The surging roofline of the Hamburg Elbphilharmonie by Herzog & de Meuron rises over the sky above the River Elbe in the shape of the wave crests and billowing sails that frequent its banks. A modern concert hall built atop the shell of a warehouse, the project was part of the HafenCity initiative that sought to revitalize a 157-hectare area on the city’s waterfront.
Architects: Herzog & de Meuron
Partners: Jacques Herzog, Pierre de Meuron, Ascan Mergenthaler (Partner in Charge), David Koch (Partner in Charge)
Consultants: Nagata Acoustics
Site Area: 10.540 sq m
Gross Floor Area: 125, 512 sq m
Footprint: 5.745 sq m
Cost: $880 millionz
The Swiss firm had been awarded the commission for this landmark performance venue to serve as the home of the NDR Elbphilharmonie Orchester as far back as 2003, but its construction was burdened by delays and overruns from issues such contract disputes or budgeting—which saw the initial $70-80 million forecasted expense swell up to 10 times the original value.
Despite these hindrances, the Elbphilharmonie has become one of Hamburg’s modern icons, an emblem of the urban renewal taking form around its site.
Constructed from 1963-1966 and utilized for the storage of cocoa beans, the Kaispeicher A was a postwar warehouse that acted as the base of the Elbphilharmonie’s structure. It was built over a similar warehouse constructed in 1875 and demolished after sustaining damage during the conflict.
The Kaispecher’s relatively austere brick aesthetic and massive, trapezoidal form, with 50×75 cm grid-like openings punched into the building’s faces contrast the older, more elaborate structures surrounding it while also paying tribute to them.
The architects saw value in conserving parts of this historic visage to bridge the archaic and novel as they strove to transform an old, forgotten piece of Hamburg into a new symbol of its future. For this purpose, the warehouse’s structural frame was reinforced with additional R.C.C. piles, that when combined with the existing supports add up to approximately 1,700.
Perhaps the most striking result of this fusion is the Elbphilharmonie’s dramatic facade, resembling an iridescent iceberg perched atop the brick hull of a sailing vessel—a reference to its pivotal location on the waterfront. The lower section of its 26 storey structure consists of the rehabilitated shell of the Kaispeicher A, presenting a heavy, visually imposing mass from which the floating glass form of the superstructure was extruded.
This upper section rises from its lower eastern end to a pinnacle at the Kaispitze(tip of the peninsula), which reaches a height of 108 m in curved, billowing strokes. The glass facade itself is composed of over 1,100 insulated glazing units 3 m high and 4-5m wide, with both flat and curved profiles.
Herzog & de Meuron employed two fritted surfaces of laminated lites to deal with the issue of glare as the panels curl around U-shaped fibreglass elements that outline balconies. The superstructure’s base is punctured by arched openings that frame views of the Elbe and its surrounding urban areas.
Within its multi-use program, the Elbphilharmonie Hamburg’s glazed upper section houses the main philharmonic hall seating 2100, as well as a chamber music hall with a capacity of 550. Other ancillary spaces within this section include restaurants, bars, 45 luxury apartments, the 250-room Westin Hamburg hotel, and a brick-paved indoor plaza, which visually and spatially links program areas across multiple floors. Its uppermost level also hosts a panoramic terrace with views of Hamburg and the harbour.
Alternatively, the lower stratum of the Kaispecher’s refurbished brick shell accommodates indoor parking facilities, spas, conference spaces, music educational areas, and a third performance venue capable of accommodating 170 people.
The building’s main entrance at the ground level lies at the Kaispecher’s east end, opening up into a lobby leading to an 82 m long escalator ushering visitors up to the plaza. Its curved profile cuts through the entirety of the Kaispecher, gradually revealing a view of the harbour through a panoramic window in the plaza at its concealed upper end—providing a truly awe-inspiring experience. A balcony emerges further ahead, morphing into a walkway that continues around the building’s periphery, separated from the interior by a rippling glass curtain.
The brick floored plaza of the Elbphilharmonie acts as a freely accessible public space, located on the building’s 8th floor at a height of 37 m above ground level. Its terraced interior landscape is punctuated by large, round slanted columns of varying sizes.
Containing restaurants, bars, ticket offices, and the hotel lobby, the plaza also links the building’s foyers to other levels through a cascade of broad, swirling staircases. Curved and jagged white walls enclose the space, revealing a fragmented interior layout chiselled with surgical accuracy to create spatial drama and forge visual links.
The heart of the Elbphilharmonie is the Grand Hall itself, decoupled from the rest of the new structure through 362 large spring assemblies for acoustical reasons. The purpose behind the hall’s design was to enkindle a sense of intimacy by having the audience seated in close proximity to the performers at its centre.
To this end, sculpted balconies containing seats spill into one another over interconnected levels in undulating motions that traverse and spiral around the hall, melding walls, ceiling, and floors into a single, continuous form. The resulting structure is clad in a layer of 10,000 CNC-milled gypsum fibreboard panels dubbed the ‘White Skin’, tailor-made to enhance the hall’s acoustics.
Designed and fabricated with computational precision to match the hall’s geometries, the panels feature textured surfaces that possess an almost hand-carved look. However, they consist of innumerable small, uniquely designed cells that facilitate optimization of the hall’s acoustic environment.
A massive, mushroom-shaped projection is suspended from the hall’s ceiling—to function as both chandelier and sound reflector. The entire space bathed in a golden aura resembles a space-age cave hewn out of coral.
By contrast, the Recital Hall adopts a more conventional ‘shoebox’ shape and is also acoustically decoupled. The uppermost level contains an outdoor terrace with panoramic views of Hamburg and the Elbe, enclosed by the roofline’s carved peaks, consisting of 8 spherically curved concave sections. Its structure is covered by a layer of perforated metal disks mounted on an intricate steel framework.
The Elbphilharmonie Hamburg was inaugurated on 11th January 2017, nearly a decade after the commencement of construction, and its long journey to fruition exemplifies a rare triumph against the odds.
Finally, the efforts of those involved in its completion have found redemption with the fulfillment of their initial promises, embodied by the building’s now-iconic edifice and landmark status. The Elbphilharmonie’s sprawling silhouette, visible from afar, is presently an indelible part of Hamburg’s contemporary environment.