Sunday, January 03, 2010

Grand New Concert Hall Tests a City’s Frugal Ways


HAMBURG, Germany — A spectacular new concert hall is rising skyward on the banks of the Elbe River at the end of a pier in the old harbor here. City leaders hope the hall, the Elbphilharmonie, will become a new world landmark on par with the Sydney Opera House, nudging a city often too modest for its own good toward the international prominence they believe it deserves.

But the new, extravagant project is unusual for Hamburg, an affluent but unassuming old Hanseatic city, with a reputation for sober-minded business sense compared with the baroque flash of its rival, Munich, in the south.

While residents marvel at the rippling glass tower capping a postwar brick warehouse in the architectural renderings, they have had trouble coming to terms with the kind of grand — and invariably growing — price tags that come with such grand structures.

One result is a struggle between Hamburgers’ desire for recognition and their own frugal instincts.

“My friends are completely divided; either they think it’s an absolute money pit or they say it looks super and is great for the city,” said Jörg Homeyer, 42, who works near the construction site and stops at the cafe across the street each day to observe the progress. “Myself, I’m really of two minds. I mean, I’m impressed by the monumental architecture, but I also can’t believe the amount of cash it’s burning, and coming from the average taxpayer.”

It has not helped matters that the city’s share of the cost has more than quadrupled — to nearly half a billion dollars from the initial optimistic projections of just over $100 million — and that the opening has been pushed back two years to 2012. Taxpayers fear that the project will continue to guzzle their money through endless delays and cost overruns.

But the city government is betting that the problems, and most of all the growing expense, will be forgotten when the Elbphilharmonie stands as the new symbol of Germany’s second-most-populous city, which officials say lacks the kind of signature monument the Brandenburg Gate provides for Berlin or the Eiffel Tower for Paris.

But Hamburg became one of the richest cities not just in Germany but across Europe in part because of its very modesty. According to one local saying, Hamburgers prefer fur in the lining of their coats for warmth, rather than facing outward for show, said Jörn Walter, the city planning director.

“If we had said from the very beginning that we needed 300 million euros for the house, I am sure that the city would have agreed, because it’s a wonderful project for Hamburg,” said the enthusiastic Mr. Walter, who leapt from behind his desk repeatedly during the interview to gesture at a wall-size map of the city. “I am personally completely convinced that in 100 years, people will look back with pride on the fact that our generation succeeded in creating it.”

The contentious project has already cost the job of the previous head of the city-owned building company, who was fired in 2008 as the magnitude of the cost increases became apparent.

As designed by the Swiss architectural firm Herzog & de Meuron, famed for the Bird’s Nest Olympic stadium in Beijing, the Elbphilharmonie is intended to be more than just the city’s new symbol. It is meant to be the capstone of an ambitious 400-acre waterfront redevelopment project in the heart of Hamburg, known as HafenCity (Harbor City). The roughly $10 billion project is an effort to build an entire new section of downtown Hamburg almost from scratch and already includes more than 30 new buildings.

The former harbor area — now too shallow for modern container ships, which dock across the Elbe — is already home to the offices of China Shipping, the consumer-products giant Unilever, and the software company SAP. About 4,000 people work in HafenCity, and 1,500 live there.

And jutting out from the end of the pier, facing westward, are 17 of the Elbphilharmonie’s eventual 26 stories, which, when completed, will stand 360 feet high. On a recent blustery morning, the bowl-shaped main concert hall was still open to the towering construction cranes and gray clouds above it. The acoustics are in the hands of Yasuhisa Toyota, who worked on the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles.

Many Germans here and around the country have been fascinated by the evolving technical details of the project, or as the newspaper the Frankfurter Allgemeine put it in a headline this week, “The Long Way to the Perfect Sound.”

Construction crews had to gut the original 1960s-era warehouse and drive some 600 new concrete piles because the existing wood supports could not bear the weight of the addition. A documentary on public television here showed technicians blasting the specially designed windows with water cannons and aircraft engines, and crashing heavy tires against them, to simulate extreme weather conditions.

The first few individually crafted glass panels have been installed on what will be an undulating glass facade. It rises to peaks in the renderings that look like cresting waves, but it is the rising costs that have caught the most attention so far.

“Our impression was that the politicians decided they absolutely had to have it before they really gave any thought to the planning,” said Christian Plock, manager of Hamburg’s Association of Taxpayers. “We’re not against it in principle, just the dilettante manner in which it was done.” The project made the national taxpayers association’s “black book” of wasted tax revenue for all of Germany in 2009.

The timing could not have been worse, with the global economic crisis and fall in world trade cutting into business at the city’s port and overall tax receipts.

The publicly financed share of the project is now $465 million. Donations from private citizens have brought in $101 million more, while an undetermined amount of money is coming from the project’s business investors.

The building will also house a 250-room hotel and more than 40 exclusive apartments overlooking the harbor.

In a city with high rents and an acute shortage of working-class housing, the decision to focus resources on HafenCity and its flagship has prompted accusations that the entire development will benefit only tourists and Hamburg’s elite.

On a tour of the construction site, the Elbphilharmonie’s general director, Christoph Lieben-Seutter, disputed that notion, pointing to the plaza facing the river that will be open to the public. “This is a house for all Hamburgers,” he said.

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