Showcase concert hall divides Hamburg

AFP - [email protected]
Showcase concert hall divides Hamburg
Photo: DPA

Germany's second city Hamburg is building a dazzling new concert hall intended to rival the Sydney Opera House as a global attraction, but little has gone according to plan.


Construction delays, building defects and a price explosion have led even the developers to admit the landmark "Elbphilharmonie" project has hurtled out of control, with no one able to say what the hall will finally cost or when it will open.

Meanwhile local artists fear the audacious development at the city's 800-year-old port will eclipse the scruffy homegrown cultural scene that gave rise to future legends like The Beatles, who cut their teeth in Hamburg's red-light district clubs.

Jutting out from the end of a pier straddling the Elbe River and the city, the Elbphilharmonie will take a boxy brick former warehouse as its base, and perch a breathtaking glass structure recalling frozen waves on top.

Sandwiched between the two levels, a public plaza will offer stunning views of the "Gateway to the World" port and the spires of the charming Hanseatic League city while guests wait to attend concerts by the world's top orchestras.

The building will stretch 110 metres (360 feet) in height, from the more than 1,700 supporting piles under the warehouse to the signature undulating lines of the roof.

As a boon to investors, the architects Herzog & de Meuron, who designed Beijing's Bird's Nest stadium for the 2008 Olympic Games, are adding posh apartments on the west side of the building and a luxury hotel on the east.

The city aims to create one of the world's top 10 concert halls with 2,150 seats and acoustics designed by Yasuhisa Toyota, best known for his work at the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles, as well as two smaller venues.

The development is part of a bold new vision for the port district, currently the biggest construction project in Europe.

But such ambition has its price. Originally budgeted at €114 million ($140 million), the projected costs have ballooned to an estimated €323 million, and few in the city expect that to be the end of the story.

And hopes to open the concert hall this year have been dashed, with a new target date of 2012, more than five years after construction first began, looking ever more elusive.

Karl Olaf Petters, spokesman for the city's cultural affairs office, acknowledges that nagging construction problems and legal disputes have thrown spanners in the works.

"Not everything has gone as planned," he said with a wry smile. "But the excitement and curiosity about the hall are unbroken - this will be a magical place."

At an official presentation of the building's towering skeleton late last month, Mayor Ole von Beust said the dream was to create an indelible landmark on the order of the Eiffel Tower, the Statue of Liberty or Sydney Opera House.

But, not unlike the breathtaking but wildly over-budget masterpiece in Australia, von Beust admitted the Hamburg project had veered off course since it was first conceived.

"I don't know if we would have had the courage to do it if we were starting now," he said. "But when it is finished, no one will question the artistic and creative achievement behind this building."

Outside, a handful of toga-wearing demonstrators sang protest songs and

passed out hand-printed €350-million bills emblazoned with the question: "With billions in debt, do we need a memorial for Ole?" referring to the aristocratic mayor.

Hamburg, whose metropolitan area has 4.3 million residents, has an annual deficit of more than €550 million and von Beust has launched a punishing austerity drive.

Elbphilharmonie director Christoph Lieben-Seutter dismissed criticism that his hall would become the 800-pound gorilla of the Hamburg's artistic scene, or that it was simply a gift to the city's elites.

"You need a rock and a pop music scene and then you need something like the

Elbphilharmonie - they shouldn't be pitted against each other but rather complement and enrich each other," he told news agency AFP.

The Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung newspaper said the only thing that has not driven a wedge through the city is the hall's groundbreaking design. "A building that no one doesn't like - when was the last time you saw that in contemporary architecture?" it wrote.

Petters admits that Hamburg, long known for its northern-style reserve and modesty, was acting a bit out of character with this bid for global prominence. "There is something playful, almost crazy, about what we are doing," he said. "It is not necessary but by the same token, neither was Beethoven's Ninth Symphony."

Local residents, Germany's richest per capita in a major city, said that while they were curious about the new hall, they were worried it might be an indulgence they cannot afford.

"The exploding costs are a scandal, plain and simple," said 61-year-old teacher Doris Heidhoff. "But yes, I expect I'll be standing in line to get in when the thing finally opens."



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