Iceland opens stunning new arts centre in the teeth of a recession
On a recent trip, I passed through Reykjavík (only for an hour or two mind), and I didn’t really have a chance to take in any of the city – I did, though, catch a glimpse of this extraordinary building in an emerging port area in the city.
This is Harpa, a new concert hall and conference centre that is now open for business and will be officially inaugurated later this month on Iceland’s Culture Night. The centre will be home to the Iceland Symphony Orchestra and the Icelandic Opera, but will also host contemporary performances – Bjork is bringing her extraordinary Biophilia show there as part of the Iceland Airwaves festival in October.
This is one of those rare buildings that looks better in the flesh than those architectural drawings that usually raise people’s hopes far beyond reality. Its glittering façade seems to shift constantly in the light, and it changes in appearance with the seasons – how very Icelandic. It was designed by visual artist Olafur Eliasson, together with Henning Larsen Architects and Batteríið Architects, and the team behind it say that it is a symbol of “Iceland’s renewed dynamism”.
The space is cutting edge. It employs (acoustic geek alert) a massive two-piece overhead reflector canopy system, acoustic control chambers with mechanised doors, and a comprehensive system of motorised sound absorptive cloth. The building has four main halls, including a 1,800-seat auditorium, meeting rooms, and an exhibition area, which are linked to form a red glowing centre. The name, incidentally, draws on Harp and the Icelandic name of a month in the old Nordic calendar, which marks the beginning of summer.
What’s perhaps most extraordinary is that it got built in the teeth of the Icelandic recession, at a total cost of ISK27 billion (€164 million) – and it has proved enormously controversial in Iceland. The venue was planned in more salubrious times, but building had not actually begun when the downturn began to bite. This meant that the pressure to make it commercially viable became much more intense, and in an interview with Grapevine.is, the artist who helped design the façade said: “In the beginning stages, during the competition process, there was a strong focus on it being a music hall with a conference centre on the side, but it very quickly became a conference centre with some music on the side.”
Eliasson, who you may remember was behind the astounding The Weather Project installation in Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall in 2003 (below), appears satisfied with the results, though he did say: “I think one of the benefits of being an artist, and this might come across as a bit arrogant, is that I can refuse to compromise my work. Nobody wants to compromise a work of art; nobody wants a painting where the foreground is painted for ‘business reasons’.”
The project began life as a private enterprise, but is now funded by taxpayer money. Egill Helgason has a good article on its history over here, and it’s not all pleasant reading. Some have criticised its appearance as being in “the taste of bankers” – a serious charge in a country that views itself as being bankrupted by those very people.
Regardless, the government has persevered and the city now has a word-class performance space for the arts – which is more than Ireland can say. Our National Theatre has to make do with its cramped conditions (some offices in the Abbey are housed in portacabins on the roof), though we have gotten the enormous O2 and the smaller Grand Canal Theatre in recent years. The latter seems to be commercially thriving, even if its programming is fairly bland, while the former ticks all the right boxes for big music shows, if not much else. Our National Concert Hall is still problematic, though I’m told the sound has vastly improved in recent years – and despite plenty of assurances, the Government appears to have done nothing to inject life into the Lighthouse Cinema.
Like many large projects, people complain when they are being built but once they are up and running and being experienced, the mood tends to turn positive. Harpa could yet turn out to be a financial millstone around Iceland’s neck but for the moment it is creating a fresh artistic impetuous in a city that badly needs it. Now where does that remind you of?