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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Owning public space is expensive. So why do developers want to do it?

Granary Yard, London. Image: Getty.

A great deal has been written about privately owned public space, or POPS. A Guardian investigation earlier this year revealed the proliferation of “pseudo-public spaces”. Tales of people being watched, removed from or told off in POPS have spread online. Activists have taken to monitoring POPS, and politicians on both sides of the pond are calling for reforms in how they are run.

Local authorities’ motives for selling off public spaces are normally simple: getting companies to buy and maintain public space saves precious public pounds. Less straightforward and often overlooked in this debate is why – given the maintenance costs, public safety concerns and increasingly unflattering media attention – developers would actually want to own public space in the first place.

To answer that question it’s important to note that POPS can’t be viewed as isolated places, like parks or other public spaces might be. For the companies that own them, public spaces are bound up in the business that takes place inside their private buildings; POPS are tools that allow them, in one way or another, to boost profits.

Trade-offs

In some cities, such as Hong Kong and New York, ownership of public space is a trade-off for the right to bend the rules in planning and zoning. In 1961 New York introduced a policy that came to be known as ‘incentive zoning’. Developers who took on the provision of some public space could build wider, taller buildings, ignoring restrictions that had previously required staggered vertical growth to let sunlight and air into streets.

Since then, the city has allowed developers to build 20m square feet of private space in exchange for 80 acres of POPS, or 525 individual spaces, according to watchdog Advocates for Privately Owned Public Space (APOPS).

Several of those spaces lie in Trump Tower. Before the King of the Deal began construction on his new headquarters in 1979, he secured a pretty good deal with the city: Trump Tower would provide two atriums, two gardens, some restrooms and some benches for public use; in exchange 20 floors could be added to the top of the skyscraper. That’s quite a lot of condos.

Shockingly, the current president has not always kept up his end of the bargain and has been fined multiple times for dissuading members of the public from using POPS by doing things like placing flower pots on top of benches – violating a 1975 rule which said that companies had to provide amenities that actually make public spaces useable. The incident might suggest the failure of the ‘honour system’ under which POPS operate day-to-day. Once developers have secured their extra square footage, they might be tempted to undermine, subtly, the ‘public’ nature of their public spaces.

But what about where there aren’t necessarily planning benefits to providing public space? Why would companies go to the trouble of managing spaces that the council would otherwise take care of?


Attracting the ‘right sort’

Granary Square, part of the £5bn redevelopment of London’s Kings Cross, has been open since 2012. It is one of Europe’s largest privately-owned public spaces and has become a focal point for concerns over corporate control of public space. Yet developers of the neighbouring Coal Drop Yards site, due to open in October 2018, are also making their “dynamic new public space” a key point in marketing.

Cushman Wakefield, the real estate company in charge of Coal Drops Yard, says that the vision of the developers, Argent, has been to “retain the historical architecture to create a dramatic environment that will attract visitors to the 100,000 square feet of boutiques”. The key word here is “attract”. By designing and managing POPS, developers can attract the consumers who are essential to the success of their sites and who might be put off by a grubby council-managed square – or by a sterile shopping mall door.

A 2011 London Assembly Report found that the expansion of Canary Wharf in the 1990s was a turning point for developers who now “assume that they themselves will take ownership of an open space, with absolute control, in order to protect the value of the development as a whole”. In many ways this is a win-win situation; who doesn’t appreciate a nice water feature or shrub or whatever else big developer money can buy?

The caveat is, as academic Tridib Banerjee pointed out back in 2001: “The public is welcome as long as they are patrons of shops and restaurants, office workers, or clients of businesses located on the premises. But access to and use of the space is only a privilege and not a right” – hence the stories of security guards removing protesters or homeless people who threaten the aspirational appeal of places like Granary Square.

In the US, developers have taken this kind of space-curation even further, using public spaces as part of their formula for attracting the right kind of worker, as well as consumer, for nearby businesses. In Cincinnati, developer 3CDC transformed the notoriously crime-ridden Over-The-Rhine (OTR) neighbourhood into a young professional paradise. Pouring $47m into an initial make-over in 2010, 3CDC beautified parks and public space as well as private buildings.

To do so, the firm received $50 million  in funding from corporations like Procter and Gamble, whose Cincinnati headquarters sits to the South-West of OTR. This kind of hyper-gentrification has profoundly change the demographics of the neighbourhood – to the anger of many long-term residents – attracting, essentially, the kind of people who work at Procter and Gamble.

Elsewhere, in cities like Alpharetta, Georgia, 3CDC have taken their public space management even further, running events and entertainment designed to attract productive young people to otherwise dull neighbourhoods.

Data pools

The proposed partnership between the city of Toronto and Sidewalk Labs (owned by Google’s parent company Alphabet) has highlighted another motive for companies to own public space: the most modern of all resources, data.

Data collection is at the heart of the ‘smart city’ utopia: the idea that by turning public spaces and the people into them into a vast data pool, tech companies can find ways to improve transport, the environment and urban quality of life. If approved next year, Sidewalk would take over the mostly derelict east waterfront area, developing public and private space filled with sensors.

 Of course, this isn’t altruism. The Globe and Mail describe Sidewalk’s desired role as “the private garbage collectors of data”. It’s an apt phrase that reflects the merging of public service and private opportunity in Toronto’s future public space.

The data that Sidewalk could collect in Toronto would be used by Google in its commercial projects. Indeed, they’ve already done so in New York’s LinkNYC and London’s LinkUK. Kiosks installed around the cities provide the public with wifi and charging points, whilst monitoring traffic and pedestrians and generating data to feed into Google Maps.

The subway station at Hudson Yards, New York City. Image: Getty.

This is all pretty anodyne stuff. Data on how we move around public spaces is probably a small price to pay for more efficient transport information, and of course Sidewalk don’t own the areas around their Link Kiosks. But elsewhere companies’ plans to collect data in their POPS have sparked controversy. In New York’s Hudson Yards development – which Sidewalk also has a stake in – ambiguity over how visitors and residents can opt out of sharing their data when in its public square, have raised concerns over privacy.

In Toronto, Sidewalk have already offered to share their data with the city. However, Martin Kenney, researcher at the University of California at Davis and co-author of 2016’s ‘The Rise of the Platform Economy’, has warned that the potential value of a tech company collecting a community’s data should not be underestimated. “What’s really important is the deals Toronto cuts with Sidewalk may set terms and conditions for the rest of the world," he said after the announcement in October.

The project could crystallise all three motives behind the ownership of POPS. Alongside data collection, Sidewalk will likely have some leeway over planning regulations and will certainly tailor its public spaces to its ideal workers and consumers – Google have already announced that it would move its Canadian headquarters, from their current location in Downton Toronto, into the first pilot phase of the development.

Even if the Sidewalks Lab project never happens, the motives behind companies’ ownership of POPS tell us that cities’ public realms are of increasing interest to private hands.

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