Herzog & de Meuron’s new Elbphilharmonie in Hamburg, Germany is to be completed in the autumn of 2016 and the first concerts in its 2,150-person grand hall will be held in spring 2017. This cultural symbol for twenty-first-century Hamburg will sit upon the solid foundations of the twentieth-century industrial city. While most German urbanism since 1945 has been preceded by acts of erasure, the Elbphilharmonie is being built atop the Kaispeicher A, a 1963 warehouse designed by Werner Kallmorgen. Rising to a height of 110 m above the adjacent Elbe River, the new building is an ethereal glass crystal anchored by the massive brick warehouse. Together they will house the Elbphilharmonie’s complex programme: three concert halls and their ancillary spaces, an elevated public plaza, a restaurant and café, a hotel, private apartments, conference facilities and car parking. Recognizing the Kaispeicher’s qualities, Herzog & de Meuron have kept their interventions to the warehouse to a minimum. Instead of supporting bags of cocoa, its foundations will now carry the weight of the towering Elbphilharmonie above. Beyond this structural support, the Kaispeicher has also determined the footprint for the new building, which is vertically extruded from the warehouse’s trapezoidal form.
The decision to build the new Elbphilharmonie atop an existing warehouse is another example of Herzog & de Meuron’s interest in – and reverence for – the qualities of brick industrial buildings. For the Tate Modern (2000), the Swiss architects’ adaptation of the turbine hall in the 1952 Bankside Power Station created the most successful public space of our era. In Madrid, the façades of the 1902 Central Electric Power Station were retained as part of the CaixaForum (2008). In one of the deft formal manoeuvres for which Herzog & de Meuron are renowned, the Power Station’s walls now float above a public plaza at ground level. While this gesture seems to defy the weight of these masonry walls, their mass is reaffirmed by the compressed nature of the space underneath. Herzog & de Meuron’s principle intervention inside the Kaispeicher has been to insert a curving escalator that connects the Elbphilharmonie’s main entrance at ground level with the public plaza at the height of warehouse’s original roof. The escalator’s curve transforms this lengthy and potentially monotonous passage into a sensual discovery, which ends in front of a large window at the Kaispeicher’s western tip. This opening is part of the original warehouse; it is another example of how the existing building guided, even dictated, the form of the new Elbphilharmonie.
Herzog & de Meuron have long been opposed to contemporary architecture’s tendency to produce hermetically sealed objects, buildings that are environmentally and experientially cut off from their surroundings. Their conceptual desire to allow the sensual experience of the harbour to permeate the Elbphilharmonie is materialized at the plaza level, which provides a unique and previously unimaginable experience of Hamburg. The plaza sits 37 m above the Elbe, between the top of Kaispeicher and the glass crystal. Concert-goers and hotel guests will move through this space on their way to their respective foyers, joining members of the public who will come to enjoy views of the Elbe and the historical city. The plaza’s undulating ceiling rises to meet large vaulted openings that have been carved in the building’s northern and southern façades. These recesses make room for exterior terraces where visitors will be immersed in the sights, smells and sounds of the harbour. This effort to bring the ambient atmosphere into the building also guided the treatment of the Elbphilharmonie’s façades. Using curved glass panels, the architects have produced a system that allows the hotel rooms and private apartments to receive natural ventilation, while larger openings permeate the many foyers and landings serving the grand concert hall.
At the centre of the new Elbphilharmonie is its grand hall, seating 2,150 persons in tiers arranged on all four sides of the stage. While Herzog & de Meuron readily acknowledge their admiration for Hans Scharoun’s 1963 Berlin Philharmonic, in designing the grand hall they have sought to move well beyond the banal copies of its ‘vineyard’ form that have proliferated in contemporary concert halls. They have taken the form to its next level, creating a volume that is much steeper and brings the audience even closer to the orchestra. As with Herzog & de Meuron’s recent stadium projects in Basel (2002), Munich (2005) and Beijing (2008), the result is a space that is defined by the spectators’ own bodies. The strong architectural gesture gives way to the dramatic visual and aural relationship between spectator and performer.
In its ambition to bring together multiple functions within a single cultural building, the Elbphilharmonie is reminiscent of Adler and Sullivan’s 1889 Auditorium Building in Chicago. By including uses other than concerts, both extend the public experience of the building to other users and other hours of the day. Their similarities are strongest when compared in section. In both buildings, the unique volume of the concert hall interrupts the repetitive logic of the horizontal floor plates. The Elbphilharmonie’s grand hall is bookended by hotel rooms and apartments that continue the pattern of the Kaispeicher’s stacked levels. Yet the grand hall resists the horizontal layers that enclose it. Its verticality is complimented by the vertiginous array of staircases that bring concert-goers from the plaza level to the grand hall’s own foyer, and then upwards to their seats. The Elbphilharmonie’s tentlike roof is the direct result of the hall pushing through the roofline to achieve the desired volume for the concert space. The tent also houses the ensemble reflector and expresses as such a direct functional relationship between the shape of the roofscape and the grand hall, with its acoustic requirements.
The Elbphilharmonie is to be the centrepiece of Hamburg’s new HafenCity, at 157 hectares Europe’s largest development project. Making use of an area no longer needed by Hamburg’s port, HafenCity is intended to link the city’s historical centre with the Elbe. Understandably, this development has provoked contentious debate, especially given Hamburg’s unease at the usurpation of its status as a cultural and media capital by Berlin. To its supporters, HafenCity provides the chance for Hamburg to reconnect both with its harbour and with the city’s international ambitions. For its critics, it represents another generic neoliberal enclave, a turning away from the public realm of the polis. The Elbphilharmonie’s position within this debate is simple: it expresses a basic faith in the public value of the architecture. This belief is not a glorification of architecture for its own sake but rather a claim that exceptional buildings can materialize the qualities latent in the city. The Elbphilharmonie seeks to amplify qualities that are present and yet dormant: the strength of the Kaispeicher’s abstract brick walls, the taste of the Elbe in the air… The Elbphilharmonie is a seductive and well-designed object that offers an experience unlike any other concert hall in the world. But its greatest contribution is to the city, for it gives Hamburg a magical intimation of its past and its future.