Probably never before have the acoustics for a concert hall been so elaborately planned as those for the Elbphilharmonie. Does it meet the high expectations?
‘FINISHED’ was the word emblazoned on the Elbphilharmonie’s unusual, arched and printed window elements on 31 October 2016. Every single element cost around € 70,000 – all of them are individual and unique sections. Was that necessary? The cladding used to design the acoustics in the ‘Große Saal’ (‘Great Concert Hall’) at the Elbphilharmonie was even more elaborate. And yes, it was necessary. A fact that was also demonstrated by the problems that the Sydney Opera House experienced. But read on …
We made some bold assertions when we reported the events that surrounded the Elbphilharmonie in KAMPMANN HEUTE at the beginning of 2014. “A whole six years’ delay to completion will not affect the prestigous Elbphilharmonie project,” claimed our subheading to the headline: ‘Wenn der Zeitball klemmt’ (‘When the time ball gets stuck’). The said time ball once adorned the Kaispeicher A, the warehouse building (also called ‘Kaiserspeicher’ in honour of Wilhelm I), which for a long time dominated the port of Hamburg. The time-ball complex formed the spire of the cathedral-like Kaiserspeicher warehouse and served to tell seafarers the time. At ten minutes to twelve, a black ball was heaved three metres up and dropped at exactly noon every day. The ‘Kaiserspeicher’ was heavily damaged during the World War II and was replaced by a new warehouse, which was also called the ‘Kaiserspeicher’ in 1963. This monolithic purpose-built structure now forms the brick base for the Elbphilharmonie.
The Kaiserspeicher was once a symbol of punctuality. But the Elbphilharmonie on the same site has come to represent long delays – taxpayer concerns, proof of political incompetence and inadequate planning. Yet, still, a total delay of six years could not have a negative impact on the Elbphilharmonie as a prestige project. A fact that is demonstrated by lots of positive coverage in the media. It shows that the people of Hamburg have long since adopted and grown fond of their ‘Elphi’ – something that’s also evident in the fact that tickets for the Elbphilharmonie are always sold out months in advance. Because, in the end, the concert hall is simply a magnificent building that immensely enhances the skyline at an exposed location and that adds a phenomenal cultural institution to the Hanseatic city. Without wanting to gloss it over, how it unfolded from the chaos that surrounded it will one day become part of its creation myth.
Here, too, we can take a look back at KAMPMANN HEUTE No. 4. We compared the Elbphilharmonie with the Sydney Opera House because the two buildings presented some surprising parallels: just like the Elbphilharmonie, the Sydney Opera House stands in a striking location on a peninsula that protrudes into the harbour of a globally important city. Construction in Sydney was also overshadowed by planning errors that even resulted in political repercussions and caused the costs for the project to spiral out of control. It took 14 years to complete the building.
So let’s take a closer look at Australia. The history of the Opera House, which has not only become a landmark for Sydney but the country as a whole, continues to the present day and spans an arch to the Elbphilharmonie in Hamburg.
THE SYDNEY OPERA HOUSE: A PLANNING DISASTER
Almost everybody is familiar with the silhouette of Sydney Opera House and will be able to picture it in their mind’s eye. It is the unmistakable shape of one of the most famous buildings in the world and an icon of world architecture. It was created by Jørn Utzon, winner of the prestigious Pritzker Award. The architect from Denmark won the competition to design the opera house in 1957 although – contrary to the rules – he only submitted a rough sketch of the building. Eero Saarinen, one of the best-known architects and designers of the 20th century, was the jury’s chair. Ove Arup, founder of ARUP, which is today the world’s leading engineering company, carried out the structural calculations for the sensational roof design. All outstanding personalities – and yet construction was destined to end in chaos. Or to put it another way: only these remarkable personalities would be able to complete the construction of the Sydney Opera House in spite of the chaos that they themselves had brought about …
The root cause of the problem was that Utzon was an artist and, as Arup said, a genius, who initially cared little about the structural feasibility of his design. His rough sketch played into his hand, particularly as there wasn’t a single engineer on Saarinen’s jury. The design was so spectacular that it was simply rubber stamped without any consideration being afforded to the structure’s technical implementation.
Utzon and Arup had to get together and think deeply about the design of the roof. They came up with 12 different versions of the shell-like structure, which were all discarded. In the end, punch-card-operated computers took 18 months to process the complex geometry and structural engineering. More than 1,700 drawings for the roof’s design were produced.
The government of the state of New South Wales in Australia, which was funding the project, became impatient over this tedious and lengthy process. Utzon fell out of favour and Prime Minister Askin stopped the funding for the architect, who then angrily left the construction site and the country in 1966 – probably in the hope that the government would come crawling back to him. But that didn’t happen. The government instead turned to young local architects. Utzon was now afraid that his design wouldn’t be completed properly and professionally. And indeed, the austerity measures newly decreed at the time did leave their mark: the interior couldn’t keep up with the grand exterior and the acoustics didn’t meet the standards one would have expected from an opera house of this size. Jørn Utzon never set foot in Australia again.
SILENCE HAS BECOME A LUXURY
As strange as it sounds, a lot of things were done properly at the Elbphilharmonie compared to what happened at the Sydney Opera House. Because in spite of all the disputes, the mistake of entering into any great compromises where the building itself was concerned was not made. Better scheduling and budgeting would, of course, have been absolutely desirable but such lighthouse projects should never be realised at the expense of quality – because the owners of the building will always regret it later. Summer 2016 saw the commencement of extensive renovation and conversion work in Sydney that will also impact the large concert hall and its capacity for an audience of 2,688. The hall is going to be closed for one and a half years from 2019 – mainly to improve the acoustics. A mistake that was made almost 50 years ago is going to be rectified here with the aim of making the opera house one of the best in the world – also in regard to its acoustics. In other words, of bringing it up to the standard that the Elbphilharmonie already meets. Thanks to Yasuhisa Toyota.
The great physician Robert Koch predicted in 1910: “One day people will be forced to combat noise just as relentlessly as they must fight cholera and the plague.” And no-one these days needs any telling as to what Koch meant – silence has become a luxury. That’s why the acoustic design of its products is very important to Kampmann. Noise, or the lack of it, is particularly important in such sound-sensitive places as hotel rooms, where the air-conditioning system needs to be as quiet as possible, especially at night. Where concert halls are concerned, it’s not simply a question of maintaining silence but of not interfering with the music. Such units as the Venkon and the Katherm trench heating units were optimised at Kampmann’s Research and Development Center in regard to the noise they generate. In a broad variety of set-ups, the units undergo countless tests during which they’re measured and continuously improved. The in-house acoustics measuring laboratory is an important tool for obtaining reliable results. This is where sound-power measurements are carried out in accordance with ISO 3744 to 3746 and sound-intensity measurements to determine the sound power in accordance with ISO 9614.
A different supplier had originally been chosen to install the trench heating units at the Elbphilharmonie. A maximum sound emission level of 32 dB(A) had been specified for the units. The other manufacturer promised that this demand would be met. But the planners then had the units tested by independent experts – and behold: the trench heaters considerably exceeded the limits. So an inquiry was sent to Kampmann. We wouldn’t be discussing the matter here if Kampmann hadn’t been able to win the project for itself. Kampmann was also responsible for equipping the Westin Hotel and the luxury apartments on the top floors of the Elbphilharmonie with air-conditioning units (see info boxes).
THE MAN WITH A GREAT EAR
Let’s return to Yasuhisa Toyota – the man is a legend. Well, you could say that, if there were legends in the small niche of expertise that is the field of ‘acoustic design’. Yasuhisa Toyota is 63 years old. He sports a full grey-black beard and a mischievous smile and radiates a sense of unshakable calm and serenity. A quality that is a prerequisite in his job. That’s because the projects he works on are always scheduled over several years – and tend to exceed the planned time considerably. That was the case for the Elbphilharmonie, the Copenhagen Concert Hall and the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles – all concert halls with acoustics designed by Toyota. So patience is required. And nerves of steel. Because it’s only possible to check the quality of an acoustic designer’s work when there’s no turning back. You plan, simulate and build (in the case of the Elbphilharmonie) for seven years and can only be certain of success after the first concert has been performed. But Toyota wouldn’t be a superstar in the field of acoustic design if he didn’t have an extraordinary knack (or would that be ‘ear’?) for concert halls. The Musiikkitalo, for instance, which is a concert hall that opened in Helsinki in 2011, is considerably more successful than planned. Audience numbers exceed the anticipated levels by a factor of four. Toyota’s highly acclaimed acoustics are definitely part of why. Esa-Pekka Salonen, Musical Director at the Los Angeles Philharmonic, which is based at the Walt Disney Hall, raved after performing his first concert there: “I was really worried about the sound but now I am totally happy and so is the orchestra. That’s exactly how the L.A. Philharmonic should sound!”
The Elbphilharmonie is a landmark, an attraction, a hotel and a residential complex. But it’s a concert hall above everything else. The heart of the Elbphilharmonie is thus the ‘Great Concert Hall’. And, as spectacular as it may look, a concert hall can only be as good as its acoustics. So, not to put too fine a point on it, it could be said that Yasuhisa Toyota’s work decided whether the Elbphilharmonie would be a success or failure. Unparalleled efforts were undertaken to make failure impossible.
THE BEST SEATS IN THE VINEYARD FOR AN EARFUL
The Elbphilharmonie’s Great Concert Hall has a capacity seating for 2,100 people. The rows have been arranged according to the vineyard principle: the stage is located at the centre and the audience sits on terraces and balconies that rise up around it. This principle, conceived by the architect Hans Scharoun, was first implemented at the Berliner Philharmonie in 1960. He also coined the term of ‘ascending vineyards‘, with which he wanted to break up the large, contiguous rows of spectators and thus create more intimacy. The design also simultaneously possesses a social dimension: Scharoun’s architecture does away with the hierarchical distribution of the classic concert halls, in which the best seats in the first rows are reserved for the well-to-do. The asymmetrical floor plan at the Berliner Philharmonie already possesses an acoustics component: the lack of parallel surfaces prevents echoes and resonances within the space. Scharoun’s revolutionary approach caught on: many large concert halls followed the Berlin Philharmonic’s example, including the Elbphilharmonie. Which is why the floor plan in Hamburg is also asymmetrical. But it’s important to distinguish here where the architects’ work ends and that of the acoustic designer starts.
The Elbphilharmonie is the architectural work of the Switzerland-based firm of Herzog & de Meuron, which is famous across the world for such projects as the Tate Modern in London, the Allianz Arena in Munich and ‘The Bird’s Nest’, the national stadium in Beijing. Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron were not only responsible for the Elbphilharmonie’s already iconic exterior but also for the concert hall. The Great Concert Hall may be easily regarded as a great visual success. The seating has been organically and flowingly arranged in groups around the stage. No member of the audience is seated more than 32 metres from the performance, the view is perfect from everywhere. But. as advantageous as the asymmetric vineyard architecture is for preventing echoes, it’s also unpredictable. The hall is so angled and complex that it is difficult to calculate the acoustics. So the architects create the space. The acoustic designer then has to make the best of it. Yasuhisa Toyota did not have to worry about one acoustic aspect, however: noise from outside. It’s simply remarkable that no noise from the street gets into the hall at all – even when Queen Mary 2 has berthed in Hamburg and, as is its custom, sounds its horn at twelve noon, silence reigns in the Philharmonie. The entire hall was acoustically decoupled to achieve this – it literally floats in the air. A total of 362 spring packages connect the ‘bubble’ to the surrounding concrete shell. This is where Toyota’s work begins. He naturally also worked with 3D computer simulations. And there are, of course, a multitude of formulas and measurement options available for deriving the right sizes and looking as closely as possible into the future of the sound. But Toyota still also had a scale plywood model built. The miniature Philharmonie measured five by five metres and was the subject of intensive measurements by Toyota – by the way in front of a sold-out house: all 2,100 model seats were occupied by dolls, all wearing felt coats.
THE WHITE SKIN – A GIANT PUZZLE WEIGHING 226 TONNES
The results flowed into a concept that is absolutely unique: the ‘white skin’. Toyota worked with the architects to develop a special board system for the Great Concert Hall: 10,000 gypsum fibre boards, each individually milled and given a surface which, interestingly and coincidentally, bears a similarity to the Elbphilharmonie’s roof. But coincidence isn’t what Toyota and his employees do. The plaster panels do not only constitute a massive 226-tonne giant puzzle – the surface of each panel has been specifically designed to meet the acoustic requirements of its bespoke location. That means that each panel reflects the sound exactly the way it needs to at that position. The Frankfurt ‘One to One’ company developed a computer program especially to calculate the individual finish and weight of each separate board. The gypsum panels range from 35 to 200 millimetres in thickness and each square metre can weigh up to 150 kilograms because the greater the mass, the greater the level of sound that’s reflected. The intention, of course: perfect sound. And not just in one specific area of the space but throughout it. The equal distribution of seats is also a matter of sound design.
AND THEN FINALLY …
... the opening was celebrated – a moment that had been long, very long in the coming. And a historical one at that. The guest list was accordingly high-calibre: Angela Merkel was a member of the audience, for instance, which also included journalists and culture critics from across the world. Federal President Joachim Gauck gave the opening speech and called out to the guests, ‘Hamburg, be happy!” Which is what it was. Because the hall met all the expectations that had been placed on it. The initial testimonials following the roaring opening evening were consistently positive to euphoric: “Analytically clear, filigree and flawless,” said SPIEGEL’s Cultural Editor Werner Theurich, who then added, “Brahms has never been heard like that before!” The former Mayor of Hamburg, Klaus von Dohnanyi, said on Deutschlandradio: “The sound is unusual – very strong. And when you hear a counter tenor’s every word, you know that the acoustics have achieved a splendid success.”
Photo credits: Elbphilharmonie @ Iwan Baan; Sydney Opera House @ Sardaka – CC BY 3.0; Yasuhisa Toyota @ Michael Zapf; Elbphilharmonie (Apr 2016) @ Maxim Schulz; Elbphilharmonie Fassade @ Michael Zapf