Showcase concert hall divides Hamburg

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.

Showcase concert hall divides Hamburg
Photo: DPA

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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10 unmissable events in Germany this October

From dazzling light shows to quirky food festivals, October is a jam-packed month in Germany. Here are some of the events you won't want to miss.

10 unmissable events in Germany this October

Oktoberfest, Munich Teresienwiese, September 17th – October 3rd

As possibly the world’s most famous beer festival, Oktoberfest needs no introduction – and for those who didn’t make it to Bavaria in September, there are still a few days left to catch it at the start of the month.

If you make it on the last bank holiday Monday, you can catch an especially rowdy party atmosphere as professional rifle shooters mark the end of the fest. But any other day at the Wiesn is an experience to remember, with live music and singing in all the tents, delicious Bavarian beer and a gigantic funfair for the most adventurous visitors.

And for those who can’t make it down to Bavaria at short notice, the Hofbräuhaus beer halls around the country celebrate their own mini-Oktoberfests with dancing, singing, live music and of course a crisp litre or two of Hofbräu. 

READ ALSO: Everything you need to know about Germany’s Oktoberfest

German Unity Day Celebrations, Erfurt Old Town, October 1st – 3rd 

Marking the day when West and East Germany were formally reunited back in 1990 – a year after the fall of the Berlin Wall – Tag der Einheit (Unity Day) is a truly special bank holiday in Germany. 

Each year, a different German city takes it in turn to host the annual Bürgerfest (citizen’s festival) in honour of Germany’s national day. This year, the Thuringian capital of Erfurt will be putting on an action-packed programme of political and cultural events all weekend. To start with, Germany’s five constitutional bodies – the Bundestag, Bundesrat, Federal President, Federal Government and Federal Constitutional Court – will be represented with large information stands on the theme of “Experiencing Politics”. And for those less keen to take a deep dive into the workings of government, each of the 16 states will have the best of their culture and cuisine on display. 

There’ll also be live concerts, performances and a light installation representing German reunification over the weekend, making a visit to scenic Erfurt well worth it. 

READ ALSO: EXPLAINED: How October 3rd became Germany’s national holiday

Cannstatter Volksfest, Stuttgart, September 23rd – October 9th 

If you want to experience big folk festival but want to steer clear of the tourist crowd in Munich, look no further than Oktoberfest’s Swabian sister, the Cannstatter Volksfest in Stuttgart. 

First launched in 1818, the festival has become a mainstay of the autumn calendar in Baden-Württemberg, and it’s an event that is fiercely proud of its Swabian roots. If you go, you can sample some of the best local beers and wines around, as well as other traditional Swabian delicacies. You can also go on rollercoasters and other fairground rides, hear trumpeting Oompah bands and get dizzy on the world’s largest mobile Ferris wheel. 

Weimar Onion Market, October 7th – 9th

Nobody can say that Germans don’t make the most of their seasonal produce – and Weimar’s historic Zwiebelmarkt (onion market) is no exception.

The Zwiebelmarkt tradition dates back as early as the 15th century, when traders would come to the bustling town of Weimar to sell their wares. Over the years, the onion market days became a major social event where locals would also gather to eat, drink and barter. These days, you’ll still find all things onion-related at the onion market, from arts and crafts to culinary treats. But there’s also a funfair, live music, beer tents and family friendly activities to boot.

Ludwigsburg Pumpkin Festival, August 26th – December 4th

If you’re a fan of all things autumnal, look no further than Ludwigsburg Palace, which becomes home to the world’s largest pumpkin exhibition each year from late August to early December. 

It may sound novel, but a walk around the grounds of the palace will show you that in Ludwigsburg, the pumpkin artists certainly don’t do things by halves. Not only can you see incredible sculptures made from around 450,000 pumpkins in total, but you’ll also see a jaw-dropping 600 different varieties of pumpkin there as well. And if you work up an appetite while soaking up the exhibition, you can also sample some delicious pumpkin-based dishes, from soup to Maultaschen.

Pumpkin exhibition Ludwigsburg

Balu and Mowgli from the Jungle Book at the Ludwigsburg pumpkin exhibition. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Christoph Schmidt

Filmfest Hamburg, 29th September – October 8

Though it tends to get overshadowed by the show-stopper Berlinale, film buffs who can’t wait until February will enjoy a trip to its Hanseatic sibling: Filmfest Hamburg.

Running throughout the first week of October, the Filmfest brings together the best of contemporary cinema from around the world at a range of venues around the city. This year, the festival is also celebrating its 30th anniversary, so there’s bound to be a truly special atmosphere at the event. 

You can find the full programme in English here.

Berlin Festival of Lights, October 7th – 16th

Each year in the middle of August, the familiar sights of the German capital are bathed in colourful light and transformed each evening into weird and wonderful artistic creations.

This year, the theme of the world famous light festival is “Visions of the Future” as artists explore the question: What will our future look like?

The fruits of their labours can be seen around the city each evening from 7-11pm, after it gets dark. Organisers says there will be a big focus on sculptures this year – as well as the usual large installations – as they seek to reduce their electricity use by 75 percent. 

Berlin cathedral at Festival of Lights 2018

Berlin cathedral lit up in colourful lights at the 2018 Festival of Lights. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Jens Kalaene

Frankfurt Book Fair, October 19th – 23rd 

The world’s largest book fair is returning to Frankfurt this October with the theme of “translation”, exploring the idea of translating ideas into new languages, mediums and contexts.

Alongside the sprawling trade fair and conference, there will also be a packed schedule of literary events where people can hear reading and talks by popular authors. You can find out all about the exhibitors at the book fair this year and what’s on at the conference in English on the Frankfurt Book Fair website

Deutsches Weinlesefest, September 23rd – October 10th 

The picturesque wine-growing regions of western Germany hold wine festivals throughout the year, but the Wine Harvest Festival – or Weinlesefest – is by far one of the biggest.

Fittingly enough, the festival is held in Neustadt an der Weinstraße, a pretty little town located along the famous Wine Route. For the few weeks of the festival, this sleepy little town hosts an enormous wine parade and around 100,000 wine-loving visitors. Head there on the 7th to see the crowning of this year’s Palatinate Wine Queen and sample some Rhineland wines out of a dubbeglas, a big glass that holds a whopping 50cl of wine. As always, drink responsibly! 

READ ALSO: 10 ways to enjoy autumn like a true German

Halloween at Frankenstein’s Castle, October 21st – November 6th 

If the name of Frankenstein’s Castle sounds familiar to you, it should do: apparently, Mary Shelley, the author of the novel Frankenstein, could well have been inspired by the castle when she visited the nearby town of Gernsheim in 1814. 

These days, however, the castle is known for something slightly different: in 1978, American airmen set up an annual Halloween festival at the castle, and the spooky tradition has continued to this day.

Halloween at Frankenstein Castle

A blood-curdling character at Frankenstein Castle’s Halloween Festival in 2018. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Andreas Arnold

If you want to enjoy what’s been described as one of the most spectacular Halloween experiences in the world, it’s well worth booking tickets to go up to the castle in late October. In the weeks around Halloween, the 1000-year-old castle is transformed in a phantasmagoria of monsters and evil beings lurking in the shadows.

Every year, the organisers of the festivals pull yet another technical trick out of their sleeve to ensure that visitors are more spooked than ever. It’s not for the faint-hearted, but if you think you can handle the adrenaline, it’s bound to be an action-packed night. 

READ ALSO: What are Germany’s 8 spookiest places?