By Shorouk El Hariry

Located in the historic Sandtorhafen, one of Hamburg’s oldest harbour areas, the Elbphilharmonie is a magnificent piece of architecture and an innovative music landmark that will change the face of the maritime city forever. It was commissioned to and designed by Jacques Herzog & Pierre de Meuron, the reputable Swiss architects who designed the Tate Modern in London. Standing firmly by the river Elbe, the Elbphilharmonie is a reflection of the essence of this northern German city and its strong cultural potential, as well as a unique hallmark of its urban development.

History: Storage, War and Art

At a glance, the first thing one notices about the Elbphilharmonie is the stark contrast between the tall, shiny glass structure and the red-bricked warehouse it so gracefully sits upon. However, had it not been for the Kaiserspeicher, Hamburg’s biggest warehouse by the Elbe, this project would have not come to life. Built in 1875, the Kaiserspeicher was storage home to cocoa, tobacco, coffee beans and tea. Unfortunately, it did not endure the extensive destruction it was subject to during WWII. In 1966, the Kaispeicher was built to replace it, and was active until the 1990s. After losing its importance, the initial idea was to replace the warehouse with an office building – a common feature of Hamburg’s Hafencity area.

Nevertheless, Herzog and de Meuron had other plans. They digitally illustrated their vision of a brand new concert hall, making the first brushstrokes in their unprecedented masterpiece. Herzog and de Meuron were commissioned by developer Alexander Gérard to design it. In February 2007, Hamburg’s Parliament voted in favour of building the Elbphilharmonie.

Trilateral Dispute and Public Scrutiny

Elbphilharmonie Nordostansicht Abend Foto © This Raetzke
Elbphilharmonie Nordostansicht Abend Foto © This Raetzke

Throughout the past few years, the Elbphilharmonie was subject to a great deal of controversy due to construction delays and the tenfold increase in costs – €789 million from an original estimation of €77 million, mostly covered by city funds. In an interview with Tom Schulz, Elbphilharmonie spokesperson, he explained that, „between 2010 and 2012, there was a total freeze of construction because of a disagreement that erupted between the architects and the Hochtief construction company, eventually involving the government of Hamburg, too.“

The legal fight was only put to an end in 2012, when Olaf Scholz was elected Mayor of Hamburg, and the CEO of Hochtief was replaced with Marcelino Fernández Verdes. Together, they decided that they no longer wanted this project to stay in the „bad news“. Within a couple of months, a new agreement had been reached. Hochtief received extra funds from the City, with the promise of completion by January 2017. „And we were just in time,“ Schulz enthusiastically said.

A „Sandwich-like“ Structure

Between the Kaispeicher and the glass wavy building lies the plaza – „a foyer carved out between the old and the new“ as the New York Times dubs it. On the outside, the plaza offers a 360 degree balcony, providing visitors with a 121-foot view of the harbour and the city. Indoors, there is a vast space that offers an entrance to a 250-room hotel, located on the eastern side.

Open to guests since November 4th 2016, the plaza is a city-like open area. „While it does have windows, the gaps between them are not closed, allowing the wind to freely blow through. With the Rathausmarkt (town hall market area) in mind, the architects envisioned the plaza to be a public space where locals can meet“, Tom Schulz elaborated

From there, elegant stairs take you to the concert halls. This area, which was inaugurated in January 2017, consists of the Großer Saal (big hall), with a capacity of 2,100 people, and the Kleiner Saal (small hall), which can seat 550 people. The big hall is mainly reserved for orchestral, acoustic, non-amplified music. 

Harmonic Wonder

In addition to the silver glass structure, the concert halls are undoubtedly the highlight of the Elbphilharmonie. In describing their distinctiveness, Schulz said, „there are vast spatial differences. The concert hall in Munich, for example, is built in a shoebox-like area, which is very constricted. Here, we aim to exhibit a new way to experience music in an exposed corner of the city – the harbour. The concert halls start at the 12th floor and continue upwards, which is a high rise from traditional models. You ascend into the music.“

The Großer Saal wraps its audience in a vineyard-style seating area, giving every guest an outstanding view of the stage. The walls are covered with 10,000 panels resembling very delicate

Hamburg: Baustelle Elbphilharmonie. Probe, Probenpremiere in Grossen Saal , NDR Elbphilharmonie - Orchester
Hamburg: Baustelle Elbphilharmonie. Probe, Probenpremiere in Grossen Saal, NDR Elbphilharmonie-Orchester. Foto © Michael Zapf

caves that are computer-generated, micro-shaped and carved in a way that creates remarkable sound. It was designed by famous acoustician Yasuhisa Toyota, designer of the Disney hall in Los Angeles.

Both concert halls are completely sound-proof, using a feather pillow technology which relies on heavy-weight materials that are maintained with special oils, guaranteeing their total insulation. „It has been tested and found to be very effective. Even when the famous Queen Mary ship is passing through the harbour and there is a lot of honking, the sound cannot go through to the hall“, Schulz said, while giving a tour. „The Elbphilharmonie promises unparalleled quality.“

Orchestras and Collapsing Buildings: The Program

On January 11th and 12th 2017, the inaugural concerts took place. A commissioned piece was performed by the NDR Elbphilharmonie Orchestra.

As stated on its website, the Elbphilharmonie aims to be a modern concert hall; engaging in animated dialogues with classical music is as much in focus as discovering new sounds. „The Elbphilharmonie will play host to acclaimed soloists and orchestras from around the world; at the same time, innovative festivals, experimental formats and concert series outside of the traditional classical music programme will break new ground here.“

In its first season, the Chicago Symphony, Vienna Philharmonic and Berliner Philharmoniker, among other top-notch world renowned orchestras are all performing at the Elbphilharmonie. Since the artistic director is a fan of so many genres, there is a vast spectrum of style diversity. This includes Brad Mehldau’s jazz, as well as Einstürzende Neubauten (Collapsing New Buildings), a legendary German noise, new-wave, industrial music band – which was sold out immediately.

Schulz notes that, „it’s not every day that you build such a marvelous building and then the first thing you do is invite a band called Collapsing New Buildings to perform! Rather than fishing for audience, our program is a reflection of the passion that drives us.“

The Elbphilharmonie has invited other famous bands to perform during its first season, such as Lambchop and Kings of Convenience. The program also includes many mini-festivals such as „New York Stories“ and „Into Iceland“, which is a blend of contemporary, jazz and pop music.

The first season has been sold out entirely, owing to the ticket lottery the marketing team offered, as well as the very reasonable prices for seasonal subscriptions and youth tickets, as affordable as €50.
„Before WWII, Hamburg had multiple concert halls. We aim to return to our status-quo, in a totally different time, architecture and environment,“ Schulz remarks. „We are in a luxury position now, but we also need to work on maintaining this momentum.“

„Elbphilharmonie is a house for everybody“, he affirmed. „It will not exclude anyone’s musical taste. Everyone who comes here will be physically and emotionally moved by the sheer sensation of sound.“

Comparable to only the Sydney Opera House, the Elbphilharmonie is re-weaving the cultural fabric of Hamburg. It is a meaningful addition to the city – one that will last.