When I asked the Tourist Information Dude when tours of Harpa took place he wasn’t sure. He said that he doesn’t get many requests for a tour of what is an amazing building. I am not an architectural nut, but I do appreciate beauty in all forms, and the Harpa is a beautiful thing. The building has already been through enough trials to fill the harbor surrounding it. When the dazzling building started the Icelandic people were riding high on a banking system that soon came crashing to the earth. The money behind the building was one of the broken Icelandic banks and very soon after the building began it stopped. It stood as a reminder of the economic crisis for years, a modern building sitting open to the elements slowly given over to fate. No one wanted to finance a building in such difficult times, but in the end pragmatism took over as they discovered it would be more expensive to tear it down. Some people actually rallied to let the building stand as a symbol of the country’s financial ruin, instead of finishing the building they wanted to let it sit rotting in the harbor. Knowing that this thing of beauty was almost given up on is shocking. The architect of the Harpa is the same architect who built the Copenhagen Opera House which looks to me like a garage door left open to the harbor, but it is still one of the many buildings in Copenhagen that leave an impression of modern movement. Before the Harpa Iceland’s iconic building is the Hallsgrimskikja church overseeing the entire city. One can see the hope that was built into the Harpa, a hope for the future of a small nation, and one can also see why it is a symbol that Icelanders embrace as they hope for a better future.
I arrived for the 3:30 tour early and had time to walk around the building a little bit. I was in Iceland about six years ago when the Harpa was just getting started so seeing it completed was on my list of things to do. At 3:30 our tour guide, Christiana, began our tour on the ground floor.
One of the first topics she covered was the controversy with the construction of the Harpa. What started as an expansion of the money flowing through Icelandic banks ended as a rescue by the government and people of Iceland. It was a long building process and there were various concessions made to finish the building so that the building could become the centerpiece of growth for all of Iceland. Although Iceland sits between North America and Europe many people don’t consider visiting, so the Harpa has become a do-it-all building focused on bringing companies with offices in North America and Europe to Iceland for conferences. The greatest challenge has been building more hotel space to accommodate these conferences. Not every CEO wants to share a shower at a guesthouse.
The Harpa is beautiful from the outside, but the real beauty of the building is on the interior. This makes sense because Iceland is not a place where you want to stand outside too often during nine months of the year. During the winter months LED lights around the exterior windows mimic the Northern Lights which would be something to see, but I doubt I will be visiting in December.
The smallest concert hall looked a little like a lecture hall one might see in a university, but like all the halls in the building it can be transformed from concert venue to lecture hall to place to take a tour of. Christiana changed the lighting from green, to red, to purple, to blue.
Each room had the ability to control sound. The acoustic technology used to move sound was one of the most impressive things about the building. Each room is world class and constructed as a box within a box. Therefore multiple concerts can be going on at once without noise interference.
The third room we went to looked pretty plain, but again, there were multiple uses for the room. It could be split, walls could rotate, and it was the only hall where there was electronic amplification. Christiana said that she attended a Bjork concert in the hall and the next day was in the hall for a CrossFit competition. (Bjork and CrossFit are big in Iceland.)
The main concert hall was simply beautiful. I suppose Christiana sees this place everyday and so it is nothing new, but I was really blown away. You can look at the pictures, my writing will only spoil it.
Behind each of the walls were these huge white rooms. Again, the walls could be moved to either dampen or amplify sound. When we stood in the big white room, I wished I had visited during concert season. Maybe when I am a billionaire I will come back and watch an Opera.
The tour took about an hour and was well worth the time. I don’t know why more people tour the building because it is awesome. So next time you are swinging through Iceland, drop in and spend some time at the Harpa.