With a Building Adorned by Olafur Eliasson, Iceland Seeks a Rebound

With a Building Adorned by Olafur Eliasson, Iceland Seeks a Rebound

American knowledge of Iceland is generally limited to Bjork, erupting volcanos, and banking meltdowns. With this week’s official announcement of the opening date for Harpa, a concert and conference center in Reykjavik, we can now add an Olafur Eliasson-designed architectural monument to that list. In many ways it’s been the “little building that could,” minus the “little” bit.

The massive, flashy Harpa had been launched by a private banking and real estate conglomerate operating under the name Portus. After 2007’s financial cataclysm, which bankrupted the group, the city of Reykjavik and the Icelandic state took over. (They kept the name, and much of the engineering faculty, but fired the management. Understandably so: General rumormongering has not been sympathetic to the “Viking Gangsters” who first helmed the project.)

Harpa was designed by the Danish architectural firm Henning Larson, who worked in collaboration with the esteemed Olafur Eliasson, who is Danish, a son of Icelanders, and now operates a studio in Berlin. Eliasson, luckily, seems to have gotten paid before Iceland’s banking system erupted into a total mess. This week, he was in Reykjavik to celebrate the official announcement of Harpa’s opening concert — a performance in the building's 1,800-seat theater by the Icelandic Symphony Orchestra, set for May 4th, 2011. ARTINFO was there, courtesy of the generosity of Iceland's tourism agency.

Eliasson’s involvement in the project centers on the building’s façade, an experimental framework of metal-framed, glass-fronted “bricks” that interact with what the artist calls the “ephemeral light” of Iceland, and celebrates Icelanders’ talent for enduring achingly long periods of twilight, what he called “this living in the ‘in between’.” His design won in the competition against the U.K.’s Norman Foster, as well as another Danish and French architectural firm.

About 10 percent of the surface is covered with colored or reflective glass, arrayed in a pattern that Eliasson designed in Berlin. The process was quite close to being randomized, according to a studio assistant. Eliasson’s “skin” encloses the black concrete walls of Harpa’s interior structure, leaving a promenade space between the severity of the concrete and the elegant playfulness of the glass. Standing inside the building and looking outward, at the sea or downtown area, viewers will think they are looking through colored “binoculars.” The artist stressed the fact of Harpa’s combination of art and architecture, noting that his façade is not merely a façade — it’s an integral part of the structural design of the building, charged with holding up the roof.

On Tuesday afternoon in Reykjavik, Peter J. Eiriksson, the replacement chairman of the formerly bankrupted Portus, joined Eliasson and architects from Denmark’s Henning Larsen to announce a countdown to Harpa’s completion. Unbenowst to Eliasson, who seemed genuinely surprised, this was a literal countdown, with a clock ticking down the days, hours, minutes, and seconds until the inaugural concert on May 4th. “Putting pressure on ourselves is nothing new,” Eliasson joked. The remark was something of an understatement considering the hurdles this project has faced.

Eliasson said that he had asked himself several key questions about Harpa’s role in the future of Revykavik, and its prospective status as a sort of community center for the city. “What is a cultural house?” he wondered — and certainly, Icelanders are not unanimous in finding an answer to that question in Harpa, which is of a wildly different scale than nearly all construction in the capital. (One of the few buildings that comes close is another design from Henning Larsen, part of the Reykjavik University complex with a focus on MBA students — a course of study that has reportedly become a bit less popular since the crash of ’07.)

Acquaintances in Reykjavik told us that certain artists had jokingly suggested that Harpa’s half-completed shell be left to stand as is: an architectural monument to the explosion of greed and excess that precipitated the global financial crisis. It’s hard to wish for such a thing, especially in a country as pint-sized and plucky as Iceland, with a population of around 320,000, and a tendency to refer to all buildings as “houses,” regardless of size. Peter J Eiriksson, speaking in quasi-martial terms, said that such a thing would leave “a symbol of defeat”; a completed Harpa would be “a symbol of recovery, of victory.”

Yet finishing construction is only part of the challenge — someone still needs to fill those 1,800 seats in order to recoup the original costs and the annual operating budget of approximately 1.5 billion Krona (11.6 million USD.) Eiriksson mentioned a focus on popular concerts, as well as performances from local and traveling orchestras, the opera, visiting conferences, and rent that will be accrued from shops and restaurants within the property. It has not yet been determined which private entity will take over from the city-state partnership currently shepherding Harpa into existence.

Despite a handful of multi-story skyscrapers along the water, it will loom large over a capital city where few buildings are over three stories tall — and many are quaint cottage-style wooden dwellings, covered in corrugated metal paneling. But Harpa boosters point to other once-controversial architectural sites that are now a part of Reykjavik’s cultural fabric. (Prime example: Hallgrímskirkja, a towering and highly visible church that looks more than a bit like a spiritual rocket ship.)

Eliasson’s artistic peacocking looks glorious when approached by boat, the colored glass interacting with the sunlight and reflecting in the water itself. And surely the public, even if some still grumble a bit, will grow to love the surreal shadows generated within the structure — a visit through the rough construction site, where some of the glass paneling has been installed, supports Eliasson’s “binocular” analogy. Let’s hope there’s truly enough money to open Harpa’s doors by the scheduled date. If not, we vote for at least completing Eliasson’s façade and letting the building stand as an outsized sculpture by the sea. That might be a better, and certainly more aesthetically pleasing, monument to the heyday of our global economy: Pretty on the outside, even if you can’t get in.