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Harpa Concert Hall: from nature to architecture

Harpa Concert Hall: from nature to architecture

The building stands out like a vast, dazzling sculpture on the edge of land and sea, reflecting both sky and harbor space as well as the active lifestyle of the city. Henning Larsen Architects, the Danish-Icelandic artist Olafur Eliasson, and the German engineering firms Rambll and ArtEngineering GmbH collaborated closely to create the outstanding façades.

Harpa means ‘harp’ in Icelandic. It is also the Icelandic name for the first month of spring, and thus a sign of brighter times. Today, the most visited attraction of the volcanic island carries the name – Harpa. Between a rock-solid core and a crystalline shell, everyday life unfolds in the expansive foyer – where a varied mix of playing children, yoga classes, concert guests, and international conference delegates have embraced the space altogether.

Henning Larsen

The project was the winner of the prestigious European Union Prize for Contemporary Architecture: Mies van der Rohe, in 2013. Its geometric façade is based on a modular, space-filling construction termed the quasi brick, which is reminiscent of the crystalline basalt columns typical in Iceland. The pseudo brick modules include color-effect filter glass panes; the structure shimmers in response to the weather, time of year or day, and the position and motions of spectators.

© Olafur Eliasson

The quasi brick is a twelve-sided polyhedron with rhomboidal and hexagonal sides that was invented by geometer and mathematician Einar Thorsteinn. Eliasson and Thorsteinn began studying the potential for using the quasi brick in architecture as a result of their partnership. When the space-filling modules are stacked, no gaps between them are left, allowing them to be used to construct walls and structural parts. Harpa’s façade have a chaotic, unpredictable aspect due to the blend of regularity and irregularity in the modules. As a result, the building’s facades are both aesthetically and functionally important.

Quasi brick module study © Olafur Eliasson
Quasi brick lighting study © Olafur Eliasson

Façade module © Olafur Eliasson
Harpa’s quasi brick façade © Olafur Eliasson

Harpa’s three-dimensional pseudo bricks are only used on the major south façade; the irregular geometric patterns on the west, north, and east facades were created using a two-dimensional sectional cut through the three-dimensional bricks.

The façade concept’s fundamental idea was to consider the structure as a static unit, allowing it to adapt dynamically to changing colors in the environment. During the day, the geometric forms form a crystalline structure that captures and reflects light, establishing a dialogue between the building, city, and surrounding landscape. LED lights placed into each quasi-brick illuminate the facades at night. The hue and light intensity can be changed to use the entire color spectrum and produce a variety of patterns, characters, and symbols.

Harpa has captured the myth of a nation – Iceland – that has consciously acted in favour of a hybrid-cultural building during the middle of the ongoing Great Recession. The iconic and transparent porous ‘quasi brick’ appears as an ever-changing play of coloured light, promoting a dialogue between the city of Reykjavik and the building’s interior life. By giving an identity to a society long known for its sagas, through an interdisciplinary collaboration between Henning Larsen Architects and artist Olafur Eliasson, this project is an important message to the world and to the Icelandic people, fulfilling their long expected dream.

Wiel Arets, Chair of the Mies van der Rohe Jury, 2013
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