The critics questioned why the £90 million Harpa concert hall was being built in Rejkavik, the capital of a country that had gone spectacularly bankrupt in 2008. Construction of the Harpa was started in 2004 when Iceland was riding high as the new financial whiz kid on the block. Unfortunately, the financial market turmoils of 2007 had a seismic effect on Iceland. Iceland owed the world trillions in Icelandic Krona or mere billions if calculated in Euros, US dollars or British pounds. In any currency, the amount was staggering.
Iceland had a choice of abandoning the building of the Harpa. The hulk would stand in the harbour forever as a testament to their hubris, or plodding through to the end. You have to be pretty stubborn to live in Iceland though. So the decision was made to double down and carry on with construction. The result is a stunning venue with four concert halls and a testament to Icelandic grit.
Design of the Harpa Concert Hall
Situated in Reykjavik Harbour, the building is a crystal beacon and immediately recognisable landmark. The building looks like it a giant iceberg washed onto shore but with added glittery, light effects. Sort of like the winner in a Pimp My Iceberg contest.
The Harpa is a collaboration between an Icelandic-Danish artist, Olafur Eliasson, and an Icelandic architecture firm, Henning Larsen architects. You can see the artistic element wherever you look in the building. I’d say that Eliasson had more input in this partnership of equals.
The outside of the Harpa sparkles and glitters in the unique Icelandic light. In the space of one day you can get light that is bright and clear, translucent and grey, or murky and dark. The adage that Iceland can have all four seasons in one day is true. It’s the only country I’ve ever been in where we needed turn on the heating and the air conditioning both on the same day.
That same weather reflects beautifully in the glass facade. The hexagonal glass tubes are inspired by the basalt columns resulting from tectonic activity on the island. These shapes remind me of the basalt columns from South Dakota’s Devils Tower National Monument although that structure is located in another country on another continent.
The dark grey concrete inside of the Harpa is reminiscent of the bleak lava landscape of the island. The inky hue though is perfect for reflecting shadow and light from the glass facade.
Visiting the Harpa Concert Hall
When you fly Icelandair, they like to inform you on the seat-back television screens that 60% of Icelanders have been to see something at the Harpa. Of course, you need to realise that about 60% of the population of Iceland lives in the Reyjkavik area. To be fair though, the Icelanders love their music and art. The Harpa is the culmination of a national dream of an arts venue of their own.
We went to see the one-man show How To Be Icelandic in 60 Minutes by comedian, Bjarni Haukur Thorsson at the Harpa. I thought it was amusing but my kids were in stitches of laughter. They loved Thorsson’s impressions. He demonstrated how the Icelandic wind hits you in the face or how to walk like locals over lava fields.
You don’t need to take in a show to visit the Harpa concert hall in Reyjkavik. The interiors are open to the public and there are a couple of restaurants as well. They also have very comfortable seats and sofas where you can just hang out for a while. Quite handy if your flight arrives early into Reyjkavik (as they usually do) and you can’t check into your hotel yet.
My kids loved lying back on the seats and watching the shadows on the walls and ceiling move. It’s an urban version of lying on the grass and watching cloud formations. By the way, there are occasionally food trucks in the plaza in front, sailboats and ships in the harbour and a nice park and playground across the street. So, the whole expedition can be made interesting for children with little effort.
The Harpa is located in the old Harbour at Austurbakka 2, 101 Reyjkavik. They have extensive underground parking if you are driving. (You should have coins though because the machines in the parking lot are having issues accepting foreign credit cards). The Harpa also has regularly scheduled backstage tours of the venue in English every day.