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Harpa, Reykjavik, Iceland

Issue 63 Oct / Nov 2011 : Architecture : Performance


The lighting design for Harpa Concert Hall and Conference Centre was a collaborative effort between Henning Larsen Architects, Batteriid Arkitekter, Zumtobel and artist Olafur Eliasson.

A striking addition to the Icelandic and European cultural scene, Harpa ‐ Reykjavík Concert Hall and Conference Centre - opened its doors to the public in May 2011. Due to its exposed location on the Austurhofn peninsula outside the Reykjavik city centre it is, at first glance, reminiscent of the opera houses of Sydney, Oslo or Cardiff.

Developed during Iceland’s boom years in the early 2000s, the project originally also comprised an underground shopping mall and a 400-room luxury hotel. Situated halfway between the ‘old world’ of Europe and the ‘new world’ of America, it seeks to increase Iceland’s worldwide cultural prestige and attract admirers of top-quality music performances. Even its proximity to Reykjavik Airport is part of the concept of a cultural stopover.

A concert hall with seating for 1800 people, two rehearsal halls, two foyers, a restaurant, a café, an administration section and an underground car park makes Harpa the largest structure in Reykjavik, rising high above the whole city centre. Here, the world’s best orchestras play in a setting evoking the unique atmosphere created by the local Northern Lights, within a geometric structure derived from the eruptions of fire that have formed Iceland and its miracles of nature.

Harpa’s façade was designed by renowned artist Olafur Eliasson and Henning Larsen Architects, the building by Henning Larsen Architects and Batteríið Architects. The glass façade is based on a twelve-sided geometric modular system called the ‘quasi‐brick’. Inspired by the Icelandic nature, the building appears in a kaleidoscopic play of colours, reflected in the almost 1000 quasi‐bricks composing the southern façade. The glass prisms capture and reflect the light, mirroring the day and seasons like ‘a calendar of light’.

“Over the years I have been inspired by shapes and patterns made by nature,” explains Eliasson. “Iceland is rich in unique natural phenomena, such as the crystallised basalt columns, of which the quasi brick is reminiscent. The uniform size of the three-dimensional bricks used on Harpa’s south façades, facing the city, additionally relate to that of the human body. Where ordinary bricks prescribe standard building principles and dimensions, the quasi brick, due to its form, opens up new ways of conceiving space and construction. While transparent and light-weight in appearance, the brick is the sole element of which the façades consist. It fulfils structural and functional requirements, resulting in façades that, contrasting with the monolithic interior of Harpa, are both light and expansive. In order to achieve a lively yet subtle modulation, the bricks of the two southern façades are differently inclined, both leaning slightly into the city.”

The building’s façade consists of twelve-sided ‘quasi bricks’ made of glass, each about 2.2m high. Surface reflections on and within these bricks create the impression of a volume catching light. The southern façade, which is made up of some 1,000 ‘quasi bricks’, facing the city covers the rough functional building cores like a carpet. These geometric glass structures’ affinity to light suggests the use of artificial lighting to give them a ‘second’ life at twilight and at night – which is part of the concept.

The changing daylight and surroundings stage the building in an endless variety of colours. To enhance this effect a special lighting solution has been developed for the front façades using strips of LED colour adjustable lights developed by Zumtobel to individually control the colour and intensity of each brick. The LED lights are built into the profiles of the bricks to create only minimal visual distraction. At night, the visibility of the lights will vary depending on the position of the viewer and the glass reflectivity in various locations. The lighting for the plain‐glass north façades consists of one single white LED light, illuminating the upper half of each structural frame. The
intention is to highlight the façade geometries against their varied backdrops.

In order to achieve the desired interaction between natural and artificial light in the building, the team conducted a thorough analysis of the sun’s movement in Reykjavik. The artificial lighting concept of the façades thus provides a counter to the changing natural light in Reykjavik.

“Over the course of a day, the movement of the sun from east to west will be reflected in the facetted south façades, alongside life in the city,” states Eliasson. “Depending on the weather and the time of day, the reflectivity and transparency of the façades make explicit the influence of natural light on our perception of the building. Varying light conditions will thus accompany the activities in the house: an opera may be performed in full daylight on a summer night; a children’s concert may take place in the darkness of an early winter afternoon. In order to respond to this natural variety, a number of the quasi bricks are fitted with a special dichromatic glass that each reflect hues of either green, yellow, or orange and their complementary colours. At night, strips of red, green, and blue LED lights, integrated into the bricks, illuminate the façades. The colour and light intensity of each brick can be individually controlled, generating the full colour spectrum.”

Extensive studies, backed by Zumtobel’s realistic visualisation tools as well as tests using mock-ups, resulted in linear light pixel elements within the quasi bricks, each of them an individually controlled RGB-LED unit. This has created a large light-media carpet providing a wealth of surprising effects based on multiple reflections, luminance levels and movement.

A purpose-built optic makes the special LED line appear perfectly uniform. Its body has been designed to exactly match the brick structures. Zumtobel developed, provided and commissioned the entire system and solved the difficult installation procedure, which had to be perfectly synchronised with the installation of the façade and yet allow for safe and easy maintenance.

Henning Larsen Architects was responsible for the lighting design in the foyers, the concert hall and the rehearsal halls. The studies of the lighting was an influence on the spatial layout of the building. The foyer has been oriented towards the city to enhance the connection between city and concert hall. In this way the audience and visitors of the building can enjoy views to the sea and to the city and the people of the city are afforded with a fascinating kaleidoscopic play of shadows and the active festivity when observing the building at night time.

The glass façades capture and break the light in endless variations. This creates experiences both inside and outside the building – depending on the time of the day or season. In the daytime, the foyer space is characterised by the south façade embracing the room in a bombardment of colours, light and shadow. Seen from the outside, the transparency and vibrancy of the glass façades will contra pose the heavier inner volumes of the four halls.

Eliasson explains: “In the foyer, kaleidoscopic shadows are projected onto the walls and floor, creating an almost crystalline space. This notion of the crystalline is an evocative yet precise metaphor for Harpa as a house for cultural activities. It will be a space where ideas are crystallised into form, sounds into feelings, feelings into actions, and actions into life.”

As the concert hall and rehearsal halls had to meet the most advanced acoustic requirements, all lighting installations fitted in these halls needed approval in acoustic terms, making sure that they produced virtually no noise emissions. This problem was eventually solved using a Zumtobel Tecton continuous-row lighting system and the Panos downlight range fitted with fluorescent lamps, which met the requirements by using the best quality ballasts and light sources.

The single-lamp overlapping continuous-row luminaire creates a perfect shadow-free effect on the walls. Panos downlights have also been installed underneath the galleries. When the doors that cover the entire wall between the concert auditorium and the acoustic chambers surrounding it are open, fluorescent light creates a daylight effect floating from the chambers towards the dark hall.

The light installation in the section between the banner and panel in the Rehearsal Hall bear resemblance to the northern lights and the flickering movements of sound frequencies in music. During a concert you can experience the intriguing interplay between the open panels, the dark violet back wall and the floating RGB light between them. A large glazed wall between the Rehearsal Hall and the adjacent foyer offers the possibility to let in daylight. At the same time it allows the public to watch rehearsals from the foyer.

The lighting design in the exterior space, carried out by Icelandic engineering firm Verkis, consisted of the plaza and the underground car park. Verkis began working on the design of the car park at the beginning of 2010 and it was soon clear that the only way to showcase the architecture was with creative lighting design.

Rósa Dögg Þorsteinsdóttir, who was resposnible for the scheme, explains: “Car parks are not known to be attractive or enticing and more often than not have poor lighting which create a sense of insecurity. Our goal was to create a car park that was bright, even when filled with black cars and to make footpaths and exits clear and easy to navigate.”

One of the biggest challenges was to convince the owner to paint the ceilings white and not to have any lighting above the drive path. By painting the ceilings white and suspending the lamps, illuminating both ceiling and walls, Verkis was able to get bright visual effects regardless of how many cars are in the garage. All the lamps are located above the foot paths or parking spots so guests can see when entering or exiting the cars and the building “because lighting design is for the people and not the cars” confirms Þorsteinsdóttir! The exits are very well lit with bright colours, so as to be both attractive and interesting at the same time.

The foot paths are lit with RGB LEDs that create a coloured aura around shadows cast by pedestrians, much to the delight of the youngest generation. Along the road traversing the entire building there is a coloured plastic wall separating the technical area from the main area. Dispersed behind the wall are vertical luminaries of various heights that represent musical notes flowing through the building and at the same time providing warm light into the space.

The lighting of the plaza had to serve pedestrians as well as several events connected to Harpa held at the plaza.

“We quickly realised that the lighting could not distract attention nor block Harpa, especially for photoshoots,” states Þorsteinsdóttir. “Low bollards could be used for pathways but not for the event lighting. However, by mixing bollards, lighting at the base of the bridge and projector lighting from high poles, we could reduce conspicuous elements that interfere with the field of vision. It was essential that the lighting elements selected would not cause glare and we had to ensure that no one could look directly into the light source itself.”

There are two types of projectors used on the square, ‘Zoom’ to illuminate paths and ‘Gobo’ to create mood with shadow images from nature, tree images on the pavement and wave images on the rocks. By changing the images or using coloured filters, Harpa can change the mood to suit the seasons or events.


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