Harpa Music Center is one of the most visited tourist as well as public attractions of Iceland. From hosting large-scale events like musical concerts, and international conferences, to small-scale community-building activities like yoga classes, Harpa has managed to embrace and inculcate—through its form and content—the essence of Iceland within it. Designed by Henning Larsen Architects, Harpa has won multiple awards including the Mies van der Rohe in 2013. (Harpa, n.d.)
The proposal of a concert hall in Reykjavik, Iceland had been tossed around since the 1880s. However, the construction finally began a year before the 2008 financial crash that left the country devastated, which evidently halted the construction.
During this period of turmoil, the people of Iceland were in a fix to either leave the construction serving as a humiliating reminder of the country’s financial state or pumping funds into the project that nobody was sure they had. Thus, questioning the need for such a large venue for a mere population of 200,000, to begin with. However, the Icelandic government ultimately decided to fully finance the project keeping in mind the economic prosperity it might generate through tourism. (Guide to Iceland, n.d.)
Harpa Music Hall is part of an extensive harbour development project in Reykjavik. Along with Harpa and the docks, there are various small museums, cafes, and vendors along the strip of land. It also allows for unhindered views of the Engel and Viðey islands, and the Snæfellsjökull stratovolcano. It has all the characteristics to be a prime location within the city, yet its potential remains untapped due to the disconnect between the waterfront and the city center.
This longing for connection is what led to the government-led East Harbour Project, with an international competition in 2004 that called for proposals for master plans for the area. The East Harbour Project’s intention was to create this connection and thereby revitalizing the harbour and drawing life and vibrancy into the city through a new downtown plaza, a shopping street, a hotel, residential buildings, educational institutions, and a mixed industry. This would not just connect the city but would create an entirely new piece of the city. (Karlson, n.d.)
Process and Collaboration
Henning Larsen Architects won the 2004 international competition for the masterplan proposals. Being a danish firm and considering the scale and complexity of the project, they realized the need and importance of context and hence put together a team consisting of the Portus Group, the contracting company IAV, the operating company Nasir, private investor Landsbanki, the engineering company Rambøll, the local engineers Mannvit, the local architects Batteríið, the artist Olafur Eliasson and the company Artec Consultants from New York providing consulting services in acoustics. The extensive international collaboration is what dictated their process and approach. (Archello, n.d.)
They are designed exclusively through digital 3D modeling for structures, ventilation, plumbing, and electrical systems. At the time, the Harpa 3D model was the largest digital 3D model of a building in the world. The use of 3D modeling not only allowed them to avoid conflicts between structure and utilities but also allowed them to share the model and communicate with the different parties involved across the world. (Frearson, A., n.d.)
Design Philosophy and Organization
The isolated location of the project outside of the city’s concentrated built mass meant that the building facades would be exposed to the changing climatic and light effects that the narrow, shady streets of the rest of the city do not experience. It draws inspiration from the northern lights and the stunning Icelandic scenery.
It stands out as a large, captivating sculpture reflecting—through its faceted glass facade—both sky and harbour space, as well as the vibrant life of the city and leaves a glittering wall of light after dark. A flattened version of this geometry envelops the other elevations of the building.
Light and transparency were key aspects of the design. The crystalline structure created geometric figures of the facade that captured and reflected light through the building. One of the main ideas was to renounce the notion of a building as a static entity and allow it to respond to the colours of the surroundings—the city lights, ocean, sky, etc. With the continuously changing climatic and scenic conditions of Iceland, the building would appear to have an endless variation of colours. (Frearson, A., n.d.)
Viewing from the foyer, the halls depict a mountain-like form that is similar to basalt rock on the coast. At the core of the rock, the largest hall, Eldborg, reveals a red-hot center of force as its interior which is named after a famous volcanic crater in Iceland.
The auditorium seats up to 1800 guests and is built in concrete surfaced with red-varnished birch veneer. With adjustable sound chambers, it allows for the reverberation time to be regulated and adds up to 30% more volume.
Iceland’s prime location between Europe and North America makes it an attractive location for international corporations and organizations to host conferences. Hence, the building houses a multifunctional conference hall on the ground floor as well as several smaller meeting rooms to accommodate varied scales of activities.
The conference hall can be divided into two smaller halls depending on the size of the gathering. The flat floor space, movable stands, and flexible installation grid of the ceiling further allow for a wide range of activities.
Harpa is the amalgamation between art and culture and is hence equipped to host a versatile number and types of events. Furthermore, there are amenities like a restaurant and bar, boutiques, a ground-floor bistro, catering, and an 18,700m2 parking space. This keeps the building lively and more attractive to the locals when there are no functions taking place.
Material and Construction
The economic crisis played an important role in the design of the building in terms of material and construction. Due to the lack of funds, the building materials were altered to cut down the budget which in return created a more honest and straightforward concert hall. (Karlson, n.d.)
The main characteristic feature of the building—the facade—is made up of varieties of “quasi-bricks”. It is a concept originally developed by the mathematician Einar Thorsteinn in the 1980s, which was then explored as a design concept by Olafur Eliasson. Made of glass and steel, it is a twelve-sided polyhedron consisting of rhomboidal and hexagonal faces.
When these modules are stacked together they leave no gaps between them and hence can be used to build walls and structural elements. This resultant facade hence carries the weight of the roof and resists the powerful Icelandic winds. The combination of regular and irregular modules stacked creates a dynamic quality in the facade that a simple cube or cuboid could not achieve.
The main south facade employs three-dimensional quasi bricks, whereas the irregular geometric patterns of the north, east, and west facades were derived from a sectional cut through these three-dimensional bricks. The quasi brick modules incorporate colour-effective glass panes which appear to change colours according to the intensity of light that hits them. Therefore, resulting in a dynamic facade that shimmers reacting to the changing dynamism of the environment around it. Eliasson deployed light and colour to test how physical movement and engagement influence the perception of the surroundings. (Architizer Journal, n.d.)
Harpa Music Center is a CO2-neutral building, obtaining its energy from Iceland’s power grid. Nearly all the energy consumed in Icelandic houses and businesses comes from clean renewable hydroelectric and geothermal energy resources. Furthermore, the facade is made of glass resulting in a reduction in lighting cost and the climate of the regions disregards the need to have excessive thermal control indoors. (En.harpa.is., n.d.)
The water used also comes from the water reserves located on the outskirts of the city. The water does not require treatment before it is distributed to its consumers and is of high quality. Furthermore, all water in Harpa is sorted, and hence, all recyclable waste is recycled. Iceland works with the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals that form part of Agenda 2030 which has been adopted by 193 other countries, companies, and organizations worldwide. (En.harpa.is., n.d.)
Harpa became an iconic example for an amalgamation of architecture, engineering, and arts were combined to create a place that rejuvenated the city life and instilled a sense of community and pride among Icelanders. Investing in culture in a time of crisis, when hospitals and necessary facilities were forced to shut down seems bizarre.
Yet the outcome it had that propelled the economy of Iceland out of its recession led the building to be a symbol of hope and recovery for the country. This outcome is one that is far beyond architecture and a lot of other disciplines to grasp but the building helped revitalize the northern part of Reykjavik, including the harbor area and eventually became a landmark in the city.
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