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Reykjavík’s Harpa: from an empty shell to community hot spot

Harpa Henning Larsen and Batterid Architects03

AR Culture 2015 Highly Commended: Following the financial meltdown in Iceland, Harpa became the sole jewel in Reykjavík’s ambitious East Harbour Project crown

AR Culture 2015 Highly Commended

‘There’s quite a lot going on this evening’, Harpa’s director Halldór Guðmundsson tells me. In this concert hall and conference centre, a jazz band rehearses Christmas carols on a small stage in front of tables being set overlooking the harbour, the sound leaking through into the main atrium. A bride in a wedding dress and her coterie move up the central staircase to select the best spot for a photograph as a catering tuk-tuk rolls across a first-floor balcony to provide for an even larger banquet in Silfurberg hall. In Eldborg, the largest hall, a set is under construction, and in the Norðurljós hall a small group of musicians can be seen rehearsing through a long window looking out onto the atrium.

This is Iceland’s latest landmark: two skewed glass boxes on Reykjavík’s waterfront housing four halls, shops, a bar, restaurant and the offices of the Iceland Symphony Orchestra, Opera and Brass Band. Harpa could quickly be brushed off as Iceland’s answer to the iconic neomodern waterfront venue – Copenhagen’s Black Diamond or Austria’s Ars Electronica – and indeed it may have been were it not subject to a more protracted, ongoing process.

Entering or leaving Harpa on foot, the piazza over which the upper floors loom is all that separates it from Reykjanesbraut (Route 41), which travels north-east from Keflavík directly into Reykjavík. Along with Route 49, these two arteries wrap around and loosely define the city’s older centre – bisected by the bustling Laugavegur – and effectively cut off the coast and harbour, leaving it as a sliver of land that bends up into the township of Seltjarnarnes. 

Harpa Henning Larsen and Batterid Architects02

Harpa Henning Larsen and Batterid Architects02

Source: Ingvar Högni Ragnarsson

Reykjavík’s harbour has long ceased any industrial activity that would demand a close connection to the city centre. Accompanying Harpa and the docks along this strip of land are small museums, cafés and shops selling Icelandic knick-knacks, united by the walk past Jón Gunnar Árnason’s Sun Voyager. Here you can look back at Reykjavík or take advantage of unhindered views of the Engey and Viðey islands and perhaps even the Snæfellsjökull stratovolcano. It is by no means a neglected or unpleasant area, rather one of disconnection. By Icelandic standards Route 41 is relatively busy – four lanes of traffic traversed via nondescript pedestrian crossings – and this post-industrial edge land, while not short on attractions, feels at times little more than an extension of the roadside that risks drifting off into Faxa Bay.

A decade earlier, it was this sense of disconnection between city and harbour that kick-started the government-led East Harbour Project, devised to reunite the waterfront and the city centre. An international competition in 2004 called for masterplans of the area, with only four partnerships invited to tender due to the scale and complexity of the project.

Harpa Henning Larsen and Batterid Architects site plan

Harpa Henning Larsen and Batterid Architects site plan

Location plan

The winner, selected in 2005, was the Danish-Icelandic collective Portus Group, picked from a star-studded crop including Schmidt Hammer Lassen, Norman Foster and Jean Nouvel. Portus Group comprised the Icelandic Batteriíð Architects, Danish concert hall veterans Henning Larsen and Artec acoustic consultants et al, backed by the private investor Landsbanki. Portus’s masterplan was bold: a concert hall, conference centre, wellness centre, academy of fine arts, bank, cinema, shopping street, residential/commercial units and what would have been Iceland’s first five-star hotel.  This was Iceland’s boom-time:  it was a hugely zealous proposal around a major artery, one  that would not connect with Reykjavík’s centre but create  an entirely new piece of city.

It was the proposed concert hall in particular – which would become Harpa – that would satisfy a longstanding desire for a dedicated performance space in Reykjavík. The Icelandic phrase ad ganga med bok I maganum (everyone gives birth to a book) extends too, it would seem, to music, with an incredible output from Icelanders Björk, Ólafur Arnalds, Sigur Rós and Samaris to name but a few. Early in the 20th century the only concert hall was the minuscule Hljómskálinn, built to house the city’s brass band and itself the subject of controversy over its position in the lakeside park it would eventually give its name to, Hljómskálagarðurinn. This 7.5m wide structure had the advantage of being central, but could not house the growing Iceland Symphony Orchestra, who decades later occupied the University of Iceland’s Cinema, itself under pressure for conferences and other events. Similarly, the now world-famous Iceland Airwaves festival used a hangar at Reykjavík airport for its first one-off event in 1999 – trendy, but acoustically not ideal. A building with the facilities of Harpa was long overdue.

Yet this story of early noughties optimism ended in October 2008 when Iceland’s financial crisis hit. Harpa was the only part of the masterplan under construction, and was around 40 per cent complete. Fulfilling the rest of the redevelopment’s aims was out of the question. Harpa’s unfinished state became visual shorthand for economic irresponsibility, and with still-raw hindsight many questioned the collective madness that prompted a city of fewer than 200,000 to plan for such a large venue in the first place.

Harpa Henning Larsen and Batterid Architects01

Harpa Henning Larsen and Batterid Architects01

Source: Ingvar Högni Ragnarsson

As Halldór Guðmundsson describes, ‘the building could well have ended as a gigantic symbol of Iceland’s economic collapse, an abandoned and silent shell’. With criticism mounting, the decision was made to pump government money into completing Harpa, which opened in May 2011, a few months before the IMF’s bailout support programme ended. Rather than owing its existence to Landsbanki oligarch Björgólfur Guðmundsson, Harpa now stands as an adopted architectural child of the city and state.

This was not simply a changing of hands but, as Ósbjørn Jacobsen of Henning Larsen says, a ‘comprehensive replacement of a corporate focus with a cultural one’. It was this shift that saw many Icelanders change their opinions of Harpa, Jacobsen continues: ‘investing in culture in a time of crisis, at the same time as you are forced to close hospitals … that’s a signal that is so far beyond architecture and a lot of other disciplines that you can’t really grasp it’.

‘Despite the postponement of the surrounding masterplan, Harpa is taking on the reinvigoration of the East Harbour alone’

Four years later, Harpa remains the sole jewel in the East Harbour Project’s non-existent crown, virtually alone on its disconnected side of the road. Despite the postponement of the surrounding masterplan, Harpa is taking on the reinvigoration of the East Harbour alone – and, as Egill Helgason of the Reykjavík Grapevine says ‘it is almost always full’.

Indeed, it was Iceland’s decision to doggedly continue construction that won over the 2013 Mies van der Rohe Award jury. Chair Wiel Arets described how Harpa ‘captured the myth of a nation that has consciously acted in favour of a hybrid cultural building during the middle of the ongoing Great Recession’. 

Harpa Henning Larsen and Batterid Architects ground plan

Harpa Henning Larsen and Batterid Architects ground plan

Ground floor plan - click to expand

Under the cover of snow it is easy to forget that this area is still a liminal one. A large pit lies close to Harpa itself, and another close by, soon to be hotel and shopping units that have been snapped up by other clients. While some visitors criticise Harpa for lacking connection with the city, such criticism forgets that it was not initially conceived as, and will not always be, such a disconnected structure. Sigurður Einarsson of Batteriíð Architects recalls how critics of the project in the competition phase felt it was ‘not as lone standing or iconic as they wanted’, and Jacobsen dismisses the idea of a free-standing sculpture as a necessity of the brief rather than a conscious design choice.

That being said, Harpa is anything but a reluctant icon: the facade has its own accompanying range of jewellery. Danish-Icelandic artist Olafur Eliasson produced not merely an artwork or ‘wallpaper’ to accompany the building but its entire external wrapping. The south facade, modelled on basalt columns, is formed from more than 1,000 quasi-bricks in a double skin, while the north, east and west facades mirror this geometry with a 2D dragonfly-wing pattern. Externally it walks the tightrope between bling and artistry, and certainly does not reference anything close by. Physically it has aged well in the past five years, symbolically less so. Yet the south facade in particular is rewarding once inside. The welded steel prisms are beautiful objects in their own right, each containing an integrated LED light whose colour and intensity can be individually programmed. At the time of writing Harpa is seeking proposals for an LED artwork to cover the facade, although the bar is high: last August designer Atli Bollason and programmer Owen Hindley turned it into a giant game of Pong that visitors could play via their mobiles.

Being in Iceland, nature metaphors abound. Built in a black mixture of concrete and ash, the interior stands in soft contrast to the hard glass and mirrored edges of the main atrium. The main halls represent Fire, Air, Earth and Water, with the smaller Kaldalón hall – named after an Icelandic bay – sitting below Norðurljós. Each derives its character from its namesake, Eldborg clad in deep red wood and Norðurljós housing mysterious programmable lights behind acoustic slats. 

Harpa Henning Larsen and Batterid Architects05

Harpa Henning Larsen and Batterid Architects05

Source: Ingvar Högni Ragnarsson

Formally, Harpa is roughly split into two: the southern side housing the majority of the public space and facing towards the city, and the northern ‘backstage’ side housing the green rooms and offices, facing out to sea. Harpa’s shape is determined by the positioning of the main Eldborg (fire mountain) hall along the north-south axis, with the Norðurljós (Northern Lights) and Silfurberg (a calcite crystal) halls sitting alongside at a slight angle. 

The halls themselves stand apart from the facade – conceptually a massif to the facade’s delicate basalt crystals – and the space in-between is an almost complete ring of public space. This makes wandering into private events perversely easy. Apart from the halls themselves, areas cannot be shut off with anything more than a sign, and the facade renders inner goings-on visible from a high building in the city on a clear night.

While the ‘conference’, ‘rehearsal’ or ‘concert’ halls are flexible, it is clear that the best reason to visit Harpa is to hear music. Kaldalón, for example, while small and fairly characterless compared with its fellows, is the room that Halldór Guðmundsson says is booked for 90 per cent of the year. Here, steep raked seating with a screen suits film screenings or lectures, but the space has also been used as a black box for performances or recording electronic music, built with the same ‘box in a box’ soundproofing as the other halls. The fiery Eldborg, with its dramatic built-in seating, is less formally flexible, but still has changeable acoustics, seating that can be lowered to create an orchestra pit, and extra seating behind the stage. Each room has this flexibility in a slightly different way, with rotating panels or acoustic curtains.

Harpa Henning Larsen and Batterid Architects section

Harpa Henning Larsen and Batterid Architects section

Section - click to expand

Jacobsen speaks of the facade and the halls as ‘individual elements’ that interact differently throughout the building. The large balconies and spaces surrounding the halls, envisioned as areas to relax during intervals or between performances, are occupied by all varieties of visitor – a group in tuxedos and dresses or a tourist wrapped up in a scarf and hat photographing the scenery. At times it can all be a little disorienting, but perhaps it is the sense of exploration this encourages that makes Harpa’s public space feel so flexible.

Iceland’s position between the UK and US is Harpa’s main selling point as a conference hub, and its ample space means conferences can spill out of the halls with exhibitions, trade shows or buffets. Perhaps it is due in part to a lack of other venues, but Harpa’s programme is packed with everything from the EVE Fanfest – a celebration of the hugely popular Icelandic spaceship MMORPG – to the Arctic Circle Assembly. Björk’s Biophilia educational project – a large-scale pilot that draws together scientists, artists, academics and children in an exploration of music – is based here. Occasionally at weekends, markets flood the atrium and the piazza with local foods.

Harpa is the lovechild of a masterplan pining for a greater connection with the city and a client yearning for a powerfully individual statement, fed through an economic crisis and somehow emerging triumphant. While its transformation from a symbol of financial collapse to a sign of cultural commitment is a hugely positive one, it is likely Harpa will be the victim of its own success as an icon. 

The 2005 mentality of if you build it they will come has been successful so far, but if the rest  of the East Harbour is to develop it must emerge from its artist-designed facade and engage further with the city, eschewing the bombastic, physical approach of the masterplan. 

Harpa Henning Larsen and Batterid Architects06

Harpa Henning Larsen and Batterid Architects06

Source: Ingvar Högni Ragnarsson

Pursuing this hangover from Iceland’s boom years would be a step back from the alternatives that Harpa is beginning to offer: as Jacobsen says, ‘the more time that passes before the rest of the area is developed, the harder it will be to attach it to the city’. 

US Real Estate company Carpenter & Company have bought the rights to the adjacent hotel, promising it will be ‘superior to any hotel in Iceland’. Looking down at the pit, a visitor remarks, ‘who comes to Iceland for American-style luxury?’

Harpa Concert Hall and Coference Centre

Architects: Henning Larsen Architects and Batteriíð Architects

Landscape architects: Landslag efh and Lisbeth Westergaard

Facade design and development: Olafur Eliasson and Studio Olafur Eliasson in collaboration with Henning Larsen Architects

Photographs: Ingvar Högni Ragnarsson