Six years’ delay in construction cannot harm the prestige project that is the ‘Elbphilharmonie’

The Elbphilharmonie’s already unmistakable silhouette is associated with exploding costs and time delays. And stands in opposition to the fact that the concert hall’s exposed location once stood for precision and punctuality. But that was a long time ago – although Kampmann does offer a ray of hope for the present. Let’s first, however, look back into an extraordinary piece of Hamburg’s history as a port.

The Elbphilharmonie is built on historic foundations. A listed warehouse – the Kaispeicher A – forms the lower third of the concert hall. Given the long history of Hamburg as a port, it could be assumed that this building is very old – but it isn’t, not by any means. It was built to plans by Werner Kallmorgen ‘only’ in 1963. The structure that previously stood on the same site and that was also called Kaispeicher A, on the other hand, did actually date further back. That warehouse – which was also called the ‘Kaiserspeicher’ in honour of Wilhelm I – was completed in 1875. And even then, the site was no longer virgin: the Johns shipyard, which built ships for HAPAG among others, had been based there for centuries before that, which is why the headland is also called the ‘Johns´sches Eck’ (‘John’s Corner’). Johns was moved within the scope of the port expansion project that was put in place in 1861 to make room for the first Kaispeicher A.

Hamburg harbour with the Elbphilharmonie from the air

The Kaiserspeicher was an impressive building and for almost 90 years it dominated the face that the port of Hamburg presented to the world. Built in the neo-Gothic style, there was something cathedral-like about it, which was almost certainly also due to the tower that looked out into the harbour basin. A time ball system was built on top of the tower in 1876. It was used to tell the time for seafarers: the exact time is essential to navigating and correctly determining the geographical longitude.

“At the next ball, it will be 12 o’clock.”

The Hamburg time ball was black and had a diameter of around one metre. Around midday, at ten minutes to 12, the ball was hoisted half way up the structure: Get set! At three minutes to 12 it was pulled all the way up to the top: Get ready! And then, at 12 noon Greenwich meantime (13.00 hours CET today), the ball was dropped a distance of three metres: Go! Ship’s chronometers could then be set to an accuracy of one tenth of one second. The time ball was controlled from the observatory at the Millerntor by an underground cable. Until 1899, the system was operated with buttons and then electronically after that. Time balls became obsolete with the introduction of radios that told the time over the air waves (in Germany in 1910). The time ball at the Kaiserspeicher was the longest to survive in use in Germany: it told the time at the head of Johns’ Eck every day until 1934. The Kaiserspeicher was severely damaged during World War II and replaced by the second Kaispeicher in 1963, on to which the Elbphilharmonie (Elbe Philharmonic Hall), popularly known as the ‘Elphi’, was built.

Bottomless pits

It’s part of an infamous trio: with Berlin Brandenburg Airport (BER) and ‘Stuttgart 21’, the Elbphilharmonie is one of the three major construction projects that have seriously dented Germany’s global reputation for its expertise in the implementation of planning-intensive large-scale projects. A concept that had not been thought through, disputed responsibilities, coordination difficulties, doubts about the structural capacity, a complete halt to construction and a few more disagreements resulted in the Elbphilharmonie costing ten times more than had been originally planned for and being completed at least six years late.

The first plans had scheduled completion for 2010. Repeated delays, however, resulted in the postponement of the completion date until October 2016, with the official opening date being scheduled for spring 2017. The costs also escalated: initial calculations set the total required to build the concert hall at € 77 million. By the time the contract was signed in 2007, however, that figure had risen to € 114 million; the amount then had to revised upwards again in 2012 to a probable €575 million before the ‘final’ total of € 789 million was announced in 2013. The public outcry was massive as the taxpayer was footing the bill.

“As justified as people’s anger is, it’s a shame that all the chaos associated with the building and planning almost overshadows the fact that a real gem is being realised in Hamburg’s HafenCity.“

You could put it this way: bad press is better than no press at all. Because, in spite of all the controversy, the Elbphilharmonie has already become one of the best-known buildings in Germany and is recognised by almost every adult in the country. This is due to the spectacular architecture that plays to the building’s never-ending coverage in the media.

Reflections: sound and light

As mentioned above, Werner Kallmorgen’s Kaispeicher forms the pedestal for the Philharmonie. The warehouse was completely gutted to this end so that only the outer walls remained. A crystalline, transparent new structure with a sweeping roof whose design is reminiscent of airy waves and that thus reflects the transition from water to land that is typical of ports was built on top of this formidable base. One special highlight is the glass façade designed by the architectural firm of Herzog & de Meuron: it has been realised with a total of almost 1,100 elements – every single one of them different. The panels curve and are partly recessed and each has a print that is unique to that section. The elements measure between four and five metres wide while the panels weigh 1.2 tonnes and cover an area of 16,000 square metres, i.e. about two football pitches in total. The specially developed dot grid that has been printed on to them offers practical protection against too much sunlight and creates the aesthetic value in that the reflecting dots continuously mirror the environment in harmony with the curving panels.

Concert hall in the Elbphilharmonie with musicians and large audience

Big concert hall in the Elbphilharmonie

Inside: a small town. Multi-storey car park, hotel, bar and restaurant, apartments … visitors to the Elbphilharmonie can take an escalator that curves in a convex line up to the ‘Plaza’, which is open to the public. From a height of 37 metres, visitors can look out across Hamburg from here. Two staircases in the foyer then lead to the concert area with one small hall that seats around 550 and that is primarily intended for chamber concerts and one great concert hall with seating for an audience of 2,150 that will be used mainly for classical concerts but that will also see performances of jazz and world music. Yasushia Toyota from Japan was responsible for the acoustics concept – a demanding role in a project of this magnitude. The rescheduling resolution, which was adopted by the Hamburg Parliament on 19 June 2013 and which regulates the remaining aspects of construction and costs, specifies that the general contractor must comply with Yasushia Toyota’s requirements. This apparently caused a few problems.

For better or for worse

One problem was the trench heating that one of Kampmann’s partners on the market supplied for a test room. This acoustically highly sensitive area required that the units’ noise levels could not exceed 32 dB(A), and the manufacturer, in fact, did provide corresponding assurances. But this manufacturer’s trench heaters were tested by independent experts who discovered that the noise emissions exceeded the specified limits and the general contractor consequently withdrew its order from the supplier as a result. As Kampmann was already present in the Elbphilharmonie and was supplying fan coils (‘Hotel-Venkon’) and trench heaters for the hotel, it was asked if it would be able to manufacture the ultra-quiet trench heating and cooling units that were needed. Kampmann was not able to – not yet. Measurements on existing models at the Research & Development Center in Lingen showed that the noise they generated exceeded the limits – just. Close but no cigar, there was no two ways about it.

It was Clemens Sabelhaus, the then and now retired head of ‘Research & Development’ at Kampmann, who came up with the decisive design idea. ‘His’ channels were made a little wider to make them meet the demands. The planners were happy to agree to that. Kampmann built two prototypes and sent them to Hamburg with the request that the sample units be put through their paces by independent experts in the settings in which they’re going to be used.

And the way things look now, Kampmann trench heating systems are probably going to be creating the whisper-quiet feel-good climate at the Hamburg Elbphilharmonie’s great concert hall. So they could actually augur well for the outcome for the entire project in that alls well that ends well.

Construction site of the Elbphilharmonie in Hamburg with cranes

Pictures: Aerial photo Elbphilharmonie by ReGe HH/Fotofrizz; Grand Hall by Herzog & de Meuron; Roof design by Oliver Heissner