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Elbphilharmonie Hamburg: A Tour of the Grand Hall and its Foyers

The Elbphilharmonie opened its doors and started its music program on January 11, 2017. Tickets are in high demand and are always quickly sold out when they are released, which usually includes the online shop crashing due to the high amount of users. After all this time waiting to for the building to be completed, it seems everybody wants to see it with their own eyes of course and experience the acoustic qualities of the concert halls for themselves. I was lucky to snag tickets for two concerts in February and naturally, I also had a detailed look at the architecture and tried to snap as many photos as I can. So let’s go and explore the Grand Hall and its foyers, shall we?

Every visit to a concert starts at the Plaza, the public space on top of the old warehouse. From there, after passing the admission control, you walk up the large circular stairwell, emerge on the right side of this photo and find yourself in the space shown above. The ceiling here is actually the underside of the Grand Hall, or more precisely its outer shell, as the hall itself sits in an inner shell that is acoustically decoupled from the rest of the building. From this entrance space, further stairs lead up to the various floors that encircle the Grand Hall and serve as foyers. Complex architectural layering of the floors and the resulting spectacular views keep pulling you upward. Quite some stairs to climb, as the foyers reach up from the 10th to 16th floor of the building!

Looking down to the foyer’s entrance level that was showen in the first photo. The light well on the right side provides a view down to the Plaza. Or if you are on the Plaza without a concert ticket (yet), it teases you with glimpses of the foyer.

Layers, perspectives and geometry in the Grand Hall foyer.

I really like the transition from the white walls of the foyer to the wall cladding of the Grand Hall. Unfortunately, I can’t really say the same about the white walls themselves, which look odd to my eye. The finish on the walls is quite uneven. While it doesn’t really show in this photo, you can get a better impression of it from my previous photo. While I’m sure it’s intentional to use a finish like this (perhaps to make the walls less susceptible to dirt), for some odd reason it reminds me of the dreadful wipe technique that people used to paint their bedroom walls in the 90’s. Personally I would have preferred a flat white surface like on museum walls.

Here it is, the Grand Hall in all its glory. It is a truly spectacular and beautiful space. I was also surprised about how strong the verticality of it actually is. In order to give every single seat an unobstructed view of the stage, terraces and seating are arranged very steeply. Of course I had read about this concept, but experiencing it in person is a different story altogether. Some of the steep access stairs on the uppermost tiers can indeed take a bit of courage to climb, with only a railing separating you from the abyss.

This photo also shows the fabric screens that can be placed in front of the walls (the screens rise from the floor) in various sections of the hall to alter the sound, presumably to make it more “direct” without the diffusion that the structure of the actual walls provide. At least this is what sounds (no pun intended) logical to me, although I am no acoustician.

A UFO has landed in Hamburg! And inside the Elbphilharmonie, too. This is the large sound reflector that is suspended from the ceiling of the Grand Hall. It helps to distribute the sound waves and improve the acoustics in the hall, providing every seat with good sound.

Another view of the sound reflector and the ceiling.

The walls and ceilings of the Grand Hall are covered by 10,000 unique sheets of gypsum fibre panels. Each of these sheets was individually carved using a CNC mill. The dents are of varying depth (they are generally shallower within arms reach of the walkways and deeper on the ceilings) and individual recesses even spread across multiple tiles, forming a giant puzzle that covers the entire hall. At some point during the planning and construction process, someone came up with the term “white skin” (in German “Weiße Haut”), and while architect Jacques Herzog mentioned in an interview that he dislikes that term because it reminds him “of a dead body’s skin, like a water corpse”, it was already too late: the media had already adopted the idiom and by now it is widely used. In reality, just like Herzog suggested during the interview, the surface is more reminiscent of a crustacean’s shell. No matter what term you use though, the surface is both beautiful and crucial to the sound of the Grand Hall.

At some places like around the organ, the wall panels turn into grates whose structure blends seamlessly with the rest of the walls. Their appearance is also a faint echo of the fence that Herzog & De Meuron created for their 80 Bond Street apartment building in New York, completed in 2007.

Take your seats everyone, the performance is about to begin!

Applause! Pianist Alice Sara Ott leaves the stage after her magnificent performance of Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G major together with the NDR Elbphilharmonie Orchester, directed by Thomas Hengelbrock, on February 14th, 2017.

After a concert has ended, you can usually roam around the hall freely for a while. While many visitors leave quickly, others walk around and explore the hall. Since all tiers are connected by stairs, you can walk around the entire space and check out all the different perspectives. This photo shows the view straight down from one of the upper tiers. Also visible is the floor signage that guides you to your seat.

More wall and ceiling panelling, showing the seams and how individual dents stretch across several panels. I could marvel at these surfaces for hours.

Leaving the Grand Hall and walking down the curvy stairs to the Plaza. And the most important question is of course: how does the Grand Hall sound? It depends I guess. I’ve had the chance to experience both an orchestra concert and a pop concert and the difference was remarkable. My first concert was Junius Meyvant, a jazz-pop musician from Iceland, and the sound was not very good. His voice was difficult to understand and the bass was muddy and buried in the mix. My guess is that this was in part due to bad mixing and/or a bad PA system, which consisted of a ring of speakers around the stage blasting the sound into all corners of the hall. Maybe the hall is not really suited to this kind of amplification though. And in fact, in an interview with German newspaper “Welt am Sonntag” in July 2014, acoustician Yasuhisa Toyota said “We were concerned about natural acoustics for orchestral music, not a sound system with loudspeakers and amplifiers.”

Had this concert been my only impression of the hall, I would have left puzzled to say the least. Luckily I was able to return just a few days later, this time for a classical concert performed by the resident NDR Elbphilharmonie Orchester along with pianist Alice Sara Ott, and here the sound was a wholly different animal altogether. Very transparent and clear and you could make out every single instrument. It was a joy to close your eyes and get lost in the music and pick out all its nuances. So if you plan to visit the Elbphilharmonie, my recommendation from my personal experience would be to choose a classical concert. If you can get any tickets at all that is, as they always sell out very quickly at the moment.

First impressions of the Elbphilharmonie Plaza

Elbphilharmonie PlazaToday was the day that the Elbphiharmonie Plaza in Hamburg, Germany opened to the public. It is the new public space that connects the old former Kaispeicher A warehouse with the glassy concert hall addition on top of it. My first impression of the Elbphilharmonie Plaza: yes, the views of the river, the harbor and across the roofs of the Hafencity are splendid, but the real tresure here is the interior: It feels very solid, yet at the same time light and airy. A beautiful combination of the chunky red brick floor (which hints at the building’s past as an industrial warehouse) and the elegant white curves of the ceiling (which are in fact the underside of the concert hall above) and the undulating glass walls that separate the interior from the open air deck outside. The reflections in the dark mirrored walls add yet another dimension. From the few visible columns and the openness of the layout (though some of it is feigned by the reflecting walls), you wouldn’t guess that there’s an entire high-rise building above this space. Build quality and materials are top notch, nothing seems over the top flashy and nothing is desperately trying to be modern to the point of being tacky or too contemporary. The interior strikes a wonderful balance and creates a beautiful and breathtaking public space. Despite the “difficult” and long construction process, they managed to turn this into an inspiring gem of a space. And if this is a hint at the quality of the concert hall, which will open its doors in January, I can’t wait to see that one with my own eyes. Until then, I will certainly visit the plaza more often to take in its unique and inspiring atmosphere.

The Möhnetalsperre in Germany – A Dam Straight From a Fairytale, But With a Cruel History

Möhnetalsperre, GermanyThe Möhnetalsperre (literally “Möhne Valley Barrier”) is a dam and hydroelectric power plant in North Rhine-Westfalia, Germany. Built in 1908 – 1913, it bears little resemblance to today’s concrete dams. Instead, its use of natural stone for the barrier and slated roofs for the dam buildings in a traditional German style makes it seem to spring right out of a fairytale. It is also located in a hilly area covered in beautiful expansive forests. Today the dam is therefore also a popular excursion destination. Its appearance is at the same time graceful and imposing. The design was also adapted for another barrier built around the same time – the Edertalsperre, some 70 km to the southeast.

The Möhnetalsperre was built to regulate the water level of the river Ruhr, where large industries had sprung up that required a steady flow of water. It is also producing electricity through a hydroelectic plant.

Möhnetalsperre, GermanyDuring World War II, the dam attracted the attention of the British Royal Air Force, which (wrongly) assumed that it was crucial for the water and electricity supply of the industry in the Ruhr area. In the night of the 16th May 1943, British bombers attacked the poorly defended dam along with two other dams, the Edertalsperre and the Sorpetalsperre. In order to make an attack on this type of edifice possible, British engineer Barnes Wallis had developed a new type of bouncing bomb specifically for this operation, which would be dropped off an airplane at low altitude and then bounce on the water (similar to throwing a flat stone) and jump across the torpedo nets which were installed in front of the dam. The bomb would then sink and detonate close to the dam. When the Möhnetalsperre breached, the devastating flood wave that followed killed around 1.600 people, mostly residents, prisoners of war and forced laborers in the towns below the dam. The incident therefore is an example of both collateral damage in war situations – i.e. the killing of innocent people as a “byproduct” of attacks on military targets – as well as (in a broader sense) the misguided use of human intelligence in war times – Wallis’ endeavor to develop a technical “solution” (developing a new bomb type) to a military “problem”.

When building barriers like this one, it is often necessary to relocate inhabitants of the area behind the dam, as buildings and entire villages may be swallowed by the rising waters that eventually form the reservoir. In his book “Als Deutschlands Dämme brachen” (“When Germany’s Dams Bursted”), which deals with the attacks on and breaching of the barriers in World War II, but also provides detailed information about the construction of the barriers, author Helmut Euler describes a curious occurence that can be witnessed even today at the Edertalsperre. There, 900 people had been relocated and 150 buildings were destroyed when the dam was built in 1908 – 1914. He writes (translated from German by me):

“In the autumn months, the water table recedes to its lowest height. In very dry years, the foundation walls of the former buildings emerge from the water, just as the old cemeteries and river bridges. The former village inhabitants then visit their ancestor’s graves with their families and the old bridge across the river Eder near [the village of] Asel can be used again, under which the Eder then streams like it used to in the past.

Close to [the village of] Nieder-Werbe, the model of the Eder barrier, which had been built for demonstration back then, emerges from the water at such a low water table, yet another attraction for the many tourists. But in spring, when the snow melts, the lake quickly regains its normal water level. The ruins of the old villages, the cemeteries and bridges once again sink in the water.”

The thought of a kind of Atlantis hidden in a lake that resurfaces under special circumstances is at the same time eerie and interesting. I’d love to go there and see it with my own eyes one day.

This post was first published as a two part series along with the photos on my “Urbanight photography” Facebook page. Photos © Tobias Münch

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