(Cross-posted from Azure magazine. Photos and text by Stephanie Calvet)
Harpa’s dazzling glass façade will be illuminated for the first time on August 20 as Reykjavík celebrates its inauguration amongst the music and revelry of Culture Night.
Designed by Copenhagen-based Henning Larsen Architects and Icelandic architectural firm Batteríið Architects in collaboration with Danish-Icelandic artist Ólafur Elíasson, the long-awaited cultural institution has become one of the city’s defining landmarks and a symbol of the country’s dynamism.
Harpa stands solo against the powerful North Atlantic Ocean and the mountainous backdrop, fully exposed to the changing light and climate. With four concert and music halls housed in an “inner massif”, as described by Henning Larsen Architects, the entire 29,000 m2 complex is wrapped by a steel framework clad in irregularly-shaped glass panels. Ólafur Elíasson took the lead on the design of the city-facing southern façade and developed the complex architectural language for the remaining elevations and roof. Reminiscent of the crystallized basalt formations commonly found in Iceland, Harpa’s multi‐faceted glass exterior is composed of thousands of panels that create kaleidoscopic reflections of the city, sky and surrounding seascape. Coloured modules scattered across the surface dramatically alter its transparency and reflectivity in varying seasonal sunlight while multi-coloured LEDs – the most used in any construction to-date – make Harpa glow long after the sun has set.
Situated apart from the city centre, the angular glass icon creates a new focal point in the skyline and enhances the connection between the harbour and the city. Adjacent to a large outdoor plaza, the building’s vast entry foyer, with its minimal interior of concrete mixed with coal to resemble the black basalt rock of the coastline, is in stark contrast to the transparent façade. Natural light that pervades the entire space creates beautiful colours and patterns on the floor, an ever-changing art piece. Additional amenities include meeting rooms, an auditorium, a boutique, viewing balcony, bar and restaurant overlooking the harbour, and a ground-floor bistro.
Harpa, whose name is both that of the string instrument and the ancient Icelandic name of a month in the old Nordic calendar marking the beginning of summer, is now home to both the Iceland Symphony Orchestra (ISO) and the Icelandic Opera. Reykjavík has waited for decades for a proper music hall; until recently, the ISO was occupying a minor university theatre. With the acoustical design, sound equipment, and technical facility planning provided by Artec Consultants Inc, Harpa joins the ranks of the most prestigious international concert halls in the world, offering performances from classical to contemporary. An emphasis on versatility allows the complex to simultaneously host everything from large events to intimate gatherings without interference from one another or from the active waterfront. Named after elements in Icelandic nature, the halls range from a small chamber with sloped floors, to a multi-purpose hall with foldout bleacher seating, to the striking red main concert hall at the rocky core that accommodates 1,800. Flexible acoustic elements support a diverse array of events and walls are clad with wooden lamellas and felt, or dual-faced panels (one side fabric, one side painted wood) which can be flipped to absorb or magnify sound, and visually enhanced with LEDs in varying hues.
Harpa, whose construction began in 2007, was originally part of a masterplan seeking to expand and revitalize Reykjavík’s East Harbour with a mix of apartments, retail, and restaurants. When the financial crisis hit, the proposal was partially abandoned and Harpa’s construction was halted mid-way. Controversy surrounded the building when the government decided to fully fund the remaining costs of the structure. Besides hosting major business and trade events, the Reykjavík Concert Hall and Conference Centre will become a vibrant hub for the country’s rising music scene and will attract an enthusiastic international audience of art, culture, and architecture.