Elbphilharmonie Concert Hall Designed by Computer Algorithm

Famed Swiss architects, Herzog and De Meuron, have finally unveiled the fruits of their 13 year project. The $843 million Elbphilharmonie Concert Hall in Hamburg, Germany, is a stunning feat of architecture, with its central auditorium taking the crown as the most breathtaking sight within the building.

The central auditorium boasts 10,000 acoustic panels across the ceiling, walls, and balustrades, which gives it the appearance of, as Wired describes it, ‘a rippling, monochromatic coral reef’.

This, the largest of the three concert halls in the Elbphilharmonie, has been produced using parametric design. This means that its form was developed by algorithms, along with the designers’ input, of course. But design alone is not the reason for calling upon technology for the task. Every single panel has a function.

Between them, the 10,000 panels feature over a million ‘cells’, between 4cm and 16cm across. The function of these is acoustic, helping to shape sound within the auditorium. As sound waves hit the panels, the uneven surface created by the grooved cells act to either absorb or scatter the sound. Together, they create a balanced reverberation throughout the auditorium.

It is not a new technique, this use of grooved cells on acoustic panels. It has been used for centuries, notably on the ornate, neoclassical detailing of the Musikverein in Vienna. Nonetheless, the aesthetic result we see in the Elbphilharmonie is both unique and beautiful.

Human/Algorithm Co-Operation

The algorithm was not alone in optimising the acoustics of the auditorium, however. For this, Herzog and De Meuron worked with Yasuhisa Toyota, the famed acoustician. Toyota created the optimal sound map for the auditorium based on the room’s geometry, identifying that the panels on the back wall of the auditorium would require deeper, larger grooves in order to absorb echoes. Shallower cells were required for the ceiling, behind the reflector, and on the balustrades.

The acoustic requirements, of course, 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. Benjamin Koren, Founder of One to One, the studio that worked with Herzog and De Meuron to design and fabricate the panels, explains:

“Once all of [the data] is in place, I hit play and it creates a million cells, all different and all based on these parameters. I have 100 percent control over setting up the algorithm, and then I have no more control.”

To have achieved this feat by hand would have been near impossible. But equally, the effect could hardly have been as strikingly original as that which the algorithm created.

The Elbphilharmonie is a testament to the sheer potential of algorithms to change the future of architecture. But, of course, it raises other questions. Can we do without the human element to architectural design, or will it always be present in the way that it has been in this project? How much creativity do we wish to allow our computers? And what will happen to the creative industries if algorithms and AI take the lead in creative innovation?


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