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Hamburg’s Elbphilharmonic completed

Hamburg's Elbphilharmonic completed

September 2016

Despite taking more than a decade to complete and costing close to 800 million euros, Herzog & de Meuron’s Elbphilharmonie in Hamburg will go down in history as an architectural wonder.


Disguised as a glass ship afloat on the harbour of HafenCity, Hamburg, the Elbphilharmonie (Elbe Philharmonic) sits on the historical Kaispeicher A (a traditional red-brick warehouse), on the Elbe river.

Not yet open, it’s a sight which has already garnered the attention of Hamburg’s residents and tourists due to its undulating glass façade that gives the appearance that it’s constantly changing, a factor attributed to the reflections of the sky, water and city.

In addition to three concert halls, the Elbphilharmonie boasts a 250-room Westin Hotel and 45 private apartments as well as a public accessible Plaza, scheduled to open in November this year.

The 110 metre Elbphilharmonie is expected to earn a place as one of the world’s best concert halls, when it opens for its first concert in January 2017 and is transforming the harbour district of HafenCity into something of a cultural landmark. HafenCity, Europe’s biggest inner-city development, has transformed the industrial harbour into a mixed-use ‘knowledge-economy’ area with new offices, community facilities, residential and leisure areas and a high number of public spaces.

Despite being shrouded by controversy for cost overruns totalling 789 million of taxpayers’ euros and even though it took seven years longer to complete than expected, the Elbphilharmonie will go down in history books as a German architectural landmark.


For prominent Swiss architects Herzog & de Meuron, using the Kaispeicher A as the base for the Elbphilharmonie made sense as it would sit in the midst of Hamburg’s historical harbour district. The original Kaispeicher was almost destroyed during WWII and eventually detonated in 1963, shortly after Kaispeicher A was erected on the same site in 1966.

The Kaispeicher A base, which until 1990, served as a storage for cocoa beans, today will contain rehearsal and storage spaces and a park deck. “The new building has been extruded from the shape of the Kaispeicher A and is perfectly congruent with the brick block of the older building on top of which it has been placed,” say architects Herzog & de Meuron.

“Our interest in the warehouse lies not only in its unexploited structural potential but also in its architecture,” say the architects. “The robust, almost aloof architecture of the Kaispeicher provides a surprisingly ideal foundation for the new Philharmonic. It seems to be part of the landscape and not yet really part of the city.”


While the foundation of the Elbphilharmonie is a base that is almost five decades old, the striking glass façade positioned above the base makes use of the latest technology.

“In contrast to the stoic brick façade of the Kaispeicher A, the new building above has a glass façade, consisting in part of curved panels, some of them cut open. The glass façade transforms the new building into a gigantic, iridescent crystal whose textured appearance changes as it catches the reflections of the sky, the water and the city,” say the architects.

The glazed façade has a dramatic wave-like roofscape resembling the river Elbe, with each panel on the façade individually crafted.

The 16,000 sqm glass façade, equivalent to the size of two footballs fields, was manufactured by Josef Gartner GmbH, a German based custom-made façade company, and consists of 1,100 individual panes. Horseshoe-shaped recesses, which look like turning forks, form the balconies for the apartments on the westernmost tip of the building.

In order to meet the various technical requirements, Gartner put together a dedicated team of engineers and building physicists to create the unique glass façade. The glass panes are printed, coated and precisely curved at 600 degrees Celsius. The panes were also subjected to extensive climate thermal, tightness and performance testing. In addition, the individual façade elements are marked with an RFID (Radio Frequency Identification) chip which contains information on the exact positioning of the unit and the exact glass details.


The 2,100 seat Grand Hall, the heart of the Elbphilharmonie, has been designed based on a vineyard style. The vineyard style is an architectural term used to describe the design of a concert hall where the seating surrounds the stage, rising up in a series of rows, similar to the terraced planting of vineyards.

“The design idea of the Grand Hall as a space where orchestra and conductor are located in the centre of the audience, is a well-known typology. It is also not uncommon that the architecture is composed of an arrangement of tiers that take their cue from the logic of the acoustic and visual perception,” say the Swiss architects.

It’s in contrast with the Recital Hall, a shoebox style which has a rectangular auditorium and a stage at one end, along with a flexible podium and seating for up to 550 visitors.

The opening concerts on 11 and 12 January 2017 will be followed by a three-week-long festival featuring ensembles including the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra and the Berlin-based band Einstürzende Neubauten. All in all, the concert hall will host more than 300 events in the first half of 2017.


But a spectacular façade and design would mean nothing without proper acoustics.

Herzog & de Meuron brought in Yasuhisa Toyota, a world-renowned acoustician who became a celebrity in his own right following his work on the Walt Disney Concert Hall.

According to reports it took him weeks to get the hall tuned to perfection. Toyota developed a 6,000 sqm ‘White Skin’, a unique wall-to-ceiling membrane devised for the perfect distribution of sound. Its specific texture plays a vital role in the acoustics of the concert hall.

The lining consists of 10,000 sheets of gypsum fibre panels, each weighing approximately 70 kg. The entire venue sits on 362 robust steel springs which seals it from the rest of the building for soundproofing.

For architects, Herzog & de Meuron the ‘White Skin’ was one of the most complex developments of the Elbphilharmonie. “These highly dense and extremely heavy engineered gypsum fibreboard panels reflect sound, which is then directed and scattered by the countless seashell-shaped milled depressions,” they explain.

While the cost explosion and multiple delays in the finishing date have made the project synonymous for building scandals in Germany, the tide may be turning. Thorsten Kausch, who’s in charge of marketing for the city of Hamburg, understands that it will take a while for the negativity to disappear, but a positive sign is that citizens are “becoming proud this new German landmark.”

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