A dynamic new icon attracts life and tourism to Reykjavik, despite Iceland's devastating banking collapse
In 2005, Henning Larsen Architects won the international competition to design Harpa Concert Hall and Conference Centre, and design and construction began on the long-anticipated cultural venue in Reykjavik, Iceland. However, in 2008, a year after Harpa’s concrete slabs were poured, the Icelandic financial crisis hit, collapsing all three of the country’s major commercial banks, marking the largest banking collapse in economic history. The private funding for Harpa fell through, halting construction of the visibly incomplete concert hall at the edge of Reykjavik’s historic harbour.
Harpa was designed to be an iconic landmark for Iceland, lighting up the entire harbour with its unusually colourful and dynamic façade, putting the cultural activities within the building on display for the general public. As part of a larger masterplan to transform Reykjavik’s east harbour, Harpa was envisioned as a catalyst to turn an underutilized industrial area into an attractive urban space for the citizens, as well as to attract international tourism. After the financial crisis, it seemed as if the project’s aspirations wouldn’t be fulfilled. Instead, the Icelandic government chose to release government funds to realise the vision of the country’s most important performance and conference centre.
With context at the core of the local design philosophy, Henning Larsen Architects teamed up with Danish-Icelandic artist Olafur Eliasson and local Icelandic firm Batteriid Architects to ensure that the final design would be architecturally relevant to the society it forms a part of. The collaboration with Eliasson resulted in a dynamic façade composed of faceted glass quasi-bricks, based on the geometry of Icelandic crystallized basalt, that catch and play with the changing light, and provide oscillating views of the Icelandic landscape.
The façade produces a kaleidoscopic play of colours that bears resemblance to the northern lights, both inside and out, and offers dynamic views out to the city of Reykjavik. The building’s transparency enables an active engagement between the city and the concert hall. This relationship is further strengthened by the direct procession from the city to the harbour, which resulted from Henning Larsen Architects’ recommendation to sink part of the freeway that isolated the harbour from the city.
Enacted, this bold planning move reconnects Harpa to the rest of Reykjavik and makes it publicly accessible and inviting. Designed to host both public and private events united under one roof, the new concert and conference center expands the city life in Reykjavik. The new public institution connects three main interests: the multifaceted music scene in Iceland, world-class business events, and public recreation. While the building will act as a home to the Iceland Symphony Orchestra, the concert hall features a diverse musical programme, appealing to many different tastes.
The Conference Center is integrated seamlessly in the same building and is designed with multi-functional facilities to accommodate international conferences, conventions and meetings of various sizes. In addition to the concert hall and the conference centre, the facility includes a public restaurant, sky bar and café. The challenge of integrating a variety of uses and users was accomplished by creating distinct spaces united through shared circulation and access. These conjoined spaces are a physical point of interchange between the people of Iceland and International visitors the hall attracts.
The official inauguration of Harpa coincided with Reykjavik’s annual culture festival, and its doors were opened to the public to celebrate the striking new addition to the Iceland and European cultural scene. Locals swarmed to the concert hall not only to enjoy free music, but to use the new facility as a public park. Children biked around the foyer as parents pushed strollers up and down the main hallway. The response from the people was overwhelmingly positive, many expressing excitement to have a new, beautiful space to frequent as an extension of the city. More significantly, the expressed effect of Harpa on the people of Reykjavik is as a symbolic reminder of the resiliency of Icelandic society, and the anticipated recovery of their battered economy.
Harpa is an important catalyst in relation to attracting life and activity to not only Reykjavik’s east harbour, but to Iceland in general. The primary objective of the masterplan has been to create a new identity for the east harbour and transform the area into attractive urban space for the citizens.
“The building’s name Harpa refers to the musical instrument, the Harp,” said Musical Director of Harpa, Steinunn Birna Ragnarsdottir. “It is also the name of the first month of spring in the Nordic calendar – and for the people of Iceland this means the promise of better times.”
Incorporating accessibility into its broader site plan, Harpa invites those from the city to embrace it as an indoor public park, bringing exciting new life into their city, and not only promising, but providing better times. Open daily to the public, the facilities finally provide a space for Iceland to showcase their broad spectrum of musical talents, as well as shopping, dining options and available halls for private events.
Aesthetically, it invigorates the harbour, giving the people of Reykjavik a landmark to be proud of.
The technical facilities of Harpa, developed in collaboration with Artec Consultants, maximize acoustics and highlight flexibility for accommodating any scale of conference, convention or concert. The halls vary in size and all facilities are equipped to the highest standard. The reverberation space within the halls can be adjusted according to the individual event, and all spaces are ideal for musical acoustics.
Balconies surround the main hall and the stage is removable. Two doors connect the rehearsal hall to the conference hall, so both halls can be used simultaneously, and the conference hall features retractable ranks of seats. In situ cast concrete is used as the all-embracing material for the main music auditorium. This solid material is known for its beneficial properties in terms of acoustics.
Pragmatically designed in the shape of a shoe box to conduct crisp sound, the Main Hall is surrounded by reverberation chambers which are covered in a red-lacquered birch veneer. The halls are designed for multi-functional use with flexible lighting and acoustic amenities.
Reykjavik was featured in the New York Times mid-January as amongst the top four places in the world to travel to in 2011, with Harpa listed as a main attraction. Offering halls for international conferences, performances by world-renowned musical artists, and an incredible façade that is an Olafur Eliasson art-installation in itself, Harpa is an unequalled cultural gathering point for Iceland and an attractor that is already drawing the masses to Reykjavik.
The new tourism will undoubtedly boost the Icelandic economy, helping their recovery from their economic crisis. In addition, the building is situated at the end of the most active shopping street in Reykjavik, where the 43 metre-high building will rise as a lighthouse and will lead visitors towards the shopping street, adding a boost to Iceland’s retail sector.