Iceland’s Dazzling Hall Bathes Concert Life In Sea Of Northern Lights

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Reykjavik’s Harpa Concert Hall and Conference Centre sits on the waterfront of the city’s eastern harbor.

REYKJAVIK — “Tear it down, leave the building half-finished as a monument to greed, or turn it into a prison to house the people responsible for Iceland’s financial meltdown in 2008.” Svanhildur Konráðsdóttir, director of Reykjavik’s Harpa Concert Hall and Conference Centre, smiles wryly as she recalls the views of some Icelanders regarding the future of Harpa when work on the building stopped due to the private partners going bankrupt during the Great Recession. 

It was touch and go for six months, Konráðsdóttir recalls, crediting brave political leaders, including Katrín Jakobsdóttir, Iceland’s current Prime Minister, who was then the country’s Minister of Education, Science, and Culture, and Hanna Birna Kristjánsdóttir, then Mayor of Reykjavík, with salvaging the project. Construction resumed in March 2009, and Harpa opened in May 2011. The result is a success far beyond anyone’s imagination. In awarding the 2013 European Union Prize for Contemporary Architecture — the Mies van der Rohe Award — the chair of the jury, Wiel Arets, stated that Harpa had “captured the myth of a nation.” It wasn’t hyperbole. 

A proper concert hall in Reykjavik had been a dream for over 100 years, and lobbying and fundraising went on for decades. The need was acute as the Iceland Symphony Orchestra played in an old cinema, the Icelandic Opera performed in another one, and visiting international artists at times were presented in sports halls. In 2001, the City of Reykjavik and the Government of Iceland pledged to work together with private partners to build a concert hall and conference center, with the additional goal of attracting international events because of its mid-transatlantic location.

The Danish firm Henning Larsen Architects and Icelandic firm Batteriid Architects were chosen for the project, in collaboration with Icelandic artist Olafur Eliasson. Konráðsdóttir, who has been involved with Harpa in one capacity or another since its inception, says that all of the proposals were stunning but that Eliasson’s incorporation of elements of Iceland’s natural phenomena tipped the scale for Henning Larson’s submission.

Harpa’s facade was inspired by the ever-shifting natural light in Iceland resulting from the extreme variances in weather patterns and the basalt rock formations caused by volcanic lava flows that shaped the country’s landscape. In the daytime, the building’s 714 windows capture and reflect the natural light in patterns as variable as the weather. At night, LED lights in each of the windows create shimmering displays that summon the Northern Lights. The lights can also be programmed to produce specific designs.

Harpa’s facade was inspired by the ever-shifting natural light in Iceland resulting from the extreme variances in weather patterns and the basalt rock formations caused by volcanic lava flows that shaped the country’s landscape.

The interior walls are primarily black concrete, calling to mind Reynisfjara, the black sand beach on the island’s southern coast, which draws tourists from around the world. Harpa’s blazing core is its main concert hall, Eldborg, which means Fire Mountain in Icelandic, and is the name of a volcanic crater at the base of the Snæfellsnes Peninsula. Seating 1,800 people, the hall is built in concrete and surfaced in red-varnished birch veneer. A red box that hangs on the rear wall was to house the works of a pipe organ, which was dropped from the plans due to budget constraints during construction.

Artec Consultants Inc., a New York acoustics design and theater planning company (which was merged into the Arup Group in 2013), was engaged to do the acoustics design. The firm has done over 140 projects worldwide, including Singapore’s Esplanade — Theatres on the Bay, Jazz at Lincoln Center in New York, the Culture and Congress Center in Lucerne, and Montreal’s Symphony House. 

Eldborg, where the Iceland Symphony Orchestra performs, features an elaborate system of adaptable physical acoustics, which adjusts hall reverberation using hidden chambers, overhead canopies, and movable soft goods. For amplified concerts, the hall relies on a Meyer Sound reinforcement system. Eldborg received the USITT Architecture Merit Award 2018, which honors excellence in theater and performance spaces, for its state-of-the-art acoustic technology and unique setting on Reykjavik’s waterfront, providing audiences with an unforgettable experience.

The same focus on acoustic design was also lavished on Harpa’s three other main halls. Norðurljós, which is Icelandic for Northern Lights, serves as a venue for chamber music, jazz, opera, recitals, and stand-up. Silfurberg, named after a translucent calcite crystal rarely found outside of Iceland, is Harpa’s largest conference hall. Kaldalón, named after a fjord in the Westfjords where water from the glacier Drangjökull flows into the sea, is an auditorium with views over the harbor suited for smaller concerts, conferences, meetings, and receptions, including the long-playing one-man comedy act How to become Icelandic in 60 minutes, which is a must-see for first-time visitors to the country.

Prior to Covid, Harpa hosted 1,200 events a year, ranging from concerts, opera, ballet, and conferences to smaller private functions. When the pandemic struck, Konráðsdóttir said that the goal was to keep Harpa open whatever it took. Adaptation and innovation were necessary, with some events being streamed to stay connected with audiences. In 2020, there were 550 events, and last year the number increased to more than 700.

Silfurberg, named after a translucent calcite crystal rarely found outside of Iceland, is Harpa’s largest conference hall.

In spite of the challenges posed by the pandemic, Konráðsdóttir says that it was a period of renewal for the Harpa. In the past year, two new restaurants have opened. On the ground floor, Hnoss offers innovative dishes using fresh ingredients, while on the top floor La Primavera provides sweeping views of the harbor, bay, and mountains serving food inspired by the cuisine of Northern Italy made with Icelandic ingredients. Rammagerdin, established in 1940 and one of the oldest gift stores in Iceland selling Icelandic designs, also opened a shop on the ground floor. 

The newest addition is Hljóðhimnar, a space for children and families to explore the world of sound, which opened in early March 2022. A 10th-anniversary gift to Harpa, Hljóðhimnar’s name is a play on words, as the English translation for Hljóðhimnar is ear drum, but also means sound heaven in Icelandic. Harpa’s three core constituents — the Iceland Symphony Orchestra, Icelandic Opera, and the Reykjavík Big Band — were among those who contributed to creating this journey through the magical world of sound and tone.

For most of the past ten years, Harpa was the sole building on the waterfront of Reykjavik’s eastern harbor. The original plan called for it to be the anchor for a revitalization of the area that would include hotels, stores, residential buildings, and educational institutions. The sight of the solitary building against the dramatic backdrop of harbor, Mt. Esja, and the Snæfellsjökull glacier is fast disappearing, to the chagrin of some, as those buildings are now under construction.

Harpa’s blazing core is its main concert hall, Eldborg, which means Fire Mountain in Icelandic.

When asked what the future will hold, Konráðsdóttir points out that the rationale behind Harpa was always to create worth, both cultural and economic, for the community. The challenges and opportunities going forward are to attract more international events where Iceland has something special to offer. Not content to be a world-class concert venue that attracts touring orchestras, such as the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, the Berlin Philharmonic, the Budapest Festival Orchestra, the London Philharmonic Orchestra, and the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields, Konráðsdóttir hopes that Harpa will become a center of dialogue on topics such as water security, sustainable energy, and human rights, thereby creating value that reaches far beyond Iceland.

Over the past decade, Harpa has become the undisputed home of Icelandic musical culture, as well as a world stage with close to two million visitors a year before the pandemic. The negative sentiments, voiced by some when construction came to a halt in 2008, have been replaced by overwhelming approval for Harpa, with over 80% of Icelanders viewing it favorably. Harpa has not only captured the myth of a nation but also the hearts of its people.