It’s 2011, and I’m sitting in a plush Reykjavík auditorium with around 800 other people, waiting for Björk Guðmundsdóttir to perform her 2011 album Biophilia. It’s an intimate event for an artist of such renown, especially since she doesn’t perform in her hometown often, and the atmosphere fairly crackles with anticipation. Her performance is even more electrifying though; stepping on stage in an explosive combination of giant red hair and an electric blue dress, she proceeds to incorporate everything from a Tesla coil, electronic pipe organ, and a programmed quartet of pendulums, to iPads, and a choir of two dozen young women dressed in golden robes.
It’s inspiring to witness Björk’s idiosyncratic mix of endearing humility and vaulting musical ambition at close range, but the performance is only part of the night’s thrills. While the singer may represent the fountain-head of the city’s thriving live music scene, thanks to her early work with the The Sugarcubes, and her stratospheric solo career, the venue within which we are witnessing this modern pop spectacle is arguably the city’s greatest star.
Architecturally impressive, culturally important, and inherently controversial, the venue, whose name is taken from both the Icelandic word for ‘harp’, and the name of the month that marks the beginning of summer in the Old Norse calendar, shimmers alluringly on Reykjavík’s harbour. Simultaneously facing into the city and out towards the sea, it stands 43 metres tall, constructed from 12,000 square metres of translucent glass that houses a whopping 28,000 metre square interior. In a city largely comprised of colourful two-storey wooden houses, it stands out.
Jointly owned by the Icelandic State and the City of Reykjavík, and home to the Iceland Symphony Orchestra and the Icelandic Opera, the building was designed by Henning Larsen Architects, the Danish engineering company Rambøll, the German ArtEngineering GmbH, the locally based Batteríið Architects, and Danish-Icelandic artist Olafur Eliasson. High-tech acoustics were crafted and installed by Artec Consultants Inc. Inevitably, it’s Eliasson that has ended up most in the spotlight, which is perhaps justified given that he was the creator of the building’s spectacular façades that form such a large part of the Harpa experience.
The polyhedral glass bricks Eliasson used for the façade represent an intense commitment to a complex process of decision-making. Working with glass specialists, the artist intentionally sought to mimic mathematical and geological structures – not least Iceland’s own basalt columns – that reflect different colour palettes on the north and south sides of the building, and are also able to integrate colours inside and out to resemble different types of lighting and material. During the day, these pseudo-bricks register all the nuanced shifts in the unique Icelandic lightscape, allowing dramatic shafts of light to penetrate the interior, while offering majestic views of Reykjavík’s sea and mountain scenery. At night they glow gently with differently coloured LEDs.
Natural themes extend into the interior too; the inside walls are volcanic grey, and the main halls, arranged around the foyer, form a mountainous massif that ascends upwards via long, angular ramps. The four main halls are also named after elements of nature particular to Iceland: Norðurljós (‘Northern Lights’), Silfurberg (‘Translucent Calcite Crystal’), Kaldalón (‘Cold Lagoon’), and the grand concert hall, Eldborg, which seats 1,800 and boasts a striking lava-red interior. Watching the ISO perform here is an exhilarating meld of the cutting edge and the classical. Its success as a piece of architecture has not been lost on the architectural world; it was recently nominated, alongside four other buildings, for the 2013 European Union Prize for Contemporary Architecture Mies van der Rohe Award, one of the most prestigious architectural prizes in the world.
But such an impressive structure requires money – hence the controversy. The costs ran to an estimated ISK 1.5 billion (GBP 90 million), which, following a dramatic financial crash in a country populated by just over 320,000 people was viewed – perhaps justifiably – as a megalomaniacal indulgence. But there’s a longer history to consider, here. The initial ideas for Harpa were sketched out before the crash, as part of a broader redevelopment of the Austurhafn area, which was to be called World Trade Center Reykjavík. The complex, part of the hubristic vision of the country’s bankers before the crash, was to include a 400-room hotel, luxury apartments, retail units, restaurants and a new HQ of the site’s main sponsor, the Icelandic bank Landsbanki.
The crash left the plans in ruins. Even Harpa almost didn’t even make it through, until new mayor Jón Gnarr, self-confessed punk and former comedian, helped gain public support for the idea. One of the primary arguments for its realisation was that it would finally give the city its first dedicated concert venue, no small beer given how many associate the country with its dynamic music culture.
And indeed, the venue has played an important role in providing not only a sophisticated home for the Icelandic Symphony Orchestra (who are based here permanently), but also for many of the city’s most dynamic alternative acts, such as GusGus, and local pop stars like Páll Óskar, as well as visiting foreign acts. Tenor singer Jonas Kaufmann has played here, as have stars like John Grant, Yoko Ono, and Bryan Ferry. The venue has also become a natural part of Reykjavík’s annual music throwdown, Iceland Airwaves, and was exclusively used for 2013’s Sonar Reykjavík, a spin-off of the famed Barcelona event, that featured James Blake, Simian Mobile Disco, and Modeselektor.
There is no denying that Harpa lends the capital a ‘big city’ feel. There’s also a certain poetic quality to a project that started out as part of a vainglorious vision by voracious bankers, and then became an emblem of the country’s refusal to sacrifice culture in the face of an economic crisis. ■