One of the first sights we visited in Reykjavik, the Harpa Concert Hall and Conference Centre, almost became a casualty of the 2008 financial crisis. The building was the centrepiece of a development plan for Reykjavik’s East Harbour area dreamed up by Björgólfur Guðmundsson, billionaire owner of Icelandic bank Landsbanki, at a time when Icelandic banks were creditors to the world and throwing money around the way a toddler throws food off a plate. The city had been discussing the need for a concert hall for decades but it was only with Guðmundsson’s initiative that that discussion turned to action. Construction started on the concert hall in 2007 and ground to a halt in 2008 when the financial crisis bankrupted both Guðmundsson’s many businesses, including Landsbanki, and Guðmundsson personally.
Left half built with much of the budget already spent and unrecoverable, the Icelandic government stepped in and in 2009 committed to finishing the project. Construction work recommenced, even though the country was still deep in recession with public spending being slashed across the board, and the building finally opened in 2011. The rest of Guðmundsson’s development plan was scrapped, though when we visited a new hotel and shopping complex was under construction to the west of the concert hall to service Iceland’s booming tourist industry. In one sense the building is disproportionately grand for what is a small city (population 250,000) and reflects the confidence – overconfidence – of the pre-crash era. On the other hand, the location on the waterfront away from the city centre means that its scale doesn’t disrupt or disturb the spatial sense of the city and it is actually visually pleasing when set against the backdrop of the sea and the mountains beyond.
The building itself is striking, designed by Danish architects Henning Larsen in collaboration with Danish-Icelandic artist Ólafur Elíasson whose studio was responsible for the front facing facade. While we were not able to visit any of the performance spaces the public spaces we walked around are stunning – simple, spacious, bright with constantly changing light. The most dramatic feature is Elíasson’s facade that makes up the entire south facing wall of the building, If it is impressive from the outside it is all the more so from the inside looking out over the city.
While the building was controversial at the time (and not just for economic reasons) Harpa has, like many controversial buildings, come to be accepted and admired by most people. It has also garnered a number of international architectural awards, including the Mies van der Rohe Award in 2013.
You can read more about the troubled history of Harpa’s construction on the Reykjavik Grapevine. That site also carries an extended interview with Ólafur Elíasson discussing his role in the project. There are more photographs, including images of the original sketches and pictures of construction process, on Elíasson’s site, and photographs of the main performance space (and more) at Arch Daily.