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A Concert Hall & the Algorithm

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The Elbphilharmonie concert hall, a gargantuan glass tent by Herzog and de Meuron is as unreal as its computer rendering published 13 years ago. Located 100 meters above Hamburg’s harbour, inscribing a silhouette of waves, the concert hall, is now a centre of attraction for all who live in Hamburg as well as for visitors from all over the world.

The Elbphilharmonie concert hall designed by the renowned Swiss firm of architects Herzog & de Meuron, marks a location that most people in Hamburg know about but have never really noticed. The hall celebrated its opening in January 2017. In order to make the new Philharmonic a genuinely public attraction, it is imperative to provide not only attractive architecture but also an attractive mix of urban uses. The building complex accommodates a philharmonic hall, a chamber music hall, restaurants, bars, a panorama terrace with views of Hamburg and the harbour, apartments, a hotel and parking facilities. These varied uses are combined in one building as they are in a city.

The glass structure, with its wavelike top, perched on top of a brick warehouse foundation – the former Kaispeicher A, which was built at the port between 1963 and 1966 and then used for storing tea, tobacco and cocoa –, rises up 110 metres high into the sky. Constructed at the western point of the modern HafenCity, Europe’s largest inner-city urban development project, in direct proximity to the Speicherstadt warehouse district – a UNESCO World Heritage site – and the Kontorhaus business district with the Chilehaus, the Elbphilharmonie serves as a symbol of the city’s past, present and future. It stands for Hamburg’s self-image of building on tradition to create something new, as well as for the many contrasts that coincide within the city and make up Hamburg’s character.

The project is filled with stunning architectural gems – its wave like façade, gently curved elevator at the base of the lobby, Escher-esque stairways that guide you from one floor to the next. But the most interesting feature is the central auditorium, a gleaming ivory cave built from 10,000 unique acoustic panels that line the ceiling, walls, and balustrades. The room looks almost organic – like a rippling, monochromatic coral reef – but bringing it to life was a technological feat.

But it is the Auditorium that takes the steals the epitome of design detail. The largest of the three concert halls in the Elbphilharmonie, has been produced using parametric design. In the case of the Elbphilharmonie, Herzog and De Meuron used algorithms to generate a unique shape for each of the 10,000 gypsum fiber acoustic panels that line the auditorium’s walls like the interlocking pieces of a giant, undulating puzzle. But design alone is not the reason for calling upon technology for the task. Every single panel has a function. In order to achieve the optimum acoustics, the architects developed a special wall and roof structure together with internationally renowned acoustician Yasuhisa Toyota who created an optimal sound map for the auditorium. Based on the room’s geometry, Toyota figured certain panels, like the ones lining the back wall of the auditorium, would need deeper, bigger grooves to absorb echoes. While other areas, like the ceiling surfaces behind the reflector and the top parts of the balustrades, would require shallower cells. Meanwhile, the architects had their own preferences.

Spectacular architecture, musical diversity, openness and accessibility to all – the Elbphilharmonie unites all the multifaceted aspects Hamburg has to offer. It is a testament to the sheer potential of algorithms to change the future of architecture.

For optimal sound acoustics, science says that an enclosed space needs to have a certain geometry and the material need to have well-established qualities. 10,000 individually shaped gypsum fibre panels cut with millimetre precision ensure targeted sound distribution that reaches every corner – the effect is stunning. The 10,000 panels coalesce into a billowy, off-white skin, punctuated only by 2,150 seats and 1,000 hand-blown glass light bulbs. These panels feature a million cells that resemble the impression left by a seashell on the sand. This configuration is by no means created by accident. The irregular patterns, which range from four to sixteen centimeters across, are meant to scatter or absorb sound. No two panels absorb or scatter sound waves alike, but together they create a balanced reverberation across the entire auditorium. This technique has been used for centuries, but the Elbphilharmonie does it in an entirely new, visually arresting way. The acoustic requirements, had to be balanced against the architects’ preference towards the aestheticism of the space, as well as its necessity to be friendly to the audience, providing comfort as much as visual impact. This is where the algorithm comes in. Combining the acoustic and aesthetic requirements of the space within the specifications programmed into the software, the parametric design negotiates the two with mathematic precision.

The external shell of the Elbphilharmonie’s glass structure is composed of around 1,100 glass elements that are variously cambered and curved and individually marked. These mirror the sky, the city or the waters of the Elbe, depending on the perspective. The façade thus becomes a constantly changing projection surface, reflecting its surroundings and the different weather conditions.

The Plaza: Experiencing the City from 37 metres above the ground A slightly curved escalator approximately 80 metres long leads the way into the building. The journey through the Tube, whose walls are encrusted with countless glass chips, is a special experience in itself. It leads up to the sixth floor to a large panoramic window from which the port and landing stages are visible. A second, shorter escalator transports you up to the roof of the former warehouse.

Once at the top, you will find a new space high above the city — the Plaza. The Plaza is located 37 metres above the ground and serves, so to speak, as a link between the two parts of the building. This new public space offers unique panoramic views over the port and city. The internal and external areas of the Plaza act as a meeting place for concertgoers, hotel guests and all those who want to come and enjoy the spectacular outlook. Visitors are guided towards the hotel lobby, the shop and to the dining area. From the Plaza, visitors can access the foyers of the new concert hall. These, too, offer exciting views – both onto the upper and lower foyer levels as well as out over the city, the Elbe and the port.

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