Over the years, Sónar has become internationally recognised for curating cutting-edge live line-ups, but here at the Icelandic edition there’s another big star at the core of the festival.
Originally operating under the rather less catchy moniker of “The Reykjavík Concert Hall and Conference Centre,” Harpa is the glittering, hard-to-miss building that dominates the city centre’s coastline. It houses four concert halls of varying size and design, as well as numerous smaller stages, shops, bars and cafes, including a high-end restaurant and a branch of the 12 Tónar record store.
The hall’s distinctive facade is the result of collaboration between artist Ólafur Eliasson and Danish architect Henning Larsen, and is made up of 16,000 irregularly shaped, hand-crafted glass plates. As well as looking pretty damn spectacular, this sculptural carapace unites form and function by working as a component of Harpa’s heating system.
The walls of each performance space are equally full of technology, featuring moveable felt and wooden panels that allow each room to be “tuned” to suit the performance at hand. The multi-tiered Eldborg hall is flanked by two near-invisible echo chambers, cavernous in scale, that are activated by adjusting discreet hatches to varying degrees. The volume inside these spaces is reputed to be deafening with an orchestra in full flow.
Today, Harpa is a mainstay of Reykjavík’s cultural life, but its construction was cloaked in controversy, grinding to a prolonged halt during the economic collapse of 2008. It stood half-finished for a seemingly interminable period, a hulking reminder of the country’s financial turmoil. The building’s future hung in the balance for a while, and various attempts to get the project back on track faltered. But after some “clever financing” that placed a light burden on the public purse, the opening concert was finally held in May 2011.
Since then Harpa has become a favourite amongst locals and visitors alike. It is currently the home of Iceland’s Symphony Orchestra and Opera, and hosts concerts by a diverse range of artists, from Dirty Beaches to Phillip Glass. The Airwaves Festival makes good use of the venue, and the second Sónar to be held in Iceland will add another string to Harpa’s bow by shipping in an international line-up of renowned electronic artists to make use of its world-class acoustics.
Is Harpa Just A Façade?