Elbe Philharmonic

A Masterpiece Takes Shape

Hamburg's new concert hall may have been worth the wait. Credit: DPA/Christian Charisius
Hamburg's new concert hall may have been worth the wait.
  • Why it matters

    Why it matters

    Hamburg’s Elbe Philharmonic Hall has come to symbolize a series of construction debacles across Germany.

  • Facts


    • The original budget was €77 million, but has ballooned to €789 million.
    • It is also seven years behind schedule.
    • The building includes a luxury hotel and some of Germany’s most expensive apartments.
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After years of delays and budget worries, builders of Hamburg’s Elbe Philharmonic Hall say the project is finally reaching its last stages.

The concert hall in the northern German port city ranks among Germany most well-known construction debacles, with years of delays and a budget that ballooned from €77 million to a whopping €789 million, or $833.5 million.

But during a recent tour of the site, the mood was upbeat. Amid the scaffolding and dust, the massive building was buzzing with the sounds of hammering and drilling by the huge construction crew of 700.

For eight years, work has been underway on what is hoped to be the new flagship of German high culture. The opening is now scheduled for January 2017 – seven years later than planned. Known in German as the Elbphilharmonie, it has come to symbolize a number of controversial construction debacles that have plagued Germany in recent years, chief among them Berlin’s embarrassing struggles to finish its new airport.


When it's finally finished, the new Hamburg philharmonic building will look like this. Credit: DPA/Herzog-de-Meuron
When it's finally finished, the new Hamburg philharmonic building will look like this. Credit: DPA/Herzog-de-Meuron
When it’s finally finished, the new philharmonic building will look like this. Credit: DPA/Herzog-de-Meuron


But it may have been worth the wait in Hamburg, because the new philharmonic is beginning to take on the radiance of a genuine masterpiece. What’s more, the contractor Hochtief Construction says it will meet its latest deadline for the opening.

“Things are going well,” spokesman Bernd Pütter said. “Ever since the reorganization of the project in 2013, we have been able to meet all the deadlines.”

After years of controversy, the city of Hamburg, architecture firm Herzog & de Meuron and Hochtief were forced to reconsider their approach.

But as the concert hall slowly comes together, rising gracefully above the Elbe River along the harbor like a ship in full sail, their efforts are coming to fruition. Built atop a former cocoa warehouse, the ground beneath the warehouse has been strengthened by tons of steel and concrete. The hall totals about 200,000 tons, but its elegant architecture belies the massive weight.

Once finished, the new palace of culture will enable guests to leave their limousines and cars in a seven-level parking garage. The concert hall on top will be serviced by 29 elevators.

The first place to visit on tours organized by Hochtief and Hamburg’s cultural authorities is the so-called plaza. It’s basically a big platform on the top level of the former warehouse. Later, a gigantic escalator called the Tube will lead there.

The plaza’s outer perimeter offers stunning views of the harbor and city, and will be divided by wave-like glass facades that are supposed to symbolize the building’s maritime location. It will also be accessible to the public.

“We are giving thought to how we can manage the access,” said Enno Isermann, spokesman for Hamburg’s cultural office. Since the plaza can accommodate only about 2,000 people at a time, the office is thinking about a sort of reservation system and admission tickets.

The building’s eastern wing has a 14-floor luxury hotel with 250 rooms. The operator of the hotel under the Westin Grand brand is the Munich-based Schörghuber Group.


Workers assemble the new concert hall's intricate roof. Credit: DPA/Daniel Reinhardt
Workers assemble the new concert hall's intricate roof. Credit: DPA/Daniel Reinhardt
Workers assemble the new concert hall’s intricate roof. Credit: DPA/Daniel Reinhardt


The other side of the building features 45 luxury residential units that range from 120 to 400 square meters each and, with their glass fronts and balconies, offer commanding views of the harbor and city. With an average price per square meter of €31,500, they rank among the most expensive in Germany.

Sven Heinen, deputy editor of the luxury real estate magazine Bellevue, says purchasing a unit at the Elbphilharmonie project is like having a home in the Empire State Building or the Eiffel Tower, and price is besides the point.

“These are impulsive purchases. They don’t have anything to do with the real market,” he said.

The project’s heart, of course, is the large concert hall. The galleries are still surrounded by scaffolding, and the stage area still looks like a large black hole. But the auditorium — contained by a framework of steel struts that form a sort of sphere-shaped space capsule — is already impressive.

For the sake of acoustics, the performance hall’s interior walls are covered with what builders call a “white skin.” Specialists shaped it out of gypsum fiberboard in various thicknesses and surface structures according to exact specifications set by acoustician Yasuhisa Toyota.

Bavarian firm Peuckert built special machines for the panel production. It took a year to manufacture the 10,000 panels. On the basis of a 3D computer model, workers employed barcodes to dictate the exact position of each panel. The elaborate construction is supposed to provide near- perfect acoustics so even visitors in the rear seats can hear when the first violinist tenderly runs a bow across the strings.

In spite of all of the criticism about cost overruns and delays, the concert hall may well cast a spell on doubters with both its unusual forms and the engineers’ technical accomplishments.

“Although I have been at the construction site often, it continues to be exciting,” said Hamburg cultural spokesman Mr. Isermann.


Martin Tofern is an editor at Handelsblatt. To contact the author: tofern@handelsblatt.com

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