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‘A civic masterpiece’: Charles Jencks on Herzog & de Meuron’s Elbphilharmonie

Hamburg’s masterwork is a combination of abstraction and explicit ornament

The Elbphilharmonie in Hamburg, like James Stirling’s Neue Staatsgalerie 30 years ago, shows the virtue of Postmodern complexity and its major motivation, the Time City. As the typical megabuilding of today, it might have suffered all the usual problems of bigness and massive scale. Fortunately they have been mitigated by the architects. Incorporating the mixed ages and uses of the historic fabric, they have designed beautiful details and ornament relevant to music, which also break down the mass. Furthermore, the building’s late entrance into the Postmodern movement reminds us that there are few epitomes in architecture, and they often arrive on the scene half a century after a new paradigm is conceived. Equally important is the musical accomplishment of the building, the main concert hall’s supreme mastery of acoustics, and the way the landmark deals with public space.

Indeed, this hybrid structure is one of the few iconic buildings since Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Bilbao to be a masterwork even if, like all great works of architecture, it has some flaws. Anyone who knows the Hamburg structure will also know that it cost four to 10 times the amount forecast, and was three to seven years late. Such facts and figures have been published every time it is; and the ones you can count as dependable are the smaller figures, since the larger ones are the result of either media spin or a ridiculously low initial estimate. As with the Sydney Opera House and Scottish Parliament, not to mention Chartres Cathedral, developers and politicians know megabuildings never get built unless one is economical with the truth. As a consequence, the press has damned the Elbphilharmonie with the variable Post-Fact Statistics I’ve mentioned, especially since building work was halted in 2011.

‘Megabuildings never get built unless one is economical with the truth’

Elbphilharmonie site plans by herzog and de meuron

Elbphilharmonie site plans by herzog and de meuron

Elbphilharmonie site plan and location plan. Click to expand

Such stories and pseudo-events have typified the mediated postmodern world since the 1960s. So the heightened rhetoric of ‘Elphie’ (the elephant of a building as it is affectionately called) obviously increases the feeding frenzy. 

Rhetorically, the facade colours change from black to silver-crystal to various shades of blue depending on the view, the time of day and frit-work in the glass. At night, a ghostly purple-blue neon light follows you around on the piazza floor – way up 37 metres overlooking the city – and marks the footfall of the citizens (projected on the soffit). The rhetoric proclaims ‘come up and see, this public realm is free’, unlike Disneyland, Singapore and the Shard in London (as long as you apply online).

If the ‘dumb box’ typified the silence and neutrality of Modernist architecture, then architects such as Robert Venturi and James Stirling proffered their rich, articulate boxes in the ’60s and ’70s.

1004px canaletto   de ingang van het canal grande bij de punta della dogana en de santa maria della salute

1004px canaletto de ingang van het canal grande bij de punta della dogana en de santa maria della salute

Canaletto’s ‘Punta della Dogana’ (1730)

Communicating with the masses and classes became the main goal of Postmodernist architecture, as it did with the art of Rauschenberg, and the literature of Umberto Eco. In all the postmodernist arts there are references to high and low culture, esoteric and pop tastes, and a generally inclusive set of social and political values. This wide communicational goal became the foundation of postmodern pluralism, and can be summarised as double- or multiple coding. It is this which creates the density of time, or what I’ve called the Time City. 

Quite obviously the Elbphilharmonie, as its name and piggyback organisation declare, is a dual-coding of the River Elbe with its musical wavelets and the bottom brick warehouse of 1966 with the top curving windows that undulate outwards. Oppositions continue throughout – flat versus three-dimensional, red masonry versus slick-tech glass, vernacular warehouse versus iconic concert hall, past versus future, and so on. 

2 musical analysis caixa forum madrid

2 musical analysis caixa forum madrid

Musical analysis of La CaixaForum, Madrid, 2008, deriving bay rhythms, harmonies and syncopations from the contrast between the brick past and metal present.

The credit for this last contrast (and high-risk strategy) must first go to the private developer Alex Gérard, who commissioned the building in 2003. He was a classmate of Herzog and de Meuron and knew well the architects’ previous piggyback building in Madrid, La CaixaForum. This smaller essay in Postmodern collage also celebrates the Time City and its musical rhythms. It has a similar base of regular brick bays surmounted by a syncopated top (as the diagram, p31, shows). Also the Spanish building is an extrusion of the building upwards, and a striking transformation of its steady beat and composition.

In Hamburg, the interior was gutted, with 650 new reinforced-concrete piles added to the existing 1,111. Hence the great risk, and expense. It is partly justified by the historically prime location. This prow of a site is the point at which the Elbe River turns and aims at what made the city prosper: its deep port. Rows of canals, warehouses and bridges culminate here, more it is said than Venice and Amsterdam combined. Since the Hanseatic League dominated Eastern trade between the Baltics and Britain, Hamburg’s fortunes have been built on this area. So the developer, the City and architects took a calculated gamble. It would be like the point in Venice where the Grand Canal meets the sea, the Punta della Dogana or the southern tip of Manhattan, a promontory. The site thus naturally generates several aspects of Hamburg’s time: the shape of a boat prow, the sober geometry of a warehouse and the culmination of economic history.

‘Meaning is translated into architecture, a warehouse-ship ploughing over the waves’

It is these meanings that are translated into architecture, the image of a warehouse-ship ploughing over the waves. On the piazza level, a wide external deck runs all the way around the building. Arched openings focus on important landmarks, some cranes or ships, an adjacent skyscraper and the celebrated spires that survived the fires and the saturation bombing of the 1940s. Postmodernism, according to its French philosopher Jean-François Lyotard, is defined by the recognition of modernisation run amok, the Holocaust and other failings of instrumental reason. One feels such tensions present in much of Herzog & de Meuron’s work, a defiant or tragic character.

But overall the mood here is light. With a deft economy of shape, the large exterior arches are turned upside down into the main theme of the new facade, U-shaped windows that punctuate the regular grid (and smile like Chinese upturned eaves). These create the kind of syncopated rhythms of the Madrid building. The upturned curves also create the metaphor that many people see: of wavelets turning into the giant waves of the top. Actually this is how they add up in the sea and accumulate into large breakers. Furthermore, the waves all move along in the direction of the wharves and warehouses towards the North Sea, the origin of the economy. To underline this watery theme, the entrance escalator starts off with the metaphor of a thousand ‘circles of white foam’ and the roofscape culminates it at a giant scale. What makes the rhetoric so convincing is the transformation of just a few themes relevant to time and place. When asked, Jacques Herzog will admit to such explicit and Pop imagery, but at the same time he will insist on ambiguity. And it is just such oppositions, or double coding, that make all the references here more than one-liners, the bane of the iconic building. 

‘All the references here are more than one-liners, the bane of the iconic building’

Indeed much of the local press has compared this dual expression to the musical reality of Hamburg: it’s the birthplace of Brahms and the city where The Beatles made it internationally in 1960, of Telemann and rock bands, its State Opera and Dance of the Vampires, 100 musical venues and two major orchestras. 

Indeed, such dualities have characterised Herzog & de Meuron’s work since 1993, the date when they combined abstraction with explicit ornament. In Hamburg the style reaches maturity. Entranceway and standard elements are left undesigned and ordinary, with the flat brick geometry recalling the work of their teacher Aldo Rossi. Such background neutrality sets off the rhetorical flourishes, gives them more presence. So too do the familiar borrowings from the recent past: for instance the ‘vineyards of people’, which the Expressionist Hans Scharoun first invoked in his Berlin Philharmonic Hall of 1963. Frank Gehry, Renzo Piano and others have adopted the same metaphor, and composition, to break up the mass audience and get it close to the performers.

In effect, modern conventions are intensified, especially in the main hall holding 2,100. Whereas Scharoun’s vineyards stack up at a gentle angle, the Swiss architects’ loom like a vertical-walled cave over the orchestra. Everyone thus gets a good, audible view (and Herzog says the best are the cheapest, at the top of the white cave). Where Scharoun has gentle white walkways and foyers, these architects squeeze their interior stairs into performance spaces, or offer vertiginous views of clashing white volumes with lights zapping in perspective, always aimed towards the conductor, the centre of the music. It’s German Expressionism to the second power, or Post-Expressionism. Even Scharoun’s tent shape is pulled up more strongly into a peaked wave and then played over again like the main melody, 10 times, all around the edges and top.  

Whereas Le Corbusier invokes the ‘architectural promenade’ as the stately walk through volumes that culminate in a cosmic view, Herzog & de Meuron dramatises passage through a tube-like escalator that curves down as it rises (‘the longest in the world’, they say ‘and the first to curve downwards, to withhold the climax’). Then the agitated walk switches back and forth in bends as a deep and dark interior labyrinth – suddenly punctuated by exterior views. From time to time one can feel the pressure of all the surrounding rooms crushing in, a situation that the beautiful cut-away section reveals. 

‘It is not a cacophony of unrelated ideas but, as Robert Venturi prescribed, “an obligation towards the difficult whole”’

Where Le Corbusier made the Free Plan a polemical point of Modern Architecture, these architects make the Free Section their contribution (along with Rem Koolhaas, as the critic Jeff Kipnis has observed). But one wonders if it is not a bit too free, and the architects have paid a price of cramming in too many functions, of crushing down the foyers a bit much? While some find the space here pinched, I find a touch of claustrophobia the acceptable prelude to the great culmination, and release, in the main auditorium. The same might be said of the converted brick warehouse below. Here the rent-slab Modernism might have been violated or opened up even more. But, if all big architecture has its faults, its Original Sin, then one looks to the mitigating results and asks whether the balance sheet is positive enough, whether the pay-offs are worth the expense and compromise.   

Two musical themes – interior acoustics and exterior counterpoint – are carried through with great conviction and skill. They add up to a resonant symphony of forms, a multivalent whole of contrasting use, where even the collage transforms similar themes. It is not a cacophony of unrelated ideas but, as Robert Venturi prescribed, ‘an obligation towards the difficult whole’. 

Here the large hall summarises the whole idea, makes it the goal of the labyrinthine movement, and also a miniature of tent shapes expressed on the outside. Architecture should always speak its content, especially the most important part. Called architecture parlante in the 18th century, it is a perennial idea as well as a Postmodern goal. Yet Rem Koolhaas, in his most influential polemic on ‘Bigness’ in 1994, avers that with huge buildings ‘the “art” of architecture is useless’, and that ‘the facade can no longer reveal what happens inside’. These Post-Facts, baldly stated, may be big trends today but they are certainly challenged by Elphie’s art and representation. 

Not only is the section of the auditorium recalled on the exterior, but so too are the upturned acoustic curves, the one million little shells that make the space so alive. The three halls were designed with the acoustician Yasuhisa Toyota, and they employ reflective and dampening forms to get an optimum combination of sounds. Ideally, when music is played one wants a clear and distinct sound modified by a warm set of overtones. But every concert requires compromise depending on the instruments and the ratio of absorbent to reflective surfaces, of long hair and fur coats to leather jackets and bald heads. The conventional shoe-box layout, with lots of Baroque and Rococo ornament, is used to fulfil such complex and contradictory roles. But here the acoustic and symbolic ornament contrasts small undulations of different sizes with the layout of asymmetrical symmetry, conventional in Postmodernist buildings since the 1970s. 

The main hall, for instance, has the wrap-around surface of the million small shells, each of different size and milled from gypsum fibreboard. At the same time they are ordered into 10,000 unique panels and fine-tuned to fit the geometry. Such virtuosic control allows the architects to choose a symmetrical plan plus a series of curved connected vineyards. In case you see a friend or empty seat, these asymmetrical stairs allow a continuous meander right up to the top. At the opening concerts they also allowed different instruments and singers to emerge in different vineyards to show off the acoustics. 

‘The building suggests multiple functions but it trumpets a musical architecture’

In the end, the point of such rhetoric is to get one excited, tuned into meaning and aware of architecture’s particular poetry. Here it is architectural music about music, frozen music according to the old German metaphor. The basic question is: what mood should a night out at the symphony inspire? Something new and memorable, possibly transcendent, and out of one’s comfort zone? No question that Herzog, de Meuron and the partner in charge, Ascan Mergenthaler, have asked these questions and given us answers in their mixed high/low style. The building suggests multiple functions but it trumpets a musical architecture. Already at the opening in January 2017, it was well received by the locals, performers, journalists and Germans at large, including Angela Merkel – that is, the nation. 

Even though people are asking for a London equivalent, one cannot imagine Theresa May and the political class of Britain funding, or taking part in, such a cultural enterprise. But the national ambitions do recall the French opening of the Paris Opera of 1875, designed by Charles Garnier. He interpreted his grand, Neo-Baroque structure as reconciling the different classes, the Rothschilds rubbing shoulders with commoners, all the nation coming together with the ritual of music around ‘a shared campfire of meaning’. Such ambitions were carried through with the most elaborate iconography and it became the world’s most expensive building of its type. Yet few understood the meanings and Greek myths, and Modernists such as Le Corbusier damned the whole enterprise as ‘a lying art’, and ‘décor of the grave’. 

The virtue of the Elbphilharmonie is that its multiple coding is more accessible, directly related to its musical task and the history of the city, the river and the warehouse context, pop culture and high art. It is these qualities and narrative that make the architecture a civic masterpiece, justifying the price – for my money, it will turn into Hamburg’s enduring pride. 

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The qualities and definers of Postmodern architecture

Ideological complexity

Double-coding of style, meaning and reference: Postmodern architecture cuts across high- and low-taste cultures, and highlights traditional and modern juxtapositions. It also adopts pop and folk codes in an inclusive collage with elitist and participative codes. 

Multivalence rather than univalence: A building’s complexity must also have ‘an obligation towards the difficult whole’ – that is to multivalence, or the resonance of themes and expression.

Time City: The contextual time-building or ‘Piggyback Building’ is the most inclusive. It is a palimpsest of ages, continuing the DNA of the past with transformations into the present and towards the future. 

After the Fall: ‘Post-Holocaust’ architecture, as J-F Lyotard calls it, recognises the realities of warfare, mass killing and urban destruction. It rejects simple techno-optimism and accepts the limits of rationality and a totalising culture. It builds in difference, placemaking and identity. 

Stylistic variety 

Expression of complexity: Semiotic articulations are made, giving a hybrid expression.

Multiple styles of semantic appropriateness: Use, convention and meaning set the styles and their distortion.

Ambiguity and layering of space: Edges are blurred, geometries are stacked by the use of ambiguous glass/mirrors/lighting and dissolving surfaces.

Variable contradictory spaces: Closed and open spaces oscillate with tight and generous places. Both organic and applied ornament bring out the meaning and cue the user. 

Embraces representation, symbolism, metaphor, historical reference, humour and colour: ‘Not less is more’ (Aquinas, Flaubert, advertising) but ‘more is different’ (Phil Anderson) and the science of self-organising complex systems. 

Design ideas

Mixed technologies: Old and new, small and big.  

Urban contextual and iconic/ruptured: Street building and small-block planning are reinforced to set the stage for significance and difference, the occasional role of the icon with recognised public content.   

Functional mixing, overlapping uses, mixed ages: And the use of the Free Section to resolve.

All rhetorical means are used in multiple media: Projection, sound, words, epigraphy, fibre optics, signs, symbols – all the elements of architectural persuasion. 

Skewed spaces and extensions: Asymmetrical symmetry is typical.

Collage and collision composition: Gestalt patterns plus their violation. 

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