipes for the hall's organ. This reflector is currently being constructed, so that the shell of the hall is filled with temporary scaffolding and it is difficult to get a feel for how the hall will finally look.

Because the site, on the edge of the river Elbe has the potential to be noisy the concert hall is double skinned and intended to be acoustically de-coupled from the building.

The concert hall will become home to the NDR Symphony Orchestra, but you sense that the spectacular nature of the building and its setting will ensure that many other groups will have intense interest in the building. It will certainly make the hotel very much one of a kind. Whether the citizens of Hamburg will feel that it is worth the final cost, greater than 250 million euros, remains to be seen.

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