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Elbphilharmonie Hamburg: Sculpting Sound

Elbphilharmonie Hamburg: Sculpting Sound

They say you can’t rush perfection. When January’s official opening performance took place at the Elbphilharmonie—Hamburg’s dazzling new concert venue—this soaring brick-and-glass monolith by Swiss architects Herzog & de Meuron was years behind schedule, not to mention €700 million over budget. But those who experience the venue’s advanced acoustics may feel it was worth the wait.

An opalescent glass sail sitting atop a refurbished warehouse, the Elbphilharmonie is a visually arresting building. With its rippled glass, vaulted ceilings and serpentine oak staircases, as well as the world’s first arched escalator, the interior is equally impressive. But it is the central auditorium, the raison d’être of the entire structure, which provides a real feast for the eyes…and the ears.

Noteworthy Design

The Elbphilharmonie’s 2,150-seat Great Concert Hall was conceived by Herzog & de Meuron and renowned Japanese acoustic expert Yasuhisa Toyota. With an intricately contoured, curvilinear coating of 10,000 interlocking gypsum fiber panels, the interior skin of the auditorium gives it an almost organic feel. Its cutting edge, sound-diffusing properties mean music truly brings this spectacular space to life.

The panels are the brainchild of Ben Koren, who founded New York- and Frankfurt-based computational design and digital fabrication consultancy firm ONE TO ONE in 2009. Working with a demanding acoustic brief, the American used custom algorithms to generate each panel’s unique parametric topography.

Koren explains:

“In terms of sound, it was our aim to create a perfectly diffusive space. We wanted the acoustic properties of the hall to be uniform, regardless of the listener’s location.”

Check out the latest acoustic panels at the online exhibition site ArchiExpo.

Elbphilharmonie in Hamburg by Herzog & de Meuron.

Elbphilharmonie in Hamburg by Herzog & de Meuron. Courtesy of the architect.

Digital Diffusion

The desirable acoustics of many of the world’s finest concert venues, such as the venerable Wiener Musikverein, home of the Vienna Philharmonic orchestra, come from their asymmetric, heavily ornamented interiors. It is ironic that the clean lines of more contemporary music venue architecture may actually result in inferior sound.

Poor acoustics can be improved by retrofitting devices that absorb or diffuse sound. But in the Elbphilharmonie, the intention was to create a predetermined, sound-diffusing environment from inception. For Koren and his team, this meant generating a three-dimensional micro-landscape of one million adjoining cells, four to 16 centimeters in diameter, which was imprinted across the Great Concert Hall’s myriad panels using digitally controlled manufacturing techniques. Koren explains:

“When sound waves from musical performances hit the panels, the surface cells either absorb or scatter them. The overall effect, which I like to think of as Wiener Musikverein 2.0, is balanced reverberation across the entire space.”

Koren believes the Elbphilharmonie’s superior acoustics, which have so far wowed audiences, are a testament to the power of parametric design.

“It would have been impossible to achieve the same aural outcome without digital solutions. For me, the real creativity comes in the algorithm.”

Check out our issue on acoustics in which we offer an exclusive, in-depth interview with Koren. You can also jump directly to the article How and Why to Consider Acoustics First and listen to Koren explain.

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