For London’s new concert hall to succeed, it must learn lessons from Hamburg

Hamburg's Elbphilarmonie opened with a phenomenal light spectacle over the River Elbe. Image: Alexander Svensson

With the proud announcement of ‘Fertig’ – finished – beaming out in white lights over the chic new neighbourhood of the HafenCity, Hamburg’s finally completed concert hall shone like a beacon of enlightenment amidst the industrial landscape of the river Elbe and its ports.

If you’ve never been to Hamburg, Germany’s largest port and second-largest city, it would be worth it for a visit to the Elbphilharmonie alone. It dominates the dual landscape of Hamburg’s port-side warehouses – the Speicherstadt – and the newly developed HafenCity, and is a phenomenal architectural work by Herzog & de Meuron.

It’s a monument to great design, culture, and ambition, and frankly I’m a little sad we don’t have one in London.

At least, not yet. Because, despite a near-death experience last year, plans for a new concert hall in London are underway once again.

The hunt is on for architects, acousticians and engineers to proffer a vision for a new cultural heart for the capital. Set to occupy the site currently taken by the Museum of London in the City, the hall would be the new home of the London Symphony Orchestra, under the iconoclastic directorship of Sir Simon Rattle.

Such iconoclast. So direct. Many conduct. Wow. Image: Membeth.

He claims acoustics at orchestra’s current base, at the Barbican, is no good for about a fifth of all orchestral repertoire – concerning for a city and an orchestra aiming to occupy the top echelons of the global cultural landscape. The absence of much of this music, contemporary stuff like Boulez and Henze (who?), may not be vastly concerning to most; but a few good staples like Berlioz’s Requiem are on the list of no-go tunes for the LSO in its current space, which – as a self-certified classical music nerd – I can say is pretty bad.

Let’s be honest. The Royal Festival Hall is a 1950s relic, the Barbican is architecturally significant but underpowered in its utility, and the Royal Albert Hall is all good fun, but not quite up to the challenges of all corners of the repertoire. And it’s a circle, which is pretty whack. So. London needs a new concert hall – a shining beacon of our historical, current, and future place on the world’s literal stage.

But Hamburg’s shiny new hall should stand both as a warning and an example to London. The city’s plan was to build a £157m concert hall in time for a 2010 opening.

Hamburg's Elbphilharmonie, seen from the River Elbe. Image: Hackercatxxy.

Safe to say, things did not go according to plan. In 2010, the city of Hamburg sued the construction company for spiralling costs, and the left-wing SPD faction in the city’s senate called for an investigation into delays and increasing bills. At the time of the hall’s eventual opening at the start of this year, the final bill for the city came to about £670m.

Financially, the stakes for London’s new hall are sky-high. Already, the project has almost been totally derailed after the £5.5m funding then chancellor George Osborne offered to produce a detailed business plan was taken away by his successor, Philip Hammond, last November.


Though the City of London Corporation has now stumped up £2.5m for the business plan, it’s not a good start. With the spectre of the failed Garden Bridge haunting all not-obviously-functional construction plans, London’s concert hall will have to prove its income streams can be strong and stable enough to withstand the whims of flip-flopping governments and investors.

Thankfully, the original cost estimate of £278m for the hall has now been revised down to £200-£250m; but with construction prices likely to rise as the fall in pound sterling and the impact of Brexit sets in over the coming years, there’s no guarantee that such a figure won’t spontaneously shoot through the roof.

It seems unlikely that Theresa May’s philistine government – when it is inevitably returned to power next month – will stump up any cash, but public money will likely be involved in some form. If it is, any whiff of escalating costs could sound the project’s death knell.

"Fertig" means "finished" in German. Image: Alexander Svensson.

But if Hamburg is the cautionary tale in financial terms, it must also provide inspiration for London in other ways. Because Hamburg’s Elbphilharmonie is so much more than just a concert hall.

Firstly, it’s a landmark. It stands proud, with its metaphorical head held high above the city that paid for it. In a city that is not often on the top of tourists’ to-do lists, it provides a landmark to splash on postcards, guide books, and posters – and an obvious answer to the “But what is there to do in Hamburg?” question.

Its viewing gallery, free and open to the public, is a destination of its own, and its incorporation into the new HafenCity neighbourhood with its proximity to the more photogenic Speicherstadt makes it a logical place to go.

Hamburg's historic Speicherstadt, now part of a new heart for the city. Image: Thomas Wolf.

More importantly, it has a clear cultural purpose. Already, it has elevated an undervisited city that lagged behind others in Germany for its classical music provision. Hamburg, long an afterthought in conversations of high culture, is on its way to becoming a household name visited by the finest philharmonic orchestras of Europe and the Americas.

Furthermore, the Elbphilharmonie has become an outreach centre for schools’ education programmes, and has provided a vital cultural space for the many refugees Germany has accepted with a festival of Syrian music and culture bringing residents and new arrivals together in innovative projects and workshops.


And therein lies the rub for London’s new hall. It has no broad mission; no wider sense of how it can lift the profile of its host city to work in symbiosis with the city’s sense of itself.

London’s already a world leader in pretty much every sense – cultural, financial, and touristic. Though a new concert hall would be extraordinarily beneficial to Sir Simon Rattle, the London Symphony Orchestra, and those regularly inclined to attend classical music concerts, it wouldn’t give the city a new lease of life in the way that Hamburg’s has.

Nor, indeed, would it provide any kind of cultural outreach to schoolchildren or refugees, seeing as Britain as a nation is neither kind enough to accept refugees nor intelligent enough to devote significant class time to music and the arts in schools.

Despite its ballooning costs and vast delays, the Elbphilharmonie is assuredly confident of its purpose, its mission, and its contribution to the city.

Can London’s really be trusted to do the same? 

Jack May is a regular contributor to CityMetric and tweets as @JackO_May.

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This app connects strangers in two cities across the world. But can it tackle urban loneliness?

New Delhi, in India, where many of Duet-App's users come from. Image: Ville Miettinen

“You can be lonely anywhere, but there is a particular flavour to the loneliness that comes from living in a city, surrounded by millions of people”. Olivia Laing, The Lonely City

Our relationship to where we live and the spaces we inhabit define who we are and how we feel. But how often do we articulate the emotional impact of this relationship, whether this be loneliness, frustration or even civic pride?

“When I moved to a new city, started living alone, wanted to drink less, stay indoors more, and when I realised that I cannot make any more best friends.”

A new social network, a simple app that connects two individuals from the UK and India, aims to counter some of these issues.  Over the course of a year connected pairs receive one question a day through the app and their responses are exchanged with each other. A simple interaction that gradually builds a series of one-on-one relationships and invites users to imagine, over time, the other person living their life.

Distant geographies are an implicit part of the experience, therefore many of the questions nudge users to explore correlations between their physical and emotional landscapes. The data shows us that many of the Duet-App users are located in populous urban cities like Delhi, Bangalore, Manchester, Leeds and London, places that can just as often discourage feelings of belonging and place-making as much as they foster them.

“I had thought I'd never be able to live here again. but here I am living again at home after almost a decade living elsewhere. Living in Mumbai is a contact sport, and I can't do without it's chaos and infectious energy.”

Mumbai, India. Image: Deepak Gupta

In general cities are getting bigger and spreading wider at the same time as our communications are increasingly being conducted online and via digital gateways.

There is a sense that much of our online personas project an idealised version of ourselves; we increasingly document and express our daily lives through a filter and we are not always comfortable with a spontaneous expression of ourselves. Duet-App seeks to foster alternative digital relationships that through their anonymity allow us to be more honest and free.

“I feel a lot of people assume that I always have a lot going on for me and everything's always happy and amazing. I wish they could appreciate... how much of my own anxiety I swim in every single day. I appear and behave “normal” on the outside, calm and composed but there are always storms going on in my head.”

In exploring the responses to the questions so far, those that often garner the most replies relate directly to how we feel about our personal position in the world around us. Often these questions act as provocations not only to share responses but to reflect and articulate our thoughts around how we feel about what we are doing in the here and now.

Manchester, another popular city for Duet-App users. Image: Julius 

“Sometimes I feel sad about it [getting old] because I saw how easy it would be to feel lonely, and the fact that the world is set up for able-bodied young people is a bit of a travesty.”

Although many social media platforms allow for distant engagement and access into the lives of others we are in the main still curating and choosing our friendship circles. Through Duet-App this is randomised (and anonymised) with the intention of bypassing the traditional mechanics of how we broker online relationships. While directly exploring the digital space as a place for intimacy.


“Where do you go for peace?

“Well the internet, really. I do some mindless browsing, peek into the fandoms, listen to a few songs. Calms me down.”

Snapshots into the lives of someone existing and playing out their lives remotely can highlight shared concerns that break down preconceptions of how life is lived by others. Prompted by the reflections of a stranger exposed to our lives, digital relationships can encourage us to address the physical space we inhabit and the effects that the cities we live out our lives in have on our own well being. 

Catherine Baxendale is director of Invisible Flock.

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