Three years after construction began on Hamburg's ambitious Elbphilharmonie, work is still moving forward, but it still has a long way to go. The building, designed by the Swiss firm Herzog & de Meuron (best known for the Bird’s Nest stadium in Beijing), will be an icon, but like many 'statement' buildings, Elbphilharmonie is far behind schedule and over budget.
Planning for the building began in 2003; the cornerstone was officially laid in 2007; and construction got rolling in 2008. Although workers officially topped off the building in April 2010, it’s still far from completion.
From a distance, the Elbphilharmonie looks like massive, gleaming ship presiding over Hamburg’s busy harbor. Closer up, the roof swoops and bows like crashing waves, punctured by textured, iridescent glass panels. Viewed from different angles, the building’s shape takes on a completely different complexion, with its sharp, sheer walls and that undulating roof.
The mixed-use building will contain a large concert hall that seats 2,150 on the top floors; 45 residential apartments; a 250-room hotel; a public plaza; and a 500-car garage. An 82-meter (269-foot) escalator will climb the six floors from ground level to the sixth-floor plaza in about four minutes, giving visitors time to take in sweeping views of the harbor and city.
There are several challenges associated with the site on which Elbphilharmonie is being built. First, it is being built on top of the base of an existing building, the Kaispeicher warehouse, making it, at least superficially, an adaptive-reuse project. In the first stages of construction, the old warehouse was completely gutted, leaving only the outer brick walls, and 650 steel-reinforced concrete piles were installed to strengthen the foundation. The majority of the building’s parking is located in the brick-faced base, as well as a small concert hall and a museum.
The building’s façade, which is mostly in place now, will consist of roughly 1,100 different window panes, almost all of which have reflective patterns printed on them, creating a frosted, iridescent effect that will help cool the building. Many of the windows have deep curves and indents with small hatches to let air in. Large U-shaped gaps in the windows are inset balconies in the hotel and apartment portion of the building, and they’re meant to resemble tuning forks.
The saga of Elbphilharmonie’s soaring budget and sluggish construction timeline stands in stark contrast to the transparency with which the rest of Hamburg’s HafenCity has been developed. Although there’s still plenty of excitement surrounding the dramatic structure, local residents complain that previous city leaders approved Elbphilharmonie without properly weighing the costs and benefits, and for accepting what turned out to be a wholly unrealistic construction estimate from the contractor that won the bid for the job. Contractors initially estimated that the building would cost about $100 million to build; now, it’s likely to cost at least five times that. And Elbphilharmonie’s escalating costs could put the fate of other proposed buildings at HafenCity, like the Rem Koolhaas-designed science center, in jeopardy.
Now that it’s topped off and most of the windows are in place, Hamburg residents and visitors can finally take a look at the city’s new architectural icon, and it looks pretty spectacular. Earlier this year, the city started giving free tours of the under-construction building. For the first month that tours were offered, 20,000 people signed up for a mere 400 spots in the first tour, indicating how much interest the building has drawn in the city. But it will still be several years before any music is performed in the Grand Hall. Latest estimates have the completion date at 2014 or 2015, and it will likely end up costing more than $500 million – roughly five times the original estimate.