The Genteel
July 11, 2020


Artist rendering of the proposed Plaza within the Elbphilharmonie Hamburg (Image © Herzog & de Meuron).

Hamburgers love their harbour. It gives scope and openness to the city - the sun seems to shine differently, and maybe the people are more friendly because of it. Arriving by train from the south and looking west, the view of the harbour is now shared with a looming construction site. A new quarter is growing in Hamburg: the HafenCity, where the remarkable Elbphilharmonie Hamburg concert hall has been rising since 2007. The hall has already been hailed as "a cultural landmark," but its construction has not been without controversy.

Large public ventures often seem to follow the same trajectory in Germany. Authorities call for tenders; the most competitive bidder is chosen and starts the project; but after commencing it, negotiates for higher fees. The project is delayed, and costs and fees increase. The Elbphilharmonie Hamburg is no exception. Since the contract was signed between the city and the Adamanta consortium in 2007, construction costs have risen significantly: the publicly funded portion of the project has increased from 77 to 323 million euros. Hamburg media regularly report that "the cost of the philharmonic hall is increasing again!"

Elbphilharmonie Hamburg: a work-
in-progress (Image © José Campos)

Is this situation annoying to residents? That depends on the point of view. If the priority is more money for public child care, schools and employment, the explosion in costs for the project are especially frustrating. On the other hand, Germany has not been investing much in culture according to official statistics on public investment in cultural topics. An annual report by the German federal statistics office revealed that in 2007, German public authorities invested 8.5 billion euro into cultural projects; and while that number has steadily increased each year to an expected 9.6 billion euro in 2010, other statistics reveal that politicians invested only 1.62 per cent of the public budget into culture in 2007 (or 0.34 per cent of Germany's GDP). 

A long tradition of funding for culture has existed in Hamburg - many wealthy residents founded museums and parts of the University of Hamburg. The ordinary public is also engaged in the cultural scene. If the government attempted to decrease cultural funding, demonstrations would surely follow - Hamburgers would fight for their theatres if so required. Yet, there is only one other concert hall in Hamburg, the Laeiszhalle, which was founded in 1908 by a private donation. With the new concert hall, Hamburg seems to have bumped culture back up on its list of financial priorities, harkening to the city's past. 

The Genteel recently had the opportunity to take a guided tour of the 25-floor construction site. The site is not easy to access; people often wait for weeks, and snippy and ungracious security personnel guard the entrance. A strong imagination is needed to envision how the 1960s, red-brick Kaispeicher A building, a former warehouse designed by Werner Kallmorgen, will be changing. The Kaispeicher A is the foundation upon which the new philharmonic hall is being built: architects Herzog & de Meuron and Höhler & Partner hollowed the core of the building and topped it with a dazzling, multi-level, glass-enclosed structure, capped by a sea of glass waves.

Two elevators at ground level whisk people up to the Plaza, a public space where concert-goers, residents and tourists can mingle and enjoy a 360-degree panoramic view of the city.

While cruising up and down the building's stairs and elevators, the project's great achievements are evident: three concert halls, a public plaza, a 250-room hotel and 47 flats will be operated within the new structure. The challenge has been to establish modern architecture on the existing layout. Because the width and length of the building cannot be expanded, it can only grow upwards. In addition, the architecture needed to link tradition - tile storefronts have a long history in Hamburg - with a modern, futuristic face. The proximity to the harbour, the integration of old cranes and the chance to look out onto the cityscape provide the traditional elements while the glass facade gives the structure a modern face.

There are many fascinating architectural and technical solutions within the building. Two elevators at ground level whisk people up to the Plaza, a public space where concert-goers, residents and tourists can mingle and enjoy a 360-degree panoramic view of the city. The Plaza rests 37 metres above ground, on the top of the former Kaispecher A building, separating the old from the new. The largest concert hall - presently a large, steel skeleton - will hold 2,150 people. The stage will be at the centre of the hall and the seats and galleries will rise from around it in the "vineyard style" seen in many German concert halls, such as the Berlin Philharmonie. The hall is completely soundproof, a difficult feat given its height. The whole building will have the capacity of 17 football grounds and will weigh more than twice the famous cruise ship, RMS Queen Mary 2, another Hamburg landmark.

Insider the Elbphilharmonie Hamburg: a work-in-
progress (Photograph by Frank Berno Timm).

Does Hamburg need this building? The city currently has three great orchestras and a very active music scene. Additional venues are welcome to host shows and concerts. Johannes Brahms was born here, Gustav Mahler worked in Hamburg, the first German opera house was founded in the city, The Beatles had their first important gigs here. The hall isn't cheap, but nobody can expect an inexpensive project.

And the opening date? The completion of the building was initially planned for 2010, then was postponed several times. In March 2011, a 2013 opening was announced, but in August 2011 there was a further delay. "There is no set opening date at present," says Karl-Olaf Petters, press-officer of the Kulturbehörde (Department of Culture).

Hamburgers await.



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