A video commissioned by Washington’s Kennedy Center in order to celebrate the opening of a ballet festival there features an unexpected performer: the Kennedy Center itself. As much as it is an opportunity to showcase the extraordinary talent of expert dancers, filmmaker Ezra Hurwitz’s three-minute featurette is also a love-letter to the iconic concert hall. From the sprawling outdoor deck with its commanding view of the Potomac to the grand red-carpeted colonnade that first greets patrons upon entry, the Kennedy Center is a performance space intended to implicate itself in its programs. Here the integration between the form and content of artistic expression is on full display, highlighting one of the main features that makes the Kennedy Center a hub of cultural life in the nation’s capital.
A similar sort of performance space has recently opened in Hamburg, Germany, to great international fanfare. The Elbphilharmonie sits atop an old brick warehouse in Hamburg’s central port district, a shimmering architectural achievement that risked becoming mired in controversy after more than five years of delays and more than $600 million in unanticipated costs. Despite issues regarding the pacing and price of the hall’s construction, however, Elbphilharmonie has confidently established itself as a major global venue. “Everything is sold out,” the hall’s director Christoph Lieben-Seutter told the New York Times in January, even so-called “blind date” shows where patrons buy tickets to as-yet unspecified performances. After the initial thrill of novelty wears off, however, Mr. Lieben-Seutter will have to find ways to keep the hall both relevant and creative; he’s already suggested he’s up to the task with a recent Transatlantic music festival featuring the sounds and instruments of the Americas.
Like at the Kennedy Center, patrons to the Elbphilharmonie are attracted by the space itself as much as they are by its programming. The 26-story structure has been compared to a Fabergé egg for the almost magical way its box-like exterior hides a sprawling, spiraling interior: mirrored panels, wide mezzanines, hidden piazzas, and terraced stairways keep guests dazzled while they ascend to the Great Hall, an intimate space in which the orchestra is encircled by many tiers of audience seating.
It would have been easy enough for cost-cutting bureaucrats to scrap the project at any point: “Many beloved buildings across the world would never have come to life if decision makers had known ex-ante what they would cost,” warns a report by Berlin’s Hertie School of Governance. Though the ballooning costs of the Elbphilharmonie did indeed test the city of Hamburg’s patience and political will, a dedicated and very successful foundation helped to raise millions from private and corporate donors towards the hall’s completion.
And it’s no surprise that patrons will flock to such projects, since spaces like the Kennedy Center and the Elbphilharmonie serve as important cultural touchstones and unique platforms for creative collaboration. Add to this a particularly bold architectural vision and it won’t be long before a city comes to adopt the space as a beloved attraction. Such affection is the stuff of civil society.