Architectural Details: The Crystalline Façades of Iceland’s Harpa Concert Hall

Discover Reykjavik’s Living Icon and a story spanning a decade.

Eric Baldwin Eric Baldwin

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Harpa Concert Hall was designed to be an icon. Created by Henning Larsen and Batteríið Architects, the project was made in collaboration with Olafur Eliasson and his studio. Inspired by the northern lights and dramatic Icelandic scenery, the project is sited on the border between land and sea. A sculpture in its own right, the landmark project reflects the harbor and the life of the city.

Harpa Concert Hall

The Concert Hall and Conference Center is situated with a clear view of the sea and the mountains surrounding Reykjavik. The building features a foyer area in the front, with four halls in the middle and a backstage area with offices, administration, rehearsal hall and changing room in the back of the building.

The three large halls are placed next to each other with public access on the south side and backstage access from the north. The fourth floor is a multifunctional hall with room for more intimate shows and banquets. The design was made to form a mountain-like massif similar to basalt rock on the coast.

Harpa Concert Hall

The project is the home of the Iceland Symphony Orchestra and the Icelandic Opera, with the largest hall accommodating up to 1,800 seated patrons. Smaller meeting rooms are located throughout the building and an exhibition area is nearby.

The team worked with US consulting firm Artec Consultants Inc. for the acoustics, sound isolation and design of the theater and sound equipment in all the venues. All together, the building was designed to set the stage for a diverse range of events – from music school concerts and picnic lunches to international gala performances and banquets.

Harpa Concert Hall

The largest auditorium, Eldborg, is named after a famous volcanic crater in Iceland. Eldborg means “Fire Mountain”. This auditorium, which seats up to 1,800 guests, forms the red-hot powerhouse of Harpa’s inner core. The auditorium is built in concrete and surfaced with red-varnished birch veneer.

Adjustable sound chambers around the auditorium add up to 30 percent more volume and makes it possible to regulate the reverberation time. With its characteristic shoe box shape, Eldborg’s intense expression is a striking contrast to the foyer.

Harpa Concert Hall

Harpa means ‘harp’ in Icelandic. It is also the Icelandic name for the first month of spring. As Henning Larsen explains, the main idea behind the facade concept was to rethink the building as a static unit, allowing it to respond dynamically to the changing colors of the surroundings.

In the daytime, the geometric figures create a crystalline structure which captures and reflects the light and initiates a dialog between the building, city, and natural scenery. At night, the facades are illuminated by LED lights. The color and light intensity can be adjusted to bring the full-color spectrum into play and create a variety of different patterns, letters, or symbols.

Harpa Concert Hall

Harpa Concert Hall

Harpa Concert Hall

The Concert Hall’s iconic façades were designed in collaboration between Olafur Eliasson and the engineering companies Rambøll and ArtEngineering GmbH from Germany. Made to recall the crystalline basalt columns commonly found in the country, the geometric facades were based on a modular, space-filling structure called the quasi brick.

Originally developed by geometer and mathematician Einar Thorsteinn in the 1980s, the quasi brick is a twelve-sided polyhedron consisting of rhomboidal and hexagonal faces.

Harpa Concert Hall

In 2002, Olafur Eliasson and Thorsteinn began investigating the potential for using the quasi brick in architecture. When the modules are stacked, they leave no gaps between them, so they can be used to build walls and structural elements.

The combination of regularity and irregularity in the modules lends the façades a chaotic, unpredictable quality that could not be achieved through stacking cubes. As a result, the façades for Harpa are both aesthetically and functionally integral to the building.

Harpa Concert HallHarpa Concert HallThe main south facades of Harpa employ the three-dimensional quasi bricks; the irregular geometric patterns of the west, north, and east facades were derived from a two-dimensional sectional cut through the three-dimensional bricks. The quasi brick modules incorporate panes of color-effect filter glass, which appear to be different colors according to how the light hits them; the building shimmers, reacting to the weather, time of year or day, and the position and movements of viewers.

Elíasson deployed light and color to test how physical movement and engagement influence perception of our surroundings. Harpa unites art and culture through form and light to become one of Iceland’s greatest icons and public attractions.

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