Friday, 6 July 2012

Tala íslensku? No, didn’t think so…

We have just returned from a much needed long weekend in Iceland, which was genuinely wonderful – it is a truly amazing and inspirational country. The landscape is out of this world (literally – I have no doubt it’s where they filmed the Apollo moon landings and are currently scouting locations for the missions to Mars)… from the huge contrasts of inhospitable black lava fields to the glistening white glaciers – it’s just breathtaking…. In addition to the wondrous landscape there was one piece of architecture the really blew me away – a new Icelandic landmark – the Harpa Reykjavik Concert Hall, which opened in 2011 and sparkles in the Icelandic sun (which at this time of year shines 24 hours a day, which is pretty awesome in itself – it also makes you freak out a bit so it’s no wonder they’re all mad…).

The initial concept design was developed in 2004 and it is clearly a product of Iceland's recent past… a product of the years of ‘magic money’ rather than the new normal - it definitely arrived late for the party. And in a town where the standard building type is a two-storey house clad in corrugated steel, it really stands out.

When the bank financing the development crashed during the global financial crisis many, if not all, Icelanders took an obvious position – with people losing their homes and jobs and industries across the country dying, an expensive oversized concert hall was not a priority. But its structure was already four storeys out of the ground and, faced with the alternative of abandoning it as an unfinished build and symbol of failure, the government pressed on towards completion. Now the official blurb declares Harpa ‘a symbol of Iceland's renewed dynamism’… Marketing. Bless.

The facade of Harpa is actually the work of an artist, the Icelandic-Dane, Olafur Eliasson (who gets more attention than the architects, Henning Larsen). Olafur Eliasson came up with a tilted cliff face made of multiple hexagonal glass tubes, which he calls quasi bricks – these are stackable twelve sided modules manufactured in steel and glass, with coloured and mirrored panes inserted here and there to break things up and to add contrast. Unsurprisingly, he was inspired by shapes and patterns made by nature - Iceland is rich in unique natural phenomena, such as the crystallised basalt columns, which the quasi brick resembles.

The exterior wall of the opera house is a double wall of glass ‘cells’ – the hexagonal tubes have glass at the back as well as the front, which provides natural depth. It means that light inhabits the facade rather than just bouncing off it. Eliasson's crystals filter, reflect and fragment the light very effectively – they catch it, play with it, animate it and make it move.

Unlike the Sydney Opera House, Harpa is as impressive from the inside as it is from the exterior. Inside, the hexagons continue, forming a faceted and mirrored ceiling to the foyer. Between Eliasson's light and the main auditorium, which apparently has ‘a clarity of acoustic that has reportedly moved performers to tears of joy’ comes the architecture of Henning Larsen, and an inner core of dark concrete (the colour of Iceland's lava fields), which acts as a foil for the exterior and a container for the interior. This inner core stands inside the glass box, and forms the basis for the inner walls, balconies and stairs of the foyer.


(Image from biblionna.wordpress.com)
(Image from biblionna.wordpress.com)
(Image from biblionna.wordpress.com) 

(Image from biblionna.wordpress.com)
(Image from frankments.wordpress.com)

Love it or hate it (many local people think that the Harpa is misplaced and looks like ‘a 64-inch TV inside a caravan’), I personally thought it was an absolutely astonishing piece of architecture… and don’t get me started on the cathedral…

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