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Herzog & de Meuron

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1,292,000 sq. feet

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In Delirious New York (Oxford University Press, 1978), Rem Koolhaas, Hon. FAIA, makes a programmatic argument for architecture, highlighting the 39-story Downtown Athletic Club (RIP: it’s now condos), whose diverse section—restaurant, hotel, gym, pool, bar, lounge, miniature golf, squash, tennis—constituted a small city unto itself, compressed in a vertical box.

In Hamburg, Germany, Herzog & de Meuron just completed its version of a city in a box, the Elbphilharmonie, a mixed-use project featuring a major concert hall and recital chamber wrapped by condos and a hotel, with acres of parking below. The $880 million project, originally budgeted at about $80 million, took 13 years from conception to the opening of its public plaza on the eighth floor earlier this month. The first concert will be held in January.

Starting at a grand piazza in the middle of the building, just above the eight-story parking podium, an elaborate circulation system of stairs cascades through Piranesian spaces and distributes visitors up 18 floors. The architects posit, as Koolhaas implied, that civic life is possible in the heights and bowels of a building, even on upper floors. They urbanize the interior through the topography of a continuously terraced landscape: think the Spanish Steps climbing up a hill, though inside a building, with big programmatic elements—concert halls, restaurant, hotel and condos—attached.

But the interior urbanism of the huge project should be considered in the context of the surrounding urban development, a $12 billion reclaimed docklands site along the Elbe River with 24 million square feet of above-ground space to be finished sometime between 2025 and 2030. Since the completion of a master plan in 1999 (which was approved in 2000), Hamburg has been redeveloping the docklands, which were left without a function, the basins without ships, after a new port was established away from the city proper to accommodate container shipping and supertankers.

Unlike so many other large ground-up urban projects, the effort so far has largely succeeded in creating livable, walkable neighborhoods out of the port’s industrial leftovers. Under the aegis of HafenCity Hamburg, a public company owned by the City State of Hamburg, developers have been invited to propose projects that effectively build the fabric of the city with street-oriented, people-friendly structures that mix urban uses—apartments, stores, offices, hotels, institutions, universities—to create an integrated 24-hour environment of neighborhoods without zoning separations.

“It’s 70 percent concept, and 30 percent price,” says Jürgen Bruns-Berentelg, a professor of urban development and CEO of HafenCity Hamburg, about how the city decides to offer the land. Motivated by the desire for a mixture of uses, the city expects a high degree of urban responsibility and even creativity from groups proposing projects (not just developers). Social mix and content, including sustainability and street life, matter.

Though incomplete, the results so far have yielded a dense, fine-grained urban fabric sustained by infrastructure (subway, roads, parks, squares) that grows out of the old city into the former port. In an interplay of water and land, former slips and basins mix with tree-lined streets activated by stores and hospitable streetscapes.

The HafenCity competitions are two-stage affairs: once a proposal is chosen on the basis of a program, spreadsheets, and experience, the architect is chosen in a subsequent blind design competition. Winners have included local architects but also Richard Meier, FAIA, Stefan Behnish, Miralles Tagliabue, and Shigeru Ban, Hon. FAIA. Within a largely low-to-midrise scale, the results have produced considerable architectural variety, with a sustained pedestrian-friendly urbanism that is expanding the urban core of Hamburg by 40 percent. The great tidal swings of this open-tide harbor along the Elbe (the North Sea is just over 60 miles away), plus the anticipated increase in sea level because of global warming, have been anticipated with streetscapes built on an elevated grid designed with high and low tiers that add an intriguing degree of complexity.

The exemplary urbanism comes to a stop at the Philharmonic, however. The point of departure for the concert hall was the brick warehouse known as Kaispeicher A, originally used to store cocoa beans, built in the mid-1960s and designed by Hamburg architect Werner Kallmorgen. The project was originally conceived by a developer, Alexander Gérard, a former school colleague of Herzog and de Meuron at ETH Zurich, who wanted to adapt the building as a concert hall with a hotel and condominium project. Gérard didn’t end up participating, but the concept survived when the city took over the project.

Herzog & de Meuron worked with the building’s shell, a designated historic monument, with minimal intervention. The architects have a long history of liking the “box,” of keeping it closed, and they kept this one intact, choosing to add on top and basically extend it by extruding the corners and planes of the façades to the box above. Working within the upper shell, they carved interior urban spaces out of what was basically a solid. They were creating the street life inside, much as it was deliberately created outside in the neighboring HafenCity.

The architects made only discreet interventions in the old warehouse, creating a long tunnel that brings visitors up through the many floors of parking to an open viewing terrace, and then on and up via another escalator to an urban platform, an observation deck, between the upper and lower box, the real start of the building’s interior urbanism. From here, they create a wonderland of flowing stairs that swim through a fractured, spatially porous interior, connecting to the hotel, the concert halls, and condominiums. The platform offers sweeping views of the port on one side, shielded by glass from the winds, and the city on the other.

The architects extended the terrace concept into the concert hall itself, adapting Hans Scharoun’s famous “vineyard” idea from the Berlin Philharmonie for the 2,100-seat auditorium, but with terraces stacked more steeply, no doubt to fit within the box’s perimeters. The tightness gives the hall an intimacy: the audience is close to the orchestra. The interiors represent a successful effort at creating civic spaces within an otherwise opaque building: the architects avoid the usual striated section that thwarts floors from opening up to each other in the vertical dimension.

But it is possible to think the unthinkable, that the huge $880 million effort was based on a flawed concept. Certainly the box by Kallmorgen, the original architect, had a sober dignity, stern integrity, and rigorous discipline. But it was conceived as a closed form, appropriate for a warehouse, and in Herzog & de Meuron’s treatment, it remained closed, all the more opaque when the warehouse was adapted as a parking garage. After visitors have negotiated eight floors to the observation deck, the design they find there is indeed urbanistically seductive and conductive, but the problem is the trek, and the disconnect from the surrounding city: the parking structure’s unforgiving opacity and program removes it from an immediate contact with a neighborhood that planners have spent so much effort cultivating as an active and open pedestrian environment.

Had the project been conceived with public spaces at street level, with its Spanish Steps rising from the base of the building into lower levels, there would have been a reciprocal relationship between inside and outside, the urban energies of one flowing into the other. Perhaps the project didn’t need to include a hotel and condos in a single package. Perhaps the parking could have been dispersed or depressed on lower levels.

After all, even the skyscrapers in New York that Koolhaas admired for their sectional life all supported the contiguous streets with commercial frontages that sustained what the architect termed the “culture of congestion” of a lively grid. The Elbphilharmonie may now constitute an icon in the Hamburg skyline, but it remains a box at the street whose self-containment contributes little to the life of its neighborhood. The inert masses, even if topped by a rooftop of frozen waves, hardly dynamizes the port but simply looms, the exquisite detailing of its glass façades trivial given the overwhelming scale of the whole.

When the city took over the project, the whole package should have been reconceived on a different premise. However it wasn’t, and though the building dominates the port with its mass, it does not reign with charisma or any sense of delight.

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