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A Visual and Sonic Masterpiece

Oftentimes in the design stage the sonic function of a space can take a backseat to optics. This makes sense. Many of us spend our time actively seeing and passively listening to our surroundings. Yet the acoustics of a space should hardly be considered unimportant. As an architectural acoustician, my passion lies in designing spaces that are as sonically captivating as they are visually stunning. A space is much more likely to leave an impact on its audience when it appeals to more than just our optical sense. It is evident that Swiss architectural firm Herzog & de Meuron had this in mind when designing the Elbphilharmonie alongside acoustic innovators One to One. Modern architecture tends to focus on suppressing outside noise, but one of the glories of concert hall acoustics is its ability to present sound in a celebratory manner. Architectural acoustics has the power to boost a space’s emotional value by pairing aesthetic and sonic brilliance to heighten multiple senses at once. It is part of what makes the discipline so fascinating.

Hamburg’s latest architectural tour de force pairs a breathtaking aesthetic opulence with an all-embracing welcome. Poised neatly upon the brick foundation of the abandoned Kaispeicher A warehouse on the Elbe River, the Elbphilharmonie is a stunning visual extension of its aquatic home. The eight floors of brick give rise to a 17-story glass façade comprised of 1,000 curved window panels specially created to capture and reflect the color of the sky, sun and water as well as the essence of the city.

The building is designed as a cultural and residential complex incorporating two concert halls, an educational space, a café, a hotel and 45 residential apartments. An intentionally lengthy ride of 2.5 minutes on the world’s first curved escalator surrounds attendees in 8,000 glittering disks and delivers them to the glass structure while providing views down the river as they ascend beyond the brick. Between the brick and glass lies a plaza, which boasts a spectacular panoramic view of the waterfront and the inner city. It is free and open to the public from 9 a.m. to midnight. This plaza serves as a hub, connecting the view of the surrounding area to the hotel, the café and the grandiose foyers of the halls.

Though the building’s dramatic reflections and abundance of architectural treasures create a striking contrast with its no-frills brick foundation, the true wonder awaits discovery in the heart of the Elbphilharmonie. The Grand Hall, the largest of the interior spaces, is a luxurious, biscotti-colored masterpiece illuminated by 1,000 hand-blown glass light bulbs. The walls and ceilings are composed of 10,000 gypsum fiber acoustic panels, each uniquely formed by algorithms. Visually, these panels homogenize in breathtaking fashion to create a collective “white skin” around the room, which is further enhanced by the stark white stage and a center-set reflector suspended from the vaulted ceiling. The 10,000 panels feature one million cells, like sand carved out with a seashell. Yet they are far more function than beauty. The panels, with the aid of the reflector, direct the sound neatly into every nook and cranny of the space with the depth and width of the four- to 16-cm cells determining absorption and reflection rates. A balanced reverb is achieved through the utilization of parametric, or algorithmic, design to determine the necessary size of each cell and to ensure that no two panels absorb or reflect in the same manner. The acoustics of the hall are perfectly complemented by the space’s 2,100 seats, all of which lie within 100 ft. of the conductor to ensure an optimal and immersive listening experience from any seat in the house.

“It would be insane to do this by hand,” Benjamin Koren, developer of the acoustic algorithm, told Wired. The complexity of sound waves and their sensitivity to the shape and materials of a room makes it difficult to create simple mathematical models for sound. Computers enable acousticians to perform painstaking calculations and simulate the space before construction. Koren’s utilization of parametric design, fused with the expert sound mapping of renowned acoustician Yasuhisa Toyota, creates a purposeful intimacy even in the farthest reaches of the hall. Toyota designed certain panels on the hall’s back wall to have deeper and wider grooves for echo absorption. Other areas would require shallower cells to allow for reflection. In the end, the acoustic requirements posed by Koren meet the aesthetic desires of Herzog & de Meuron to create a product that is as functional as it is beautiful.

With its waterfront position overlooking the city and the harbor, gleaming glass façade, outstanding acoustics, and accessibility to the public, the Elbphilharmonie is poised to be Hamburg’s latest cultural fixture. Take a look for yourself with Google’s 360

Imoni Cole-Palmer
Elbphilharmonie: A Visual and Sonic Masterpiece Vol 1