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The Elbphilharmonie - in the end, all is well

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Rick Fulker
November 4, 2016

Spectacular cultural monuments enliven cities and often bring economic benefits that far outweigh the initial cost. Such may be the case for the controversial Elbphilharmonie in Hamburg.

Elbphilharmonie in Hamburg
Image: picture-alliance/Geisler-Fotopress

From the red-brick foundation of an historic storage facility in Hamburg's harbor, an audacious glass palace juts into the air. Seemingly floating, it houses a concert hall that will be inaugurated in mid-January in a festive concert by the NDR Elbphilharmonie Orchestra (formerly named the North German Radio Symphony Orchestra). What will people be saying then?

"Burn it!" is what Leonard Bernstein wrote in the guest book after his first appearance at the Gasteig Philharmonic Hall in Munich, not long after the splendid building was completed in 1985. The American conductor was displeased, to put it mildly, with the acoustics. Many adjustments to the interior construction have been made since then without solving the problem. In December 2015, following 15 years of heated discussion, the city decided to build a new Munich "Philharmonie."

Tempers flared for years over a planned festival house in Bonn as well, until the project was canceled - to the satisfaction of local citizens incensed at the prospect of tens of millions spent for the benefit of an elite minority of the population.

Not millions, but the better part of a billion euros were poured into the Elbphilharmonie in Hamburg. The final price of 789 million euros ($876 million) is more than 10 times the original estimate. Had the citizens of Hamburg known that in advance, certainly no such structure would stand there today.

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DW music journalist Rick Fulker

Reinventing the wheel

The recently deceased American acoustical expert Leo L. Beranek published a list of the world's 10 best concert halls. Since such a verdict must always be subjective, he based it on interviews he'd conducted with music lovers worldwide. It shows a clear trend: The halls at the top of the list - including the Vienna Musikverein, the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam and the Boston Symphony Hall - were all built before 1901. Beranek attributed their superior acoustics to their rectangular shape and sparsely upholstered seats. The Festspielhaus in Bayreuth, designed by Richard Wagner and completed in 1876, has never been paralleled in its acoustical qualities, at least when it comes to performing works by the German master.

The Elbphilharmonie Hall, in contrast, is full of curves and sharply ascending rows of seats arranged in terraces. Which is not to say that the Elbphilharmonie might not rate in the top 10 concert halls in the world, as is already being announced. How it really will sound won't be known until the inaugural performance on January 11.

Hamburg Elbphilharmonie
Even the escalator ride to the plaza seems futuristicImage: Iwan Baan

"Architects are all imbeciles! They always forget the stairs in the house." According to those words by the French author Gustave Flaubert, architects intentionally botch things up. Before the Elbphilharmonie was finished, there were years of argument and litigation between the architects, the construction firm and the city of Hamburg. Heads rolled, and over 4,000 construction defects had to be corrected, with the responsible parties not communicating with each other for stretches of time. After the cost explosion, the city threatened to cancel the contract with the Hochtief Company "due to its unjustified refusal to perform its duties."

That was probably a bluff. Although Hamburg had a yearly budget deficit of about 500 million euros back in 2010, it could not afford to have a ruin on its panoramic harbor front. Now Hamburg has its Elbphilharmonie, with the "harmony" in the name momentarily overshadowing all the anger and frustration of the past decade.

Hamburg Elbphilharmonie
The sharply ascending rows afford a good view from every seatImage: Michael Zapf

A historical view

At what benefit to the city? Governing authorities in New York asked the same question when ground was broken for Lincoln Center in 1959. The building of a cultural complex on Manhattan's run-down West Side, an area of slums and crime, was intended to restore the district. Now, with its mix of exclusive apartments, restaurants, shopping and cultural activities, it's a worldwide attraction. Lincoln Center seems to have set off a fortuitous chain of events. Just how much business activity it has directly and indirectly generated over the years is impossible to estimate.

City renewal was also a goal with the construction of the "Philharmonie de Paris" in the 19th arrondissement. Near a working-class suburb, it is some distance from Paris' cultural centers. Building problems resulted in a two-year delay of the opening, and the original budget of 200 million euros was exceeded by 180 million euros. When the hall finally opened in January 2015, the verdict on the acoustics was "fabulous."

For its new "Philharmonie," Munich opted for the grounds of a former dumpling factory near its east-side train station; not the most glamorous part of the city. It is to open in 2021 - although no one, in view of the outcome of similar construction projects, takes that date seriously.

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The Sydney Opera House has become an iconic feature of the city's skylineImage: Getty Images/AFP/W. Teodoro

Like the Elbphilharmonie, the opening of the Sydney Opera House in 1973 came eight years overdue, and the building costs exceeded the original plan many times over. Now it's a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Considered one of the 20th century's most striking buildings, it's visible in nearly every panoramic picture of the city.

The Elbphilharmonie could do the same for Hamburg. That cannot be predicted of course, but in the long term, global view, the return on ambitious investments for cultural monuments - only a tiny fraction of the cost for sports venues, much less social spending or defense - pays off. Paying the piper can yield a return not to be expressed in numbers.

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