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Herzog and De Meuron’s Hamburg miracle

Seven years late Herzog and De Meuron’s Hamburg Elbphilharmonie concert hall is finished.

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Unparalleled scale of ambition … Herzog & de Meuron’s Elbphilharmonie concert hall in Hamburg. Photograph: Thies Raetzke

Rising more than 100 metres above Hamburg’s harbour like a great glass galleon marooned atop an old brick warehouse, the Herzog and de Meuron’s Elbphilharmonieconcert hall looks as unreal as its computer renderings, first published 13 years ago to gasps of incredulity.

The gargantuan glass tent rises to a roofline of frothing peaks, inscribing a silhouette of waves across the city’s low-rise skyline, like a chunk of the sea that’s been frozen, chiselled out of the water and craned into place. Its glacial walls ripple and bulge, their surface punctured with convex semi-circular openings, forming a cliff-face of little mouths gaping in glee.

It’s only appropriate for the building to have the last laugh. A national embarrassment for the last decade, as the budget galloped ever higher, with construction mired in delays and the very real threat that its carcass might be left as an Ozymandian ruin, this €789m mega-project is finally complete – and it is thankfully every bit as spectacular as its architects promised.

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‘Sleek curtains of rippling glass.’ Photograph: Iwan Baan/Herzog & de Meuron

Standing on the roof, surrounded by heaving valleys of gleaming white sequinsthat swell to a spiky mountain range, Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron have never looked so relieved. “There were moments when we thought this building would destroy our whole career,” says Herzog. “Somehow we were responsible for this total disaster, because we had seduced the people with our design.”

The project began as the unlikely dream of Alexander Gérard, a private developer and former classmate of Herzog and De Meuron, who had hoped to finance the scheme with the 45 luxury flats and 250-room hotel that are also housed in the big glass mountain. He commissioned the architects to come up with a dazzling alternative to a dreary plan for a 90-metre media office tower on the site, which died away with the end of the dotcom boom. The Swiss starchitects’ thrilling images quickly caught the public imagination and the project was adopted by the city in 2003 and prioritised as a plan of national importance.

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On the up … internal staircases. Photograph: Iwan Baan/Herzog & de Meuron

Launched with a price tag of €77m (which Herzog says was “absurdly low” and never actually costed), and scheduled to open in 2010, the finished project has cost 10 times that amount and been subject to a catalogue of disputes, lawsuits and a lengthy parliamentary inquiry. The resulting 800-page report noted witheringly that “the claim of a public sector building to be counted among world architecture does not necessarily extend to toilet brushes costing €291.97 each”.

Exploring the voluptuous caves and terraced levels housed within this vast iceberg, it is clear that the toilet brushes were one of the cheaper items on the shopping list. It is a project on an unparalleled scale of ambition, an ocean liner of architectural virtuosity that revels in its sculptural feats and bespoke craftsmanship. The grand hall, itself hung from the 700-tonne roof like a dangling cocoon, features 1,000 hand-blown glass lamps and 10,000 uniquely carved acoustic panels, while the facade incorporates 600 curved panes of 48mm-thick glass. It has been compared to Kaiser Wilhelm’s megalomania, but it’s fair to say it gives the pharaohs a run for their money.

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View from the stage. Photograph: Sean Gallup/Getty Images

Echoes of Giza begin with the arrival sequence, where visitors are transported up an 80-metre escalator in a creamy spangle-lined tunnel, as if the entrance to the Great Pyramid had been masterminded by Liberace. The escalator is gently curved in a hump-backed profile, so you can’t see where you’re going, adding to the camp drama of it all, before you emerge at a big picture window punched into the brick wall, affording the first great view across the harbour.

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