Harmony of Past and Future

architects Jacques Herzog, Pierre de Meuron and Ascan Mergenthaler
written by Dietmar Steiner
project Elbphilharmonie Hamburg, Hamburg, Germany


By the end of 2016, when one could already sense that the completion and opening of the Elbphilharmonie concert hall was nearing, the long-standing media critique of this, as people were saying, planning and financial disaster, suddenly turned into a unique and uncritical enthusiasm and admiration. It was an incredible surprise. As with many cultural buildings that have been built in the last decades, this was also a case of a complex combination of architecture, politics and public interest, so it cannot really be said that the project was moving forward without trouble.


We could use some help here from an outtake from the American animated TV series The Simpsons (episode 14, season 16, 2005), which in the meantime became a part of the history of architecture. In order to enhance the image of her town of Springfield, dominated by the lower middle class, Marge Simpson has the idea to build a spectacular concert hall. She writes a letter to Frank O. Gehry, but he crumples the letter and tosses it to the ground. However, watching the paper wad on the ground, he is impressed by his own genius and accepts the job. The paper wad is therefore constructed and looks like a sensational, real Gehry. But the residents of Springfield are not interested in music in the new concert hall, so Gehry's ingenious project perishes, and the building, after it served as a prison for a while, is finally demolished.


It is a perfect interpretation of the so-called Bilbao effect resulting from the cooperation of Frank O. Gehry and the Guggenheim Foundation with the Basque Country. With a spectacular architectural artifact, it is possible to redefine the city and attract international attention. This was twenty years ago, and the result is the fact that the international architectural discourse has to deal with the so-called spectacular architecture. The Bilbao effect became a model of city development in the coming years. But nowhere else did it work as in Bilbao, and so it did not work in Marge Simpson’s Springfield either.


The irony of fate is that, twenty years after Bilbao, the Bilbao effect is repeated for the first time in Hamburg, although this was not the intention. The history of the Elbphilharmonie concert hall reminds us of the failed idea of Marge Simpson. In this case, Marge Simpson is Alexander Gérard, a Hamburg-based construction entrepreneur, who, together with art historian Jana Marko, had a crazy idea of building a concert hall above a warehouse at the harbour on the Elbe River. He addressed his colleagues from university, Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron in Basel. During their conversation in Basel on 21 December 2001, a legendary sketch was created on a postcard, which, unfortunately, was not preserved. The sketch depicted the crown of the city, a structure with a curved roof over the warehouse building. Gérard showed this impressive image to politicians and the public.


From this time originate the first figures: 77, 91, 93, and then 95 million euros should have been the cost of the project with additional functions, such as the hotel, luxury apartments and restaurants. In the beginning, everyone was amazed and no one foresaw any problems. And the idea enthused many. Twelve Hamburg architects even sent a letter of recommendation to the mayor: The concept is ingenious and indispensable for the city. Indeed, it was a small sensation that German architects advocated the project of foreign architects, which was also directly commissioned without a competition being held.


Around 2003, there was euphoria among the uninformed. However, first doubts emerged as well. Jürgen Bruns-Berentelg, chief designer of Hamburg's HafenCity quarter, which is situated by the Elbe River, rejected the position of the project leader as, already at that time, he estimated that the project would cost up to 400 million euros, and also anticipated the problems that would emerge later. But the city of Hamburg, thrilled with the idea, embarked on a completely unsafe development of the project and, because it wanted to be an investor independently, it paid off the private investor and initiator of the project, Alexander Gérard. In 2005, there was talk about the building costs reaching 190 million euros; Hamburg's citizens and local trade families donated significant amounts, and the city's costs were supposed to be limited to 77 million euros.


In the spring of 2007, the results of the competition for the construction were announced. The costs amounted to 241 million, and the share of the city rose to 114 million euros. Here Hamburg made a fatal mistake – it made separate contracts with the architect and the construction company. Thus, the relationship between the architects and the construction companies in terms of design and costs was not made clear. From today's point of view, architecturally, this proved to be good fortune for the project as the architects could develop the project in terms of content and set the standards, which would not be possible in direct collaboration with the construction company. In that same 2007, the construction began, although the designs were by far not finished. Then lawyers and professionals who deal with claims took over the project management. From that moment on, the war between all of the participants began. The selected construction company Hochtief, realizing the true scope of the project, filed subsequent claims, and finally terminated the work because it had concerns about the structural integrity of the concert hall. The parliamentary investigative committees deliberated and all the participants met in court. If there had been a termination of the project then, Herzog & de Meuron would have had to declare bankruptcy as the designing costs were too high.


At the Venice Biennale of Architecture in August 2012, where they were invited by David Chipperfield, Herzog & de Meuron, in a desperate act, presented their project and showed, on large exhibition panels, the documents that testified to the media and political struggle for the Elbphilharmonie concert hall. Hamburg’s senator for culture and the CEO of the Hochtief company met in Venice at a crisis summit. Perhaps both of them visited the exhibition and, based on the documented disaster, concluded that there was only one possibility – the project had to be brought to an end in some way.


It was only at the end of 2012 that the new mayor Olaf Scholz managed to gather all the participants at the same table and conclude a new contract. The contract was awarded to the Hochtief company, while Herzog & de Meuron committed themselves to the artistic management of the project. In the spring of 2013, the negotiations were still pending until the agreement was reached. The final price was set: 860 million euros of total cost, with Hamburg's share being 789 million.


In the context of the history of the project and the conditions under which the building emerged, the cost increase is certainly understandable, as the original idea was to simply place the concert hall onto the existing warehouse. It would even be possible structurally because the warehouse, the work of Werner Kallmorgen from 1966, was indeed built to take heavy loads. However, the car park and the vertical construction with all the new functions above the warehouse could only be executed, provided that the interior of the warehouse was completely emptied and that the freestanding facade was then secured in a demanding and expensive way.


This is where the real sensation of the concert hall begins: it is surely the riskiest constructional concept of connecting the old and the new that has ever been realized. All of the following structural solutions were highly risky because the existing state and the form given by that state had to be prepared for new functions. About 1,000 concrete pilots had to be reinforced and added to the foundation. At a time when the plaza was built at a height of 37 meters above the Elbe River level, it was in fact a brand new building. The plaza had to have as few pillars as possible, which is why the large concert hall for about 2,100 visitors, which lies above the plaza, had to be conceived as a structurally stand-alone building corpus that, so to speak, hangs in the air. It is carried by only eight supporting posts, each of which is loaded with 2,700 tons. The large hall was executed in two layers, acoustically completely separated from the entire building, and freely laid on 342 packs of spiral springs, to avoid any acoustic disturbance caused by ship traffic. The outer roof with a span of 55 meters carries an interior ceiling, a huge reflector, parts of the suspended foyer, and 8,000 tons of building equipment in acoustically insulated ducts.


All this explains why the company Hochtief stopped the construction in 2011 due to structural risks because of life hazard. They agreed to continue the construction only after a number of expert reports, and after the city of Hamburg took responsibility for the construction.


Similar was the case with the demanding glass facade. Each of about 1,100 elements is a uniquely three-dimensionally shaped element with an expensive surface treatment, and the weight of each element is 1.2 tons. So it goes on, for example, in the large concert hall, over 10,000 plaster boards cover 6,000 m2 of acoustically effective surfaces. The boards have a thickness of up to 250 mm, and are cut on the basis of 30,000 different CNC programs. Each board is unique and mounted with ultimate precision.


When it comes to construction technology, yes, the Elbphilharmonie concert hall is certainly the most advanced and most experimental building today. I do not know of any building built in the last decades which would bring structural limits and modern construction techniques, in every detail, to the limits of feasibility, as is the case with this concert hall. Compared to that, Gehry's Guggenheim in Bilbao is structurally and technically cheap scenography—just a multitude of steel girders coated with OSB panels to which the outer envelope is fastened, and nothing more.


On the contrary, when it comes to the building technology and materials in this hall, we encounter the commitment and the risk that required paying unbelievable architectural attention to every detail and attaching particular importance to it. After a detailed tour of the building, an enormous effort that all the participants have invested becomes obvious: one only needs to notice the careful selection of various colours and surfaces of the clinker bricks. Every material, every surface, every detail is a testament to maximum precision. It seems as if the scandals that emerged during the realization of the project in the end prompted all participants—architects, politicians, the construction company and every individual craftsman—to an unexpected commitment. Where would one otherwise, waiting in the foyer of the large hall, think about how the craftsmen were able to achieve the millimeter accurate joint between the parquet floor and the stairway fence.


There is one detail I particularly like: since the ground floor of the existing warehouse had to be raised for the purpose of flood protection, the architects heightened the warehouse by adding one floor and only then positioned the plaza, so the proportions of the old warehouse could be preserved. No one would notice it if it did not happen. Even today, no one can see it because the bricks of the new extension are perfectly aligned with the existing ones.


Spatially, everything has been done to provide the optimal experience. For example, when it comes to a unique experience of entering using the curved escalator, the first of its kind in the world, on which nobody hurries or circumvents the slower visitors because the two-and-a-half-minute ride, which seems to last infinitely long, is a unique enjoyment; or when it comes to inspirationally confusing paths through the lobbies to individual seats in the hall, or to a search for a particular place in the large hall, whose intimacy and closeness to everyone else makes that space so intimate.


All architectural maneuvers that include both the materials and the spaces of the public plaza, the lobbies and the hall are in the meantime euphorically described and explained. The only criticism in German cultural journals refers to the acoustics of the grand hall because the Elbphilharmonie should have become the best concert hall in the world. The joint design by the architects and Japanese expert Yasuhisa Toyota was demanding. But acousticians have one clear rule: the best concert hall in the world is the shoe box—the hall of the Viennese Musikverein. In the case of the spatial shape of the vineyard, derived from Scharoun's Berlin Philharmonic, the problem is that not all seats in the hall have equal, optimal acoustic conditions. Because of the shape of the base, the Elbphilharmonie concert hall had no other possibility than to be in the shape of a vineyard. However, in this concept, the acousticians’ argument for the shoe box loses in relation to this spatial intimacy and proximity, since no seating position is more than 30 meters away from the conductor. It is therefore also about the spatial and emotional experience of acoustics. We hear what we feel.


Yes, twenty years after Gehry's Guggenheim, Hamburg is the first city to repeat the Bilbao effect: the city is given a symbol that repositions it on the map of the world. Let us remember Jørn Utzon’s Sydney Opera House and its dramatic history: fourteen years of construction, a cost explosion from 7 to 121 million dollars. There was also a political scandal – Jørn Utzon left and never returned to the place of his great work. Today, however, this building is a symbol, an icon of Australia. And only now, sixty years after its birth, that symbol is being improved to be used for its true purpose thanks to its extensive adaptations.


In contrast, the Hamburg concert hall already seems to be a success. For the first time, Hamburg got a symbol of the city of a kind it had never had before. It is a dignified and significant masterpiece of the history of architecture which we can include in world history landmarks. Marge Simpson wished something alike for Springfield too, but she addressed the wrong architect, and could not rely on the citizens in the way Hamburg could.


Tom Schulz, a spokesman of the Elbphilharmonie concert hall, told me: In the first six months after the opening, during Hamburg’s winter, the plaza alone was visited by two million visitors. Concerts are booked for years in advance, and the opportunity to buy tickets can only be obtained through a lottery system. The media response to the opening in online and printed media, on radio and television is simply huge. The so-called contacts, i.e., the unit used for the analysis of media response reaches the number of several billions, and multiply surpasses even the bravest forecasts.