Hamburg, Germany, celebrated the opening of its new concert hall, the Elbphilharmonie, nicknamed the Elphi, with a concert on January 11. The 110-meter-tall building (about 360 feet) on the Elbe River is now the city’s tallest building. Germany’s President, Joachim Gauck, oversaw the celebration. Opening performers included the North German Radio (NDR) Symphony Orchestra, appearing under its new name, the NDR Elbphilharmonie Orchestra.
However, not everyone is celebrating. The concert hall, which features three auditoriums with a total of 2,820 seats, has cost four times more than promised. It was also scheduled to open in 2010. This opening concert then is seven years late. In the coming days, music fans, architecture lovers, and Hamburg residents are likely to discuss the question, Is it worth it?
The Elphi is built on top of a large brick warehouse from the nineteenth century. It is made of glass and steel and is modern-looking. As a result, Elphi sits in high contrast to the older building underneath it. The concert hall was designed by a Swiss architecture firm called Herzog & de Meuron. These architects are already well known for designing Beijing, China’s, National Stadium, commonly known as the Bird’s Nest. This stadium was the main site of the 2008 Summer Olympics.
Architect Jacques Herzog says the firm had several influences when designing the new concert hall. One was ancient Greek theaters. Like those theaters, the inside of the Elphi is designed to look as if it was carved out of the ground, incorporating local geology. According to Herzog, the roof was inspired by canopies used at festivals and outdoor theaters that protect audiences from the weather.
Although Hamburg is Germany’s main port and its second-biggest city, it does not attract many tourists. The city hopes that the Elphi will draw popular performers and touring orchestras that audiences will travel to the city to see. So far, this seems to be happening, with all concerts on the schedule selling out quickly.
The original price for the Elphi was 186 million euros ($197 million). As it turns out, the final price is much higher. It is about 798 million euros ($843 million)—four times what was expected!
This increased cost has angered both government leaders and residents. In 2010 as the costs first started to increase, the city sued the construction company that built the concert hall. Some local lawmakers demanded an investigation into the budget increase. A group of Hamburg citizens took to the streets in protest. They were concerned that too much money was being spent on a cultural project that would appeal only to an elite few.
However, supporters of the project say that the Elphi is not just for wealthy music fans. While the most expensive tickets for a concert by the Chicago Symphony are 185 euros ($194), some seats cost as little as 15 euros ($16). Also, because of the design of the auditorium, no matter how little they cost, no seat is more than 100 feet from the orchestra’s conductor. Supporters also point out that the hall’s most popular attraction is free. The Elphi’s observation deck offers a 360-degree view of Hamburg. Since it opened in November, the deck has attracted half a million visitors.
Elphi staff also say they also want to help integrate the thousands of foreign refugees who have come to Hamburg in the past two years, many from the Middle Eastern country of Syria. In March, the Elphi will present a festival of Syrian music and culture. They say that the festival will bring together long-time residents and new arrivals.
The Bilbao Effect
In 1997, the Spanish city of Bilbao opened the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, which is a museum of modern and contemporary art that was designed by well-known Canadian-American architect Frank Gehry. During the first three years it was open, the museum attracted four million visitors. This brought nearly $500 million in revenue for the city. It is estimated that the taxes Bilbao collected from visiting tourists alone has totaled about $100 million, which has already paid for the $84 million that the project cost to complete. Supporters hope that the same will happen to Hamburg with the opening of the Elphi.
The good fortune that came to Bilbao from this museum has led to what some writers call the Bilbao Effect. The Bilbao Effect refers to the benefit that comes to an area because of a major building project. For example, with the opening of the Guggenheim, Bilbao became a major tourist destination, and the city’s economy benefited from increased revenue.
However, some say the Bilbao Effect is not always a benefit.
Critics say one consequence of large building projects like the Bilbao Guggenheim is gentrification. Gentrification can result when older urban neighborhoods are renovated. Since the once run-down neighborhood now has new museums, restaurants, and apartment buildings, it attracts new residents. As new residents arrive, demand for property increases, which increases its cost. Eventually, living in the renovated neighborhood becomes so expensive that lower-income families and small, local businesses leave because they cannot afford to stay.
Another problem of the Bilbao Effect, critics say, is cultural imperialism. Under cultural imperialism, a more powerful group of people imposes its own culture on another, less powerful group. Critics of the Bilbao Guggenheim say that the museum ignores the culture and community of the people of Bilbao. Rather than being a reflection of the city, the museum stands apart from it, independent of the people and local culture. It is still too early to say whether gentrification or cultural imperialism will have an effect on Hamburg.
See how the Bilbao Effect has impacted other world cities at The Guardian.