Rising more than 100 metres above Hamburg’s harbour like a great glass galleon marooned atop an old brick warehouse, the Elbphilharmonie concert hall looks as unreal as its computer renderings, first published 13 years ago to gasps of incredulity.
The gargantuan glass tent rises to a roofline of frothing peaks, inscribing a silhouette of waves across the city’s low-rise skyline, like a chunk of the sea that’s been frozen, chiselled out of the water and craned into place. Its glacial walls ripple and bulge, their surface punctured with convex semi-circular openings, forming a cliff-face of little mouths gaping in glee.
It’s only appropriate for the building to have the last laugh. A national embarrassment for the last decade, as the budget galloped ever higher, with construction mired in delays and the very real threat that its carcass might be left as an Ozymandian ruin, this €789m mega-project is finally complete – and it is thankfully every bit as spectacular as its architects promised.
Standing on the roof, surrounded by heaving valleys of gleaming white sequins that swell to a spiky mountain range, Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron have never looked so relieved. “There were moments when we thought this building would destroy our whole career,” says Herzog. “Somehow we were responsible for this total disaster, because we had seduced the people with our design.”
The project began as the unlikely dream of Alexander Gérard, a private developer and former classmate of Herzog and De Meuron, who had hoped to finance the scheme with the 45 luxury flats and 250-room hotel that are also housed in the big glass mountain. He commissioned the architects to come up with a dazzling alternative to a dreary plan for a 90-metre media office tower on the site, which died away with the end of the dotcom boom. The Swiss starchitects’ thrilling images quickly caught the public imagination and the project was adopted by the city in 2003 and prioritised as a plan of national importance.
Launched with a price tag of €77m (which Herzog says was “absurdly low” and never actually costed), and scheduled to open in 2010, the finished project has cost 10 times that amount and been subject to a catalogue of disputes, lawsuits and a lengthy parliamentary inquiry. The resulting 800-page report noted witheringly that “the claim of a public sector building to be counted among world architecture does not necessarily extend to toilet brushes costing €291.97 each”.
Exploring the voluptuous caves and terraced levels housed within this vast iceberg, it is clear that the toilet brushes were one of the cheaper items on the shopping list. It is a project on an unparalleled scale of ambition, an ocean liner of architectural virtuosity that revels in its sculptural feats and bespoke craftsmanship. The grand hall, itself hung from the 700-tonne roof like a dangling cocoon, features 1,000 hand-blown glass lamps and 10,000 uniquely carved acoustic panels, while the facade incorporates 600 curved panes of 48mm-thick glass. It has been compared to Kaiser Wilhelm’s megalomania, but it’s fair to say it gives the pharaohs a run for their money.
Echoes of Giza begin with the arrival sequence, where visitors are transported up an 80-metre escalator in a creamy spangle-lined tunnel, as if the entrance to the Great Pyramid had been masterminded by Liberace. The escalator is gently curved in a hump-backed profile, so you can’t see where you’re going, adding to the camp drama of it all, before you emerge at a big picture window punched into the brick wall, affording the first great view across the harbour.
From here, a second escalator leads up to a brick-paved plaza on the roof of the old warehouse, planned as a new (free, but ticketed) public space for the city, jacked 40 metres up in the air. It is one of the project’s most exhilarating moments, where you’re sandwiched between the plinth of the brick shed (which now mostly houses the car park) and the diaphanous cloud of culture above. A sculpted white ceiling swoops above your head, flaring out on either side of the building to frame views of the city in a pair of vaulted apses – an appropriate form for what is a cathedral of our time.
Sleek curtain walls of rippling glass lead out to a walkway that runs around the entire 340-metre perimeter of the building, like being on the deck of a liner, from where you can survey a horizon of shipping cranes to one side, church spires to the other. “Our role is to connect the old city with the new city beyond,” says De Mueron, referring to the HafenCity quarter, an emerging district slated to house 12,000 people in the former docklands, in which the “Elphie”, as locals have nicknamed the concert hall, stands as a shining beacon.
From the plaza, wide staircases spiral up between the curvaceous white walls, recalling the generous sweeping levels of Eero Saarinen’s 1960s TWA terminal in New York, leading concert-goers up through a precipitous crevasse, carved out between the grand hall and the rest of the building. “We really hacked this space out,” says Herzog, jabbing at the air with his big imaginary knife. “It was an archaic, kindergarten process of sculpting and carving,” he says, describing how they attacked their 5-metre-wide cardboard study models. “More than any other building we’ve done, we needed to use different methods to design these spaces. They could not be done on the computer.”
He’s right. There is an intricacy and complexity to the sequence that sets it apart from the parametrically generated formal acrobatics of their contemporaries. These are spaces that have been designed from the inside out, prised open in a process of keyhole surgery, with an acute sensitivity to the experience of rising through the building. Much of it is down to the relentless perfectionism of Ascan Mergenthaler, the busy partner in charge of the Tate Modern Switch House, Oxford’s Blavatnik School of Government and Hong Kong’s M+ museum too – projects that all revel in their interior spatial drama, driven by a precise choreography of how people move through them.
“We want visitors to be flushed into the hall,” says Mergenthaler, walking through one of the relatively narrow tributaries that feed into the main auditorium, describing the movement of his audience in terms of fluid dynamics. Once you’re inside, you can see why. Seating 2,100 people in a steeply sculpted bowl, it feels like entering a rock pool, a coral cave carved out by millennia of erosion. Chiselled balconies spill from one level to the next, connected by steps in one continuous terraced landscape. Every surface is covered in a pitted mineral texture of little stalactites, CNC-milled from gypsum fibreboard, that compresses and expands as it ripples around the room, mapping the invisible mechanics of acoustic absorption and reflection. A huge pendulous mushroom plunges down from the ceiling, serving as both an acoustic reflector and a space-age chandelier.
“We didn’t want the usual velvety ‘salon’ aesthetic, or the wooden instrument cliche,” says Mergenthaler. Instead they have taken the “vineyard” form (pioneered by Hans Scharoun’s 1963 Berlin Philharmonic, whose tent-like roof is also echoed here) and cross-fertilised it with the verticality of a Shakespearean theatre and the packed intensity of a football stadium. Tuned by renowned Japanese acoustician Yasuhisa Toyota, the proof of the pudding will come only in January, when the concert season begins. (NB music fans, De Meuron confides that the cheapest seats at the top actually have the best acoustic.)
The second, smaller hall is a totally different affair, an oblong shoebox for chamber music and recitals that feels hollowed out from a giant tree-trunk, again milled with a pleasingly lumpy surface. Deeper in the bowels of the old cocoa warehouse, meanwhile, there is a studio for more experimental music, where we find Brian Eno hunched on a stool, surrounded by tea-lights in the middle of a dark room, honing his immersive audio installation for the opening.
It is one of the many surreal situations awaiting discovery in this sprawling vertical city of culture, a bygone species of building that won’t be repeated for a very long time. “The whole thing is really so unlikely,” says Herzog, reflecting on the last 13 years of struggle. “It almost happened by chance, from this individual, whose idea then gained a kind of bottom-up momentum. You could not win with such a thing in a design competition. And perhaps we are the last generation of ‘author’ style architects to have such a chance.”
Late to the party: 10 other massively delayed mega-projects
City of Culture of Galicia
Rearing up on the hillside above the historic town of Santiago de Compostela, this gargantuan €400m cultural complex opened in 2011, nine years late and four times over budget – and still only half finished. The work of the US architect and theorist Peter Eisenman, it was described as “an expensive mistake” by one member of the original competition jury. “Probably one of the largest in the history of architecture.”
Philharmonie de Paris
Like one of George Lucas’s menacing starships crash-landed on the Boulevard Périphérique, the €390m concert hall finally opened last year, two years late and three times over budget. “The architecture is martyred, the details sabotaged,” complained its architect, Jean Nouvel, who boycotted the inauguration, accusing his client of “contempt for architecture, for the profession and for the architect of the most important French cultural programme of the new century”.
Scottish parliament building
Writhing at the bottom of Arthur’s Seat in Edinburgh, in a tangled collision of granite, concrete and splintered wooden shards, the £414m Scottish parliament building opened in 2004, more than three years late and five times over its original budget. Designed by the Spanish architect Enric Miralles, the aesthetic of instability proved more than just visual: a big wooden beam fell down in the main chamber soon after completion, doors buckled, windows cracked, the roof started leaking – and a flock of pigeons took up residence.
Valencia City of Arts and Sciences
Standing as the futuristic white tomb of Spain’s splurge on starchitectural vanity projects, this vast complex by Santiago Calatrava was four times over budget, with a price tag of over €1bn. Receiving fees of €100m, Calatrava was accused of “bleeding Valencia dry”. In 2013, just eight years after its inauguration, chunks of mosaic tiling were already falling off the swooping opera house roof.
The serene white arch that rises above the west London skyline belies the contorted mess of political and legal wrangling behind the biggest stadium in the UK, which finally opened in 2007, eight years late and almost triple the original budget at £798m – making it one of the most expensive stadiums ever built. The aftermath was mired in lawsuits, including the largest construction claim in UK legal history.
Sydney Opera House
It may be one of the most iconic buildings in the world, but it had an iconic price tag and delay to match. When the Sydney Opera House finally opened in 1973, Jørn Utzon’s spectacular cluster of white sails was 10 years late and almost 15 times the original budget – and the Danish architect had long since walked off the project over disagreements with the client.
Boston’s Big Dig
A topic of debate for three decades, Boston’s grand plan to bury the city’s central highway in a 3.5-mile tunnel ended up costing $14.8bn. Begun in 1982, it was plagued by escalating costs, overruns, leaks, accusations of shoddy workmanship and substandard materials, criminal arrests and a death. Originally scheduled to be complete in 1998 at a cost of $2.8bn, it was finally completed in 2007. The Boston Globe estimated that the project will ultimately cost $22bn, including interest – and that it won’t be paid off until 2038.
World Trade Center
The inevitably compromised product of a decade of fraught political battles, New York’s most emotionally charged site is emerging as an unparalleled exhibition of “boondoggles”, to use that wonderful American word. Santiago Calatrava’s $4bn station is finally up and running, six years late and twice the original budget, while the cost of One World Trade Center also spiralled to $4bn, making it the most expensive office tower of all time.
Montreal Olympic stadium
Dubbed the “Big Owe” for saddling the city with crushing debt, Montreal’s 1976 Olympic stadium cost $1.5bn, which was only paid off in 2006, more than 30 years after it opened. Designed by the French architect Roger Taillibert with a retractable roof, operated by cables suspended from the tallest inclined structure in the world, it wasn’t finished in time for the games. The roof components languished in a warehouse in Marseille until 1982, and the tower and roof were not completed until 1987.
Berlin Brandenburg airport
After nearly 15 years in the planning process, construction of Berlin’s new airport began in 2006, and there is still no end in sight. Originally scheduled to open in 2011, it has been beset by issues ranging from corruption to malfunctioning smoke vents and structural issues with the roof. It has already missed four opening deadlines, during which time the budget has soared from €1.7bn to over €5bn. The mayor has suggested it miiight be ready by 2018, but don’t hold your breath.
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