World famous Danish architect Henning Larsen passed away June 22 at age 87. His international firm is most known for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs building in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia; the Malmo City Library in Sweden; and the Harpa Concert Hall in Reykjavik. But as designboom puts it, “his presence and impression on architectural thought and practice transcends his realized work.” In 50 years of prolific work, he earned the most revered awards in the creative profession, such as the 2012 Praemium Imperiale, which recognizes outstanding lifetime achievement in the arts categories not covered by the Nobel Prizes. Most recently, Larsen’s Harpa Concert Hall was awarded the 2013 European Union Prize for Contemporary Architecture, the Mies van der Rohe Award.
Henning Larsen Architects constructed the iconic building in close collaboration with Icelandic artist Olafur Eliasson and local architect Sigurður Einarsson. Eliasson’s design for the facade draws inspiration from the crystallized basalt columns natural to Iceland, utilizing twelve-sided “quasi-bricks” of glass and steel. The three dimensional nature of the bricks means that “light inhabits the facade rather than just bouncing off it,” as the Guardian describes it. Since the building sits on the harbor, the kaleidoscopic facades dynamically reflect the changing climatic and light effects of the surrounding ocean and sky. The result is hypnotizing: Reporter John Carlin recounts, “I could not take my eyes off the building…its multitude of asymmetric, irregularly framed windows continually changed colours, as if in liquid imitation of the aurora borealis.” It’s easy to see why the Harpa Concert Hall won the Mies van der Rohe Award, regarded among the greatest honours to receive in contemporary European architecture.
But the Harpa Concert Hall represents more than just eye candy to Icelanders. The concert hall is the lone survivor of a much larger plan to revitalize the harbor, which petered out in the 2008 economic crash. The new Minister of Education, Science & Culture had to make the call on whether to use public funds to finish the concert hall, or cancel the project entirely. Minister Katrin Jakobsdottir explains to The Independent that “Iceland is a country with a great musical life” and “we had been talking about building a concert hall for 40 years.” The building’s frame had already been built to four stories, and if abandoned, it would stand as a harsh reminder. Amidst controversy, Jakobsdottir decided that the building’s value went beyond considerations of price: “We judged that not to go ahead with it would prolong the crisis in people’s minds.”
The name Harpa comes from a month in the old Nordic calendar marking the beginning of summer. Out of the bleak atmosphere following the crash, the concert hall rose as a luminous icon of splendor and modernity – a prominent manifestation of the country’s return to prosperity. Iceland is now regarded as Europe’s recovery success story, and in a 2012 interview, Jakobsdottir confirms that the Harpa Concert Hall has become beloved as “both a symbol and an inspiration to Icelanders.” Architect Henning Larsen will always be remembered in Iceland for his iconic contribution during the country’s darkest days. His building won the Mies van der Rohe Award not just for its aesthetic value but because, like the best architecture should, it stirred emotion and changed perceptions. The chairman of the award summed up Larsen’s impact best in his statement on the winning design: “Harpa has captured the myth of a nation.”
See more stunning pictures of the Harpa Concert Hall at Designboom.