After what seemed like interminable delays, budget overruns and lawsuits, Hamburg’s highly anticipated Elbphilharmonie concert hall officially opens on Wednesday.
The most striking part of the facade is its roof, which seems to emulate waves on the water – and sound waves. Hamburg is, after all, proud of its music history. The young George Frideric Handel once had his works performed at the Gänsemarkt Opera – and Johannes Brahms was born in the city.
At an altitude of 37 meters (121 feet), the plaza is freely accessible to the public. It joins the original harbor storage facility with the stupendous glass construction above. The terrace outside affords a spectacular panoramic view of the city. The plaza leads to two concert halls, a restaurant and a hotel with 250 rooms. The facility also includes 45 luxury apartments.
Starting not quite from scratch
Construction work began in Jahr 2007. First, the lower structure had to be restored. In the red brick harbor historic facility, tons of coffee and tobacco were once stored for shipment. During the ten years of construction the Elbphilharmonie became synonymous for building scandals. In 2011, over 4000 defects were counted.
An endless construction site
The Elbphilharmonie was supposed to open in 2010 – but was finished seven years later, even though construction workers sometimes worked around the clock. Initial construction costs were estimated at 77 million euros ($85.6 million), but final costs exceeded 10 times that amount. The cost overlays are carried by taxpayers but are supposed to be partially replenished with funds from investors.
Visitors have made pilgrimages to the construction site for years now, their numbers reaching 30,000 a year. Christoph Lieben-Seutter, general director of the Elbphilharmonie, tried to put a good face on the interminable delays. “For good things, you just have to wait,” he said.
Waves as a leitmotif
The graceful curves of the building’s roof echo throughout the architecture – even here, on the terrace of one of the 45 luxury apartments with garage-door-sized windows and a majestic view of the harbor.
Swiss architects Pierre de Meuron (shown here) and Jacques Herzog had a vision – and communication problems with the construction firm. The latter complained that the architects supplied their plans too late. The architects, in turn, charged the Hochtief company with construction defects. A 2014 parliamentary investigation found both “inaccurate project design and incomplete planning.”
Decadence in cultural policy?
The Elbphilharmonie quickly became the city’s problem child. This image shows Hamburg residents protesting at the “topping-out” ceremony in 2010. While construction costs skyrocketed, fees for public pre-schools increased and one municipal museum had to be temporarily closed down in order to ease pressure on the city’s budget.
From the start of construction, the Elbphilharmonie has been a trademark of Hamburg. Along with Sydney’s Opera House, the Berlin Philharmonic, the Walt Disney Hall in Los Angeles and New York’s Lincoln Center, it’s sure to be considered one of the world’s leading cultural sites.
In the Concert Hall
A concert hall would be nothing without its audience. A view of that will have to wait until January 11, at the opening concert. Until then, it’s purely computer simulation. The sound is supposed to be the equally good at each of the 2,150 seats located on the terraces of the concert hall. Responsible for that is the Japanese acoustical engineer Yasuhisa Toyota, considered one of the world’s best.
The Elbphilharmonie book
Author Joachim Miscke and photographer Michael Zapf illustrate the construction project of the century that is the Elbphilharmonie – with all its trials, tribulations and heated debates – in a 250-page book published in German and English by Edel Verlag.
The plaza between the historic brick base below and the spectacular new glass construction above was opened to the public in early November, the luxury hotel between the ninth and nineteenth stories later in the month. In November, the public could also experience “The Ship,” a walk-in sound installation by musician and producer Brian Eno.
Then, just on the dot for the New Year, dancer Sasha Waltz inaugurated the foyers of the arts complex with a choreographic installation. Since January 1, a countdown of the days and hours remaining until January 11’s grand opening has been displayed on the western façade of the breathtaking new facility on Hamburg’s spacious Elbe River harbor.
After a seven-year delay in completion, the organizers clearly wanted to stretch that moment of anticipation just a bit further. But the countdown is running. Presiding at the official inauguration of the Elbphilharmonie’s main concert hall on Wednesday is Germany’s President Joachim Gauck.
Old and new music – and a surprise
The audience of invited guests, press representatives and 1,000 concert goers who acquired their tickets by random selection will hear a gala including works by Michael Praetorius, Ludwig van Beethoven, Richard Wagner, Rolf Liebermann and Wolfgang Rihm – but evidently also a surprise, as some details remain unannounced beforehand.
The recently renamed NDR Elbphilharmonie Orchestra will perform under the direction of its principal conductor Thomas Hengelbrock.
Virtual and live concerts
For those not among the lucky 1,000 on Wednesday’s guest list or who didn’t garner a ticket to Thursday’s repeat performance, a visual experience is available both evenings by means of a 360-degree live stream by Google. Users can decide what they want to view: stage, audience, organ or the whole rooms. The live stream is available on January 11 at 6:30 p.m. CET.
For an even more intense remote experience, Google Cardboard virtual reality goggles provide a virtual seat in the grand hall. Google and the Elbphilharmonie have made 38,000 units available.
But clearly, a new concert hall is all about the sound, and the opening of the Elbphilharmonie’s main hall will be the moment of truth for acoustical engineer Yasuhisa Toyota, who was responsible for the hall acoustic.
Click on the gallery above for more on the Elbphilharmonie, its labored history, its promise, and its potential for the city and the arts world.