The Elbphilharmonie in Hamburg, (nicknamed Elphi ), is arguably one of the most notorious buildings of the 21st Century. My first encounter with the building was in an exhibition at the La Biennale Architettura 2012 in Venice when the building was still four years away from completion. My second, the more physical encounter, was in late June 2018.
In 2012 at Venice, occupying a full room in the Arsenale, the architects of the Elbphilharmonie, Herzog & de Meuron, made a remarkably memorable exhibition.
While always a challenge to present the built works of architecture, (buildings), in
an exhibition context, I do recall feeling that the Elbphilharmonie was somehow very present in Venice, a sort of ‘ghost of building future’, and we visitors, while in that room, were certainly free to enjoy its chatty and ebullient company.
Of course, replete with an extraordinarily thorough, iterative process of drawing and model making, Herzog &de Meuron used traditional representations of architecture to communicate aspects of their building design for Hamburg, such as large-scale models you could put your entire head in, with drawings and films.
At the core of their exhibit though, was an entire printed wall showing the newspaper and media controversy that was the recent turbulent and expensive history of this building.
Back then, the building was already heading towards its final, alleged, cost of €900 million and its extended sixteen year period of design and construction and the building was making the news on an almost daily basis.
Yet it was, somehow, the presentation of this aspect of the life of this building, the stories that were swirling around it, that carried the work-in-progress building from Hamburg to that room in Venice and made the exhibition so convincing, so visceral and the building itself – even if not yet constructed – so present.
In their exhibit at Venice, and based on their experience in Hamburg, it seemed that Herzog & de Meuron had anticipated that a contemporary building might need to be understood beyond both the conceptual arena of the architectural studio and its associated discourse and the material, physical world that a building immutably occupies when it is finally realised and use begins.
The very act of collating the controversy surrounding the Elbphilharmonie to that date and the endeavour of presenting it directly to an audience of architects seemed to offer intellectual and cultural credibility to the lively, uncontrollable and very public discourse and debate surrounding a building. It was an aspect of the life-story of a building that now seemed vital, essential even.
Indeed, I realise now, with the benefit of hindsight, that their exhibit developed in me a new interest in thinking about buildings and was rather formative.
Beyond a container of uses, a thing to keep out the rain, to showcase an orchestra or evidence of the work of an architect, what exactly is a building?
How do we describe a building? How can you fully tell another person what a building is, what it means or what it does?
Does the story, the controversy around a building – as seen with this building in Hamburg – have any real value in framing that understanding of a building? Is there a way to conceptualise or understand the contemporary building and its increasing complexity?
For example if a building is created from nothing, who writes it, who creates it, who is its author?
While Herzog & de Meuron are often cited as the authors of the Elbphilharmonie, Albena Yaneva has argued that a building actually emerges from “an assembly of contested issues”, and that a building is not the work of a sole author.
She notes that very often controversial buildings – for example, Sydney Opera House – are attributed to a single author. In the case of Sydney Opera House, architect Jorn Utzon is always cited as the architect and author, but in fact, Yaneva shows the building was far too complex a project to be accurately attributed to just one individual. It is almost beyond the scope of human capacity for one person to do so.
Making buildings depends upon a lot of people. Not only architects but builders, financiers, users, contractors, commissioners and more all contribute to the making of a building, albeit in different and distinct ways. The list of contributors is endless.
Influence varies of course, but the team or committee who determined building height regulations or fire regulations in Hamburg did have an influence on the final outcome, form and design of the Elbphilharmonie.
Albena Yaneva, in her book Mapping Controversies in Architecture, argues that an understanding of the social in architecture must acknowledge and consider this very human complexity in architecture and building design and realisation. This, she contends, is essential to really understand what a building does. To consider this, she set out a method to assist in the closer documentation of what a building does.
For Yaneva, in part, what a building does, is, in a sense, of more value than considering only what it is, (a concert hall typology, a thing made of brick etc.), or what it means, (a new radical step forward in the history of concert hall design, a brilliant exercise in conservation, an icon for a city etc.)
Considering what a building does, seems to me to be a more open and dynamic way of considering a building because it implies a full consideration of time in the equation and that a building must be considered under the influence of time and not simply frozen as some typical or canonical example of something.
It also implies the presence of the person in the life of a building quite clearly and fundamentally not only at the consideration and construction of a building but beyond these moments too.
I was curious then, as I approached the building, about its current life and what I would encounter in my short time there.
I spent several hours in the Elbphilharmonie, walking or hanging around and watching, using my phone to record what I saw and to take notes.
This building really gets going eight floors up. Built on top of an existing brick warehouse, Level 8 is a piece of semi-public, undulating brick ground, accessible by a long bowing escalator. This escalator is designed to build excitement and anticipation in the visitor because as you travel up, the curve ensures, you cannot immediately see where you are going.
Level 8 is free to access, and it is full of people. It is a very blue, bright, brilliant day and people are taking a turn-about the building, accessing the outdoor terrace which wraps the building or coming in and out of a hotel at the same level.
Two children play jump the bar under a sinuous white staircase, the boy continues when his sister gets bored. A couple is speaking about moving-house at the end of the summer, another scroll their phones. A man sits in a corner his back to the room, sipping, his head remains level as he drinks, he never shifts his gaze from the horizon.
I am pretty certain another woman is crying. A child is pulling away from her father impatiently.
Staff chat and laugh, dressed in black.
People are touching things and this building is tactile. Many of us are trying to open the technically ambitious curved pivot doors and the staff smile at us, a smile which politely implores us to stop but also thanks us for our interest.
We are not pushing the doors to get outside as there is an open hole in the wall beside us. Rather we are pushing them because we know to do so would be performative and we would, at that moment, be part of this building’s ordinary drama because it has somehow become part of ours.
We want to engage and we seek the exchange. This building is occupying us.
Later, it is about seven in the evening and the sun is hitting the foyers, I am on Level 13. I spend over an hour sitting, walking, watching.
The façade of the building is a curved and undulating glass, fritted and patterned in places to provide screening, privacy in the hotel and I am guessing some relief from the strong sun.
Cut into the façade are some pocket-terraces which immediately fill up with an audience, eager to get outside and catch up with what is going on in each other’s lives and in that of the city beyond.
The sun hits the façade, bounces off the structure and is a welcome guest.
As people stand and move or sit on a bench the sun illuminates their faces or their entire body.
In these moments the building is amplifying the audience, literally highlighting them, showing them in their best light, and they are each, smiling, beautiful.
Surely, this cannot have been designed or considered at the desk of the architects? Surely the building is just doing its best at hosting and with it it hopes that guests leave enriched and better somehow than when they arrived.
There is laughter and excitement and again an explicit spatial and tactile engagement with the building in a way that is easy and relaxed but often intended. Move, stop, touch, turn, repeat.
It is difficult to find a fault in the building’s detail construction and I am an architect so I do try.
It is, without a doubt, one of the best built, hand-made buildings I have ever used or experienced.
This extends to backstage, where, the gathered orchestra tell me that the spaces back there are generous and exciting and uplifting. Someone tells me it made them want to play the best they ever have, this was simply him keeping their end of the bargain this exuberant building suggested they make.
We sneak backstage at the end of the evening and there is a refinement and a level of care for the individual player within the collective orchestra that is remarkable and humane.
I sit staring at a red triangle on the base of a water glass and I attempt to process and piece together the intellectual and emotional intensity of this building.
I am unable to articulate what it is this building is actually doing, in the way that Yaneva has suggested we might do. I have, as yet, no method to do so.
While one can map and chart the story, a controversy, around a building, how one might map and then fold in the material, spatial and emotional experiences of the building for audience or player into an understanding of the other controversies is, right now, beyond my comprehension.
You ask me to explain a building? How much time have we got? I will get us a drink, we may be a while.
All photographs by Emmett Scanlon.
Installation image from La Biennale Architettura 2012 is courtesy of Herzog & de Meuron.