By Justin Davidson
Hamburg — that's the Free and Hanseatic City, not Hamburg, NY — is getting a dramatic new concert hall, which will look like a glass galleon that has foundered on a warehouse. The design, by the Swiss firm Herzog & De Meuron incorporates a number of current architectural gambits. It invokes nautical imagery, as do Frank Gehry's new IAC headquarters on the West Side of Manhattan and Santiago Calatrava's Milwaukee Musem addition. It anchors (sorry, boating words are hard to avoid) a new harborfront district, as does Diller Scofidio + Renfro's new Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston. And it recycles an Industrial Age relic - in this case a disused 1960s warehouse - into a cultural showcase, as does Herzog & De Meuron's own Tate Modern in London.
I have to admit to some queasiness about the current enthusiasm for fitting out power plants, factories and warehouses as postindustrial pleasure domes. Isn't there something inherently decadent about taking the means of production and transforming into the means of consumption for the bourgeoisie?
Dime store liberal scruples aside, Hamburgers will enter the maw of the brutalist brick warehouse from the long pier that juts into the harbor. They will then be wafted up through the structure to a vast window that offers a glimpse of the view to come, then turn a corner and ascend to a vast public plaza that sprawls across the warehouse roof or beneath the new structure's bottom, depending on how you choose to look at it. The hall itself is just a kernel of the complex, which includes an apartment building and a hotel, all sheathed in milky glass.
The auditorium merits a picture of its own:
In a press conference at Carnegie Hall today, Jacques Herzog remarked that he and his associates had learned more about designing symphonic spaces from the stadiums they've done (notably the Beijing Olympic bird's nest) than they had from the whole history of concert halls. Here, the stage, like a soccer field, is in the middle, rather than at one end, and the seats rise up along a bowl's precipitous walls. That enormous ceiling navel is apparently an acoustical feature. (The hole on top gives the hall a tent shape, which in turn suggests the canopied look of the exterior.) To me it looks perfect for sucking up sound, swirling it around the cupola, and then dropping it back down in an echoey cascade, but the record of Disney Hall suggests that acoustician Yasuhisa Toyota knows what he's hearing about. Christoph von Dohnanyi, chief conductor of the NDR Symphony Orchestra, which will make is home in the Elbphilharmonie, was there, too, and he made the most honest official statement about musical architecture I have heard in a long time: "Acoustics is like psychiatry it's a starting science, and you have to be very lucky. But if it looks great, it sounds good, too."
— Justin Davidson (click the link to send me an e-mail)
Update: Daniel Beckmann, from Toyota's firm Nagata Acoustics, writes to point out that the navel in the ceiling of the auditorium "is an outie, not an innie." Which is to say, that a giant sound-reflecting disc will hang from the ceiling, suggesting (here comes a radical metaphor switch) a flying saucer full of Beethoven-loving aliens. Anyone planning a trip to Hamburg, think about going in 2010.