In Hamburg, a new con­cert hall wows its skep­tics.

De­spite doubts and cost over­runs, Elbphil­har­monie con­cert hall in Hamburg has be­come an in-de­mand destination for mu­sic

The Washington Post Sunday - - ARTS & STYLE - BY PHILIP KENNICOTT IN HAMBURG philip.kennicott@wash­

The Elbphil­har­monie, a con­cert hall in Hamburg en­cased in glass and set upon a giant brick ware­house, is sur­rounded on three sides by the wa­ters of the city’s bustling har­bor. De­signed by the Swiss ar­chi­tec­ture firm Her­zog and de Meu­ron, the build­ing cost about $850 mil­lion, took more than a decade to de­sign and build, and was for a long time cited as a joke — a dark joke — among Ger­mans who fret­ted that the project had be­come an al­ba­tross: un­build­able, over bud­get, and wildly out of pro­por­tion to what the sen­si­ble peo­ple of this mer­can­tile city wanted or needed.

But the build­ing, one of sev­eral projects around the world that aim self-con­sciously for “iconic” sta­tus and have price tags in the bil­lion-dol­lar range, opened to in­ter­na­tional ac­claim on Jan. 11. The acous­tics, de­signed by the renowned Ja­panese acous­ti­cian Ya­suhisa Toy­ota, are a marvel of clar­ity, pre­ci­sion and cool ob­jec­tiv­ity. Vis­i­tors en­joy stun­ning views of the in­dus­trial grit of Hamburg, re­new­ing the city’s re­la­tion to the source of its wealth and its cul­tural win­dow on the larger world. Tourists flock to as­cend the El­phie’s long es­ca­la­tor, ris­ing through the old ware­house in a tun­nel of white glass and plas­ter to visit the rooftop ter­race, which bus­tles with ac­tiv­ity be­fore and long af­ter evening con­certs. If you want to at­tend a con­cert, good luck, be­cause al­most ev­ery­thing is sold out.

“De­mand is over­whelm­ing,” says Christoph Lieben-Seut­ter, gen­eral di­rec­tor of the Elbphil­har­monie. Sub­scrip­tions for clas­si­cal con­certs have dou­bled since the hall opened, tour op­er­a­tors are pres­sur­ing the or­ga­ni­za­tion to make more tick­ets avail­able, and more than 1.5 mil­lion peo­ple have vis­ited the pub­lic plaza since it opened last Novem­ber. The build­ing has be­come a phe­nom­e­non through­out the coun­try. “Mu­sic isn’t just the talk of the town, it is the talk of Ger­many,” Lieben-Seut­ter says.

In March, the Cara­cas-based Si­mon Bo­li­var Sym­phony Or­ches­tra played all nine Beethoven sym­phonies at the new hall. At the end of the third move­ment from Sym­phony No. 5, where the first vi­o­lins seem to get stuck dither­ing a scat­tered rem­i­nis­cence of the main theme, there is one of the most fa­mous crescen­dos in the his­tory of mu­sic, a swelling and tri­umphant tran­si­tion from dark­ness to light. The sound in the hall was so ac­cu­rate that if you closed your eyes, you could point to ex­actly the spot where the tim­pani player was gen­tly thump­ing his drums, and as the winds joined the strings, each ad­di­tion to the bur­geon­ing chord was like an­other color be­ing added to the spec­trum, un­til the light was bril­liant and white.

Those eight bars could stand for the as­ton­ish­ing shift in pub­lic per­cep­tions about the build­ing, “from a scan­dal to a world won­der,” as Lieben-Seut­ter puts it. Two decades af­ter a Frank Gehry-de­signed out­post of the Guggen­heim Mu­seum opened in Bil­bao, Spain, the idea that a build­ing can trans­form a city, or a cul­tural in­sti­tu­tion, isn’t held in high re­pute any­more. Debt and dis­il­lu­sion have made the “Bil­bao ef­fect” seem a hol­low prom­ise of a dif­fer­ent age.

Here it is, back again, and it’s im­per­a­tive to know why it is work­ing. Why this build­ing? What about its de­sign, its lo­ca­tion and the im­plicit so­cial mes­sages em­bed­ded in its ar­chi­tec­ture have made it so suc­cess­ful? Carsten Brosda, a sen­a­tor in Hamburg’s state gov­ern­ment and head of its cul­tural author­ity, says lo­ca­tion is a pri­mary fac­tor in its suc­cess. “I was never a fan of iconic build­ings be­cause so many of them are rather generic,” he says. But Elbphil­har­monie is ex­cep­tional, lo­cated in the ge­o­graph­i­cal heart of the city, on a site that de­manded some ex­cep­tional pub­lic use. “There were ar­chi­tects say­ing this is on the verge of be­ing un­build­able, but that is what makes it unique.”

The care taken with the acous­tics are an­other fac­tor. Toy­ota doesn’t try to repli­cate the sump­tu­ous warmth of 19th-cen­tury con­cert halls. Rather, he aims for a live- per­for­mance sound adapted to the dig­i­tal age, which re­in­forces plea­sures lost to an era of cheap head­phones and lim­ited-range MP3 files. There is no golden aura, but there is fan­tas­tic clar­ity and spa­tial pres­ence. Part of that suc­cess, at the Elbphil­har­monie, may be at­trib­ut­able to what peo­ple here call the “white skin,” an in­te­rior sur­face of 10,000 unique gyp­sum­fiber pan­els that help dif­fuse sound.

But it is the ar­chi­tec­ture, the way it floats like a giant ship above the old brick fac­tory, the drama of how one en­ters and moves through its spa­ces, and the way it sit­u­ates peo­ple in re­la­tion to each other in the soar­ing au­di­to­rium, that makes this build­ing truly ex­tra­or­di­nary. The shape of the build­ing was first ad­um­brated by Jac­ques Her­zog, a prin­ci­pal of the firm that be­came world fa­mous for the “Bird’s Nest” sta­dium at the 2008 Beijing Sum­mer Olympics. Her­zog sup­pos­edly scrib­bled a wavy form on top of a pic­ture of the old, 1960s-era Kais­pe­icher A ware­house, and the idea quickly be­came em­bed­ded in Hamburg’s civic con­scious­ness.

“Ev­ery­body was ba­si­cally nuts about this,” Brosda says. The project is part of a ma­jor multi­bil­lion-dol­lar re­de­vel­op­ment of Hamburg’s har­bor, con­vert­ing 19th-cen­tury brick build­ings and empty lots into res­i­den­tial, of­fice and com­mer­cial space. But a con­cert hall atop an old fac­tory was coun­ter­in­tu­itive. The con­strained and ir­reg­u­larly shaped floor plate of the ware­house meant that the au­di­to­rium, above, would be ab­nor­mally ver­ti­cal in its lay­out. And plac­ing it so high above the ground meant that street life, so im­por­tant to most ur­ban de­vel­op­ments, would need to be sucked up into the sky and re­dis­tributed on the ter­race some eight floors above.

En­try to the con­cert spa­ces — which in­clude the 2,100-seat main hall and a 572-seat recital hall — is ac­cessed up a curv­ing flight of wooden steps. When the build­ing is open for per­for­mances, the vis­i­tor en­coun­ters no doors; the path up the steps leads di­rectly into the lobby ar­eas, which flow un­in­ter­rupted into the au­di­to­rium. The seat­ing is in the round, or “vineyard” style, with the audience ar­rayed close to the stage in a set of shal­low, in­ter­con­nect­ing bal­conies.

Of­ten, ar­chi­tects and crit­ics stress the “demo­cratic” or egal­i­tar­ian virtues of vineyard-style seat­ing, though the pe­cu­liar height of the Elbphil­har­monie makes the lower seats, clos­est to the or­ches­tra, more equal than oth­ers, es­pe­cially the high­est ones, which can in­spire ver­tigo. It’s not a demo­cratic seat­ing plan with all seats be­ing equal, but it is one that fos­ters an ex­cit­ing sense of com­mu­nity dur­ing per­for­mances, with the audience aware not just of the mu­sic, but of its own pres­ence in the space.

“This is a house for ev­ery­body,” says As­can Mer­gen­thaler, the se­nior part­ner at Her­zog and de Meu­ron in charge of the project. But this was clearly a hall de­signed for, and in­tended to el­e­vate (lit­er­ally and sym­bol­i­cally), the ex­pe­ri­ence of clas­si­cal mu­sic. And that is re­mark­ably re­fresh­ing. Brosda says one rea­son the build­ing has been so quickly em­braced de­spite the huge cost over­runs is that it reaf­firms val­ues es­sen­tial to Ger­many. “Ques­tions of cul­ture be­come more and more im­por­tant to­day,” Brosda says. “It is a state­ment by a free and open so­ci­ety.”

It is also a mag­i­cal place to hear mu­sic. The ride up its 262-foot-long es­ca­la­tor cre­ates a gen­uine sense of ex­pec­ta­tion and de­taches one from the ev­ery­day world, mim­ick­ing the wide stair­case and sym­bolic as­cent of tra­di­tional con­cert hall ar­chi­tec­ture. Dur­ing three con­certs in March, the audience was scrupu­lously well be­haved, at­ten­tive and en­thu­si­as­tic. Even the signs mark­ing the re­strooms — which show a male fig­ure in a tie and a fe­male fig­ure in a long, sleeve­less evening gown — sug­gest how com­fort­able the Ger­mans are with for­mal­ity and elegance, which they don’t re­flex­ively equate with hi­er­ar­chy or priv­i­lege as we do in the United States.

And that may be the last and most im­por­tant rea­son that this hall could re­vive, at least once and per­haps only here, the “Bil­bao ef­fect,” trans­form­ing a place, or an art form, or cul­tural at­ti­tudes through ar­chi­tec­ture. The de­sign of this build­ing takes the idea of lis­ten­ing to se­ri­ous mu­sic se­ri­ously, it posits the ex­pe­ri­ence as an event to be rel­ished, and it cel­e­brates a species of au­ral at­ten­tion that is in dan­ger of ex­tinc­tion: col­lec­tive, at­ten­tive, in com­mu­nion with the mu­si­cians and the audience alike. This build­ing, high above the city and its in­dus­trial wa­ter­front, sug­gests that mu­sic can still stop time for a few hours and ex­tin­guish the triv­i­al­ity of the world, seen for a while only as a blur of lights, twin­kling in the dis­tance and re­flected on the tur­bid wa­ter far be­low.


The Elbphil­har­monie in Hamburg opened its doors Jan. 11. On the banks of the Elbe River, the com­plex is sup­ported by about 1,700 re­in­forced con­crete piles. It in­cludes three con­cert halls, a ho­tel, pri­vate apart­ments and a pub­lic area with a view of the city. The world-class con­cert hall, above, seats 2,100 and has in­ter­con­nected, shal­low bal­conies to sur­round the stage “vineyard” style.

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