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Harpa in Reykjavik: Iceland’s symbol of recovery

Harpa in Reykjavik: Iceland’s symbol of recovery

| Text and foto: Guðrún Helga Sigurðardóttir, photo: Nic Lehoux

Despite being so heavy hit by the crisis, Icelanders continued construction of the new music house Harpa in Reykjavik - the only building project which kept going during the crisis. And as Iceland is bouncing back, the award-winning building Harpa has become the symbol of Iceland’s economic recovery.

Harpa’s history goes way back. Icelanders started dreaming about building a good music house as early as in 1881, but other projects were ahead in the queue, for instance the national theatre and the founding of Iceland’s symphony orchestra. The music house didn’t become a serious proposition until much later. 

The only project 

Music enthusiasts agreed on the construction of the concert and opera house in 1983, but had to wait until the 1990s before the state of Iceland and the city of Reykjavik decided to take part in this project. An empty plot for the new building was found by the harbour in Reykjavik city centre. 

The construction of Harpa started in 2007, but stopped in October 2008 when Iceland’s economy collapsed. In March 2009 - after a debate over whether the much talked about construction should continue - the building work started again. Harpa became the only construction project in existence in Iceland for several years after the crash.

So for many it was a long-awaited moment when the building formally opened in August 2011 and the ‘dancing lights’ on the building’s facade were lit for the very first time. Now Icelanders and foreign visitors flock to Harpa when there is something interesting on the programme or for a conference.

Award-winning architecture

In 2013 the building won the European Union’s award for contemporary architecture, the so-called Mies van der Rohe award, for its outstanding architecture with the glass facade which seeks inspiration from Icelandic nature. The facade is made up from many smaller glass and steel elements and similar mirror elements are found in the ceiling. The artist’s idea was to move the basalt blocks which are found in several places in Icelandic nature closer to the citizens. The glass facade is inspired by naturally occurring pillow basalt.

The artist then plays with the light which comes on during Iceland’s dark winter months and is projected onto the building’s facade. It creates a magical light show reminiscent of the northern lights or the beautiful light and colours reflected in the sky at different times of year when the weather changes.

Huge losses

But Harpa has not been easy for Icelanders. The building cost 18.6 billion Icelandic kronor (€120m). The operation lost more than a million Icelandic kronor every hour in 2012, nearly €6,500. The reason? The property tax became higher than predicted, the operation overshot its budget and takings were lower than predicted. Tax payers have paid the bill.

It became so expensive that in the summer of 2013 the possibility of closing Harpa down was debated. The CEO of deCODE Genetics in Iceland, Kári Stefánsson, told the Icelandic public broadcaster RÚV that Iceland could not afford Harpa while the university hospital Landspítalinn was seriously struggling financially. Harpa’s chairman, Haraldur Flosi Tryggvason, looked into the possibility of closing Harpa. 

But Harpa’s Managing Director, Halldór Guðmundsson, said it would hardly benefit tax payers at all if Harpa was closed. What was needed was time and patience. The running of the house can become profitable. The number of conferences is increasing and provides a lot of income, not only for Harpa but also for the national economy.

Facts about Harpa 1

Harpa was designed by architect Henning Larsen from Copenhagen together with Batteríið arkitektar in Hafnarfjörður, Iceland.

Artist Ólafur Elíasson designed the glass facade together with the architects. 

Harpa won the Mies van Der Rohes award in 2013. 

The award is the European Union’s and Barcelona based Mies van der Rohe institute’s price for architecture.

It is awarded bi-annually. 

In 2013 350 buildings from 37 European countries competed. The award statement said:

“Emerging on the border between the land and the sea, the crystalline structure captures and reflects the light, promoting a dialogue between the building, the city, and the surrounding landscape. One of the main ideas has been to dematerialise the building as a static entity and let it respond to the surrounding colours of the city lights, ocean and glow of the sky.”


Photo: Nic Lehoux

Facts about Harpa 2

The concert and opera house Harpa covers 28,000 square metres and there is 43 metres of roof space. 

The building houses three large concert halls and many smaller conference rooms. There are also two restaurants.

The building costs came to 18.6 billion Icelandic kronor, or 120 million Euro.


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