Tag Archive: germany

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

Comparison of Curvy Door Frames

Comparison of curvy door frame architectural details. Left: Überwasserkirche in Münster, Germany (14th century). Right: Barbican Centre, London, UK (1963 – 1982)

Comparison of curvy doorframes

Photos © Tobias Münch

BIG Goes Big in New York and Frankfurt

2 World Trade Center, New York City by BIG

2 World Trade Center, New York City

Danish architect wunderkind Bjarke Ingels has recently landed a couple of projects that justify the name of his architectural company BIG. While he has long reached far beyond his home country of Denmark, the commission to design a new building at 2 World Trade Center in New York City, which was revealed on June 9th, will finally put him onto the world map of architecture.

It will be his largest project to date, both in terms of height as well as the public exposure that building at this emotionally laden location brings along. In fact, one could say that there’s a generation change happening here. The former 2 World Trade Center design was created by British Architect Norman Foster, who just turned 80 this June. As an architect, he has arguably reached everything one could dream of. Bjarke Ingels on the other hand is half Foster’s age, 40, and still has plenty of time to catch up with him – and seems to have come quite far given his young age. The decision to hire him as the architect of 2 World Trade Center, replacing Foster, is in this respect a very interesting one.

"Tessuto"/"Metz" Tower, Frankfurt by BIG

“Tessuto”/”Metz” Tower, Frankfurt

Just a couple of days later, on June 17th, Ingels won another “big” scale project, this time in Germany. He will build a 185m tall mixed use tower in the financial district of Frankfurt. Coincidentally, his building there will actually be a neighbor of Norman Foster’s Commerzbank Tower. The unique aspect about Ingels’ design is the eight floors of apartments that are found at half the height of the building, while office floors are stacked both below and above the apartments. Ingels claims that placing the apartments like this relates to the “human scale”, though considering the proximity of the building to the Main Tower with its visitor platform at a height of 200m, it seems plausible that the apartments have not been placed at the top of the building to prevent insight into the apartments from the Main Tower’s observation deck. On a side note, this will be Germany’s first building mixing office and residential uses.

(Renderings by BIG)

Frankfurt, Germany

The skyline of Frankfurt, Germany as seen from the Flößerbrücke bridge. Frankfurt is unqiue for being the only German city with skyscrapers. The city is is a global financial center and most of the towers house the headquarters of German as well as international banks.

Photo © Tobias Münch

See the photo on flickr

Evaluating Architecture Through its Historical Background — Berlin’s White City

When dealing with architectural heritage from any age, it is essential to highlight its historical background in order to understand the object that you are observing. No architectural project or urban planning theory stands isolated. Instead, they are all a result of the circumstances of their time: trends in architecture and urban planning are joined by political circumstances and social visions that were formulated at the time. I was reminded of this fact during a visit to one of Berlin’s cultural heritage sites, the “White City”.

White City: Looking north along Aroser Alle

When I was in Berlin in February, I visited the White City (“Die weiße Stadt”) in Berlin-Reinickendorf, a housing complex built between 1929-1931. The White City is one of six large scale housing projects built between World War I and World War II that have been enlisted on the UNESCO World Heritage List in 2008: Gartenstadt Falkenberg (“Garden City Falkenberg”), Siedlung Schillerpark (“Schillerpark Housing Complex”), Hufeisensiedlung (“Horseshoe estate”), Wohnstadt Carl Legien (“Housing City Carl Legien”), Großsiedlung Siemensstadt (“Large Housing Complex Siemensstadt”) and Die Weiße Stadt (“The White City”).

All of these housing projects are answers to a severe problem in Berlin after World War I: the shortage of housing space. At the same time, urban planners were proclaiming a new vision of urban living: in reaction to the prevalent type of housing of the time — tenements where a great number of working class people lived in cramped spaces, often without sufficient access to daylight and under insanitary conditions — they formulated urban planning paradigms that aimed to offer space and air to everybody.

The city administration provided funding and passed laws that allowed (and even enforced) the construction of large scale housing projects that were based on these new planning principles. In this manner, a massive amount of over 140.000 housing units was built in the years between 1919 and 1930. The aforementioned housing complexes that were recently enlisted by the UNESCO are key projects in early modernist urban planning and architecture. They provided a blueprint after which countless similar housing projects in Germany and Europe were modeled.

When I visited the White City though, I didn’t know most of the historical information that I explained above, and the housing complex didn’t really impress me. At first, I was about to blame it on the bleak winter weather, but then I realized that I probably lacked important information which prevented me from pinpointing the underlying logic and core features of the complex. Without a proper background, my impression of the White City remained undefined and superficial. Back home, I did a search for books on the topic and ended up with “Siedlungen der Berliner Moderne” by Markus Jager, Jörg Haspel and Annemarie Jaeggi (eds.). After an introduction which explains the historical background and the urban planning theories that were prevalent at the time, the book presents each of the aforementioned six housing complexes in detail.

The White City is built around a central north-south axis, Aroser Allee (see map). The south entrance is marked by two tall “Gate Houses” (Torhäuser) designed by Bruno Arends, which step out of the row of facades along the street and reach out above the pavement. A few hundred meters north, the center of the complex is represented by the Bridge House (“Brückenhaus”) by Otto Rudolf Salvisberg, which crosses Aroser Allee and features loggias one one side and open corridors with the apartment entrances on the other – in it’s function as the center of the complex, it had to have two “front sides” and no backside.

The Bridge House also serves as the point that divides the different parts of the complex, all of which were designed by individual architects: the buildings south of the Bridge House, including the Gate Houses, were designed by Arends. The Bridge House itself and the buildings north of it were designed by Salvisberg and the radially arranged rows of buildings to the east of the Bridge House were created by Wilhelm Büning. Inbetween all buildings there are green spaces with parks and gardens – providing this kind of common space this is one of the central aspects of these theories of housing development.

Of course, time always leaves its mark on buildings, but I was surprised about the slightly neglected appreance of the complex. Only the facades along Aroser Allee were painted bright white. In the backyards and side streets, the buildings were grey. A lot of the elements like doors and windows are obvisouly still in their original state with little modernization done over the years and therefore look a bit shabby.

This state of lacking preservation may be another reason why I wasn’t entirely impressed by the White City. However, had I known more about the background and history of the complex and the theories behind the housing developments of the inter-war years, I would have appreciated the complex in a completely different way. And thus, this is the lesson that I took with me after leaving Berlin: in order to value and appreciate the architecture of the past, you have to be informed about its history and the social circumstances that lead to its creation. There’s a lot to learn from historical architecture, but it takes more effort than simply looking at buildings.

O For Hafencity

Acclaimed Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas places an O at the Elbe shore, in form of a building to house the new Hamburg Science Center in the upcoming Hafencity district.

Last Monday, Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas, head of the Office for Metropolitan Architecture, presented his revised design for a building to house the Science Center, to be situated at the waterfront at Hamburg’s Überseequartier district, part of the Hafencity development which is currently under construction. Sadly, I couldn’t make it to the presentation myself, so I have to rely on information from newspapers and the press release at the OMA website.

The previous design by Koolhaas, which won the competition for the building in 2004, looked like an amethyst, with a round back, flat front and a hole right in the middle of the building, as seen on this photo at the bottom right of the display. This hole is pretty much everything that remains of this concept. The new building looks like a bunch of stacked containers forming something that resembles a huge letter O. According to Koolhaas, he was inspired by the harbour and the huge container terminals.

At a height of 70 meters, the Science Center will be among the taller buildings in the new Hafencity district, creating an iconic landmark right at the waterfront, though located far enough from the Elbe Philharmonic Hall as to not interfere with this most ambitious building in the new borough. The Science Center will house a science park, aquarium, shows and laboratories that will illustrate scientific relationships by use of different media and a “do it yourself” experimental park.

The presented design and illustrations are still somewhat rough, making it hard to imagine how the final building will look like. For example, there has not yet been a decision on the materials for the building’s facade. The hole in the very middle of the building is not a new concept from OMA. The most notable example is their CCTV building currently under construction in Beijing for China Central Television – a skyscraper which winds dramatically around a central void, with two slanted towers and a breathtaking overhanging section that connects those towers to form kind of an endless loop. Though not yet finished, the building is already considered an architectural icon of the early 21st century. The design for the Science Center will surely not reach such high acclaim, but it could prove to be a distinctive and memorable addition to the skyline of a newly forming borough.

(Illustrations by OMA)

A Trip Through the History of a Capital

There are places that are of such historical significance that it makes you hold your breath and contemplate. Berlin is such a place. The city has played a vital role in many of the worldwide political happenings of the 20th century, and has been the place of both unbelievable sadness as well as boundless joy. The cruel, inhuman regime of the Nazi, the splitting of the country into the Federal Republic of Germany and the German Democratic Republic, the cold war, the fall of the Berlin Wall, reunion of Germany and the crumbling of the Eastern Bloc – Berlin was often right in the center of the events that marked the 20th century.

When you stroll through the city today, these historical traces can still be witnessed in many places. The markation line of the former Berlin wall runs through the city, with original remnants of the wall being visible in some places. Museums decicated to the devision of Berlin and Germany can be visited and provide a shocking glimpse into the life on both sides of the wall between 1961 and 1989. There are places of interest at former border crossings, most famously the “Checkpoint Charlie” at Friedrichstraße. In the eastern part of Berlin, you can still see countless traces of the former GDR, in architecture, sculptures, remnants on literally every street corner. Travelling through the city is like travelling through German history.

And then there is the new Berlin. After the reunion, and especially after Berlin has become the German capital in 1990, the face of the city changed drastically, and still continues to do so. In many cases, the new developments refer to the city’s split past. The impressive row of buildings in the new parliament district – just north of the renovated Reichstag with it’s new glass dome – form a line called “Band des Bundes” (“Ribbon of Government”), which crosses the river Spree twice, and in this crosses the former border between East and West Berlin which was located along the river at this place, thus symbolically linking both parts of the city – and Germany.

At Potsdamer Platz, just a few blocks south of the parliament district – passing by the famous Brandenburg Gate and the exceptional new “Memorial for the Murdered Jews in Europe” – an entirely new quarter was built right on the former border. During the splitting of the city, this area was a no man’s land between East and West Berlin. After the reunion, a new quarter arose from these fields, which today forms a new city center and attracts countless people each day – inhabitants and visitors alike. Impressive high-rise buildings gather around the large plaza, on which the former line of the Berlin Wall is marked.

Despite the cosmopolitan atmosphere and all the new developments that are happening, you can still feel the spirit of a difficult century in Berlin. Walking through the city, especially when you pay attention to the signs and remnants of the past and learn from the information provided at key points, you just can’t help feeling a bit dizzy from everything that this city has gone through. And this key to the Berlin experience: A visit to the city is a trip into the past of this country, and you take home something a lot more valuable than the usual holiday impressions (and sounvenirs): A free lesson in history and a deep insight into the past century.

All content © by Tobias Münch.
On Architecture – A Kotogoto Project