In the year 2003, Germany decided to add a new World’s Greatest Concert Hall to its second-largest, musically rich city of Hamburg, the birthplace of Brahms and Mendelssohn. The site was on the busiest port adjacent to river Elbe. However, the task ahead was scaling a mountain. 

The Site of World’s Greatest Concert Hall

Sitting near the Elbe river is an old, four-story-high brick warehouse with no windows. The prospective site would house the new concert hall. The city council approached architects Herzog and de Meuron for the project with the idea. Herzog and de Meuron visited the site. They immediately knew they had a turnkey project which could become the face of the city. It had a panoramic view and faced the waters. The visit led to radically different ideas for the megastructure. 

The proposal was to build over the existing structure with a slew of typologies ranging from hotels to restaurants to luxury apartments, publicly open spaces with the concert hall as the design focus. The warehouse will retain its exterior load-bearing walls, hiding the parking inside it while providing structural integrity.

Youtube for Architects: World’s Greatest Concert Hall - Megastructures by Free Documentary - Sheet1
Elbphilharmonie in all its glory ©ArchitecturalDigest.com

Going out of the box

The building dimensions were small to go with the traditional shoebox style of the opera hall. Additionally, they had to accommodate other typologies and provide vehicular parking for them. Architect Herzog states, “We don’t store wine anymore in buildings, but we do store cars”. It meant that the hall was to be shaped differently, which added acoustical constraints like vibrational transmission through the structural support and even through the thick concrete walls. 

Ships rain the location with noise, making it harder to design and execute a concert hall. It was a challenge that top acoustics consultants Nagata Acoustics Inc. of Walt Disney Concert hall fame would like to conquer. They were responsible for the project, headed by Mr. Toyota.   

Structural elements were to be placed to precision thanks to Nicholas Lyons, who supervised the site as the project manager with the other workers who lent a hand in construction. Constructing in a windy location would make it harder to install glass panels and aluminum panels, where each element is distinct and any error would mean going full circle again.  

While construction, many improvisations had to be made for a better performance from the building. It involved the acoustics department who were concerned about ghost ship sounds (a horn sound reflecting from the building, any captain would think that a vessel is nearby and they are on a collision course, leading to sudden navigation of the ship), which was not a problem for the concert hall but the water traffic. The consultants went out of their way to design a facade that reflects the noise and doesn’t confuse the incoming ships.

Youtube for Architects: World’s Greatest Concert Hall - Megastructures by Free Documentary - Sheet2
The concert hall under construction ©Inhabitat.com

Obstacles that stood in the way of the World’s Greatest Concert Hall

The construction of the Elbphilharmonie took ten years long due to multiple disputes and budget constraints. The site in itself posed a variety of problems like the preservation of walls while constructing a new structure with cranes and other equipment which could damage the existing one. 

The design stage took four years, the project went way over budget during construction and the execution of the megastructure became an issue of public funds allocation, all putting a spotlight on the architects while the construction was put on hold for years. 

Lessons for fellow designers 

After a three-year-long wait, the problem was solved and the construction continued. Herzog and de Meuron never gave up on the project and left it half burnt. Elbphilharmonie was intentionally designed differently as a mixed-use structure as opposed to other concert halls from site selection to designing till construction. That was why it got so much press even during the turmoil, it was an existential issue for whether architects could go out of the box or not. 

Attention to detail was immense, whether you consider 1098 individually designed distinct glass panels or the thousands of custom cut gypsum boards that reflect sound within the concert hall designed specifically to be fit at a certain location. 

The dedication from the team is also noteworthy, considering an international team, the architects from Switzerland and the acoustics consultants from Los Angeles makes the professional think of the accuracy of the drawings to execute a project of this scale, additionally, the workers in the site along with the engineers also ensured precision in realizing the project. It couldn’t be achieved without teamwork, which reiterates the duty of the architect to head and guide the progress of the project.  

The elbphilharmonie interiors ©LonelyPlanet.com

The documentary is beautifully shot, with several interviews that explained the concept, workflow, and the hardships that came in the realization of the project. Mr. Toyota, Mr. Nicholas Lyons, Ar. Herzog, Ar. de Meuron were followed through the documentary, capturing their emotions on every aspect of the process. 

The real success was the positive reviews it attained from the citizens of Hamburg, who were more than satisfied in seeing the project come to life after a decade. Professionals and musicians were also happy with the acoustic results achieved.

 The documentary displayed the positives and the negatives of the World’s Greatest Concert Hall. It also explains technical details cleanly as the concepts were explained with clarity using animations, making architecture easier for the layman. Multiple nitty-gritty data was observed to detail and shot in the film. The crew took the effort to be on-site during the construction of building elements. After all, the megastructure would be built only once. It is also well-paced and justifies the title world’s greatest concert hall with amazing audiovisuals. 

Vignesh Esakkinathan
Author

Vignesh Esakkinathan is a final year architecture student from chennai. He blogs about climate change and productivity with the hopes to become an architectural journalist. When he's not playing cricket, you can see him philosophising life at his rooftop.

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