When the Icelandic city of Reykjavik decided to trade relative isolation on the fringes of the Arctic Circle for greater visibility on the international scene, it turned to destination architecture to catch the public eye. Danish firm Henning Larsen Architects and Batteríið Architects created the Harpa—Reykjavik Concert Hall and Conference Centre, which opened in May, a 28,000-square-meter (301,000-square-foot) building situated on the edge of the North Atlantic Ocean to the northwest of Reykjavik’s center.

Harpa’s signature feature is its LED-lit façade, the design of which was led by Danish artist Olafur Eliasson in collaboration with Henning Larsen. “It’s unusual for an architect to work so closely with an artist on the signature part of a building, but we wanted an added dimension for this special project,” says Osbjorn Jacobsen, project design manager at Henning Larsen. Eliasson devised a compelling skin that spans the connected conference and concert hall volumes and creates a common language between them. Eliasson’s approach was to fashion a structural overlay of what he calls “quasi-bricks”: stacked geometric constructions of steel and glass designed to mirror the city, the light, and the changing weather in kaleidoscopic reflections inside the building. From the exterior, the geometric forms are reminiscent of the crystallized basalt columns commonly found in Iceland.

The different façades are made up of distinct variations of the quasi-brick. The south façade features 823 individually crafted 12-sided quasi-brick units, each “big enough to fit a human inside,” Eliasson says, while the remaining façades and the roof are made of sectionalized two-dimensional variants of this 12-sided geometric system, resulting in flat façades of five- and six-sided polygonal structural frames. In order to work out the fabrication and assembly of the quasi-bricks, Eliasson’s team (which included structural engineers) worked with 3D computer models, finite element modeling, various digital visualization techniques, as well as maquettes, models, and mock-ups. To solve the additional challenge of how the north and east sides of the façade would meet—sides that though emerging from a similar concept, are unrelated structurally—the team drew every corner by hand and designed each joint to accommodate a unique fit. The result “is like being inside a crystal,” says Sigurður Ragnarsson, Harpa’s chief engineer.

The studies that were carried out by the team on the movement of the sun and the Reykjavik light also influenced the spatial layout of the building inside the skin. The south façade is oriented toward the city, and the various types of clear, reflective, and colored glass employed in the quasi-bricks (see Toolbox, page 120) create a surface that reflects the clouds and sky in a way that turns weather into performance art. Inside the foyer, which runs along the building’s south edge, sunlight filtering through the façade throws light and color onto the floors, balconies, and the polished-steel ceiling.

The vibrancy of the glass contraposes the monolithic inner volumes of the four halls, whose perimeter walls are pigmented black concrete, passively conserving warmth from the sun. The interior of the main concert hall, a 1,800-seat auditorium that is home to the Icelandic Opera and the Iceland Symphony Orchestra, is red—echoing the volcanic countryside. Vividly colored glass doors interrupt the serene black surfaces and open to meeting rooms, conference and rehearsal halls, and an exhibition area, where visitors are free to roam. The on-site amenities include shops, a restaurant, a viewing balcony and bar, a ground-floor bistro, and underground parking.

There is a dialogue between the building and the visitor, “similar to the interaction between art and spectator,” says Peer Teglgaard Jeppesen, principal architect at Henning Larsen. “The building itself poses a … question: What is art and what is architecture?”—a question that the city of Reykjavik hopes visitors will come to Harpa to answer.

Project Credits

Project  Harpa–Reykjavik Concert Hall and Conference Centre, Reykjavik, Iceland
Owner  Harpa, Portus Group AGO (operator of Harpa); Totus (real estate company that owns Harpa)
Architect  Henning Larsen Architects, Copenhagen—Peer Teglgaard Jeppesen (responsible partner director); Ósbjørn Jacobsen (architect and design manager associate partner); Klavs Holm Madsen (project manager architect); Steen Elsted Andersen (façade specialist); Leif Andersen, Elizabeth Balsborg, Birthe Bæk, Filip Lyders Francati, Mette Kynne Frandsen, David Garcia, Niels Gravergaard, Rasmus Haak, Lars Harup, Morten Hauch, Hannibal Hink, Merete Alder Juul, Mette Landorph, Ingela Larsson, Katja Brandt Lassen, Matthias Lehr, Lisbeth Leth-Sonne, Martha Lewis, Diana Arsovic Hareskov Nielsen, Jørgen Olesen, Kristian Svejborg Olesen, Vanda Oliveira, Leonardo Paes Resende, Ina Borup Sørensen, Debbi Hedeham Thuesen, Andrea Tryggvadóttir, Helga Vilmundardóttir (constructing architect team of architects)
Architect  Batteríið Architects—Sigurður Einarsson (responsible partner); Arnar Skjaldarson, Grétar Snorrason, Ingvi Þorbjörnsson, and Soffía Valtýsdóttir (constructing architect team of architects)
Interior Designer  Henning Larsen Architects with Batteríið Architects
Engineers  Mannvit Engineers; Artec Consultants (acoustic engineers); Hnit Consulting Engineers; Efla Engineers; ArtEngineering; Ramboll
Consultants  ASK Architects; Almenna Consulting Engineers; Verkis Consulting Engineers; Verkhönnun Engineers; Jasper Parrott (international consultant); Vladimir Ashkenazy (artistic adviser)
General Contractor  IAV hf.; Iceland Prime Contractor Ltd.
Façade Contractor  Lingyun
Landscape Architect  Landslag efh.—Lisbeth Westergaard
Lighting Designer  Henning Larsen Architects, Batteríið Architects, Zumtobel (interior lighting); Studio Olafur Eliasson (façade lighting)
Size  28,000 square meters (301,000 square feet)
Cost  $150 million

Materials and Sources

Acoustical System  Artec Consultants (Performing arts venues’ acoustics and theater design) artecconsultants.com
Theatrical Equipment  Waagner-Biro waagner-biro.at
Building-Management Systems  ÍAV; Rafmiðlun and Rafholt rafmidlun.is
Ceilings  Ceir (grid ceiling in foyer) ceir.com; QB-ceiling
Concrete  BM Vallá bmvalla.is
Flooring  Flotgólf and Húsasmiðjan; Shelgason (basalt floors) shelgason.is
Glass  South China Glass; Scholl Glass; Samverk samverk.is
Lighting  ÍAV, Iceland; Exton (production) exton.is; Zumtobel (façade) www.zumtobel.us