The controversial and much anticipated Elbphilharmonie concert hall in Hamburg opened its doors this January to the praise of critics and design buffs across the globe. The project, which cost the city of Hamburg an astronomical 789-million euros ($1.13-billion Canadian)—about 10 times the original budget—and took over a decade to build, has been at the centre of major public protest and political debate in Germany, and has left many wondering whether it was all worth the wait, and the price tag.
Designed by Swiss architectural firm Herzog & de Meuron, the ambitious new building has reportedly received more than one million visitors since it opened. Located in Hamburg’s ultra-modern HafenCity waterfront district (known also as Harbour City), the concert hall has brought a surge of tourists and design enthusiasts to the city’s otherwise tranquil shores. The day I visit in mid-March, there are scores of people crowding the entrance, patiently waiting to get in. I’m told that tickets for the Elbphilharmonie’s first musical season have been sold out for weeks, totalling 500,000 tickets in all. The inauguration concerts held on January 11 and 12 welcomed more than 4,500 guests to its halls. Among those in attendance were Joachim Gauck, the former president of Germany, Hamburg’s mayor Olaf Scholz, and Chancellor Angela Merkel, who, due to heavy traffic, arrived 30 minutes late, delaying the festivities.
Set atop a historic brick warehouse facing the Elbe River, Hamburg’s Elphilharmonie has become something of a design destination overnight. Some have gone so far as to compare it to the likes of Sydney’s Opera House and Frank Ghery’s Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao—modern-day icons that, like the Eiffel Tower in Paris, have come to symbolize the cities in which they inhabit.
Measuring 110 meters in height, the Elbphilharmonie, with its striking scintillating glass façade, stands out against a backdrop of modern and industrial low-rise buildings. The concert hall’s dazzling crested rooftop catches the sunlight like a rippled wave, sending shimmering rays across the river, and beyond. Inside, a set of escalators enclosed in a sequenced white tube lead guests to the main lobby and observation deck. The slow-moving escalators are slightly curved, so as to hide the end from sight. Designed to feel like the inside of a grotto, the lobby area features low, curved ceilings and dramatic beams set at gravity-defying angles. A wavy glass wall separates the interior and exterior areas, and gives the impression of a fluid curtain of flowing water. The plaza, an open public space set in between where the original brick warehouse walls and the shining new glass structure meet, offers spectacular views of the city and the docks below.
A series of curved staircases and criss-crossing passageways leads to a recital hall and the show-stopping grand hall. Clad in a thick layer of undulating oak wood panels, the recital hall is intimate and somewhat understated. The main hall by contrast is as grand as it gets. Designed in collaboration with Japanese acoustics specialist Yasuhisa Toyota, the intricate, coral-like interior recalls the strangeness and splendour of Antoni Gaudí’s Sagrada Família in Barcelona. Cratered acoustic tiles CNC-milled from gypsum fibreboard cover nearly every inch of the room, doubling as a decorative, tactile skin. Sculpted balconies circle the stage, providing clear views to the orchestra below. An enormous mushroom-shaped acoustic reflector and chandelier plunges from the ceiling, adding a theatrical punch to the ethereal landscape.
The building’s striking aesthetics are the consummation of a conceptual mélange, a mishmash of complementing, and at times contradicting, visual themes. Inspired by the vision of a wave, a sail at sea, a tent, and a cave, the Elbphilharmonie exhibits traces of each. It’s almost as if the architects couldn’t settle on a single idea. Despite being long overdue and tremendously over budget, the new concert hall did get one thing right at least: whether for or against, visitors to the Elbphilharmonie can’t help but feel the slightest bit impressed.
Photos by Iwan Baan and Maxim Schulz