2013 Mies van der Rohe European Architecture Prize goes to Harpa Concert Hall in Reykjavik

© Nick Lehoux

The Mies van der Rohe European Architecture Prize has the objective " to recognise and commend excellence in the field of architecture and to draw attention to the important contribution of European professionals." The biannual prize goes to the Harpa Concert Hall in Reykjavik, Iceland, designed by Henning Larsen, with the collaboration of Icelandic artist Olafur Eliasson and local architect Sigurður Einarsson. There is nothing particularly "green" about it other than the color, but it is a fascinating story about the important role architecture can play in a culture.

HarpaLloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0
I visited the building during a short trip to Iceland in August, 2012. It sits alone in what was to be a much larger project, the World Trade Center Reykjavik, which died in the economic crash. The Harpa concert hall almost did as well; John Carlin of the Independent discusses saving the project with the Minister Katrin Jakobsdottir in April, 2012:

One of the first decisions I had to make in this job was whether to go on with the concert hall or not," she said. The foundations had been built, she explained, but there was nothing visible above ground when she took on the job three years ago. The problem was not only that the national economy was devastated; the billionaire whose brainchild the whole project had been, a man called Bjorgolfur Gudmundsson, who among other excesses had bought himself London's West Ham United Football Club, was now penniless. "So I met with the City of Reykjavik people to decide whether to go on with public funds, to suspend construction until better times came along or kill it off altogether. We decided to go for it."

lobbyLloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

Why? "Partly because there were 600 people involved in the construction, partly because we had been talking about building a concert hall for our philharmonic orchestra for 40 years and we thought if we did not do it now we never would, but also it was because we judged that not to go ahead with it would prolong the crisis in people's minds." So she saw a value in terms of national morale that went beyond considerations of price? "Yes. Exactly. We were obliged to make high budget cuts all over the public sector yet we decided to get this done. There was a lot of controversy at the time but I think now that is fading. The concert house opened in the spring of 2011 and since then more than 800,000 visitors have passed through. People love it. Iceland is a country with a great musical life and we are also a country with a lot of drive and ambition. The building has been both a symbol and an inspiration to Icelanders."

claddingLloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

I was amazed by the complexity of the facade, no wonder they say in the prize:

Made of a twelve-sided space-filler of glass and steel that Eliasson calls ‘quasi brick’, the building appears as an ever-changing play of colour, reflected in the more than 1,000 three-dimensional bricks composing the southern facade. The remaining facades and the roof are made of sectional representations of this geometric system, resulting in two-dimensional flat facades of five and six-sided structural frames.

windowLloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

Not much to see from those windows, none of the other development had started when I was there. The building is not out of the financial woods yet, either; The city recently had to kick in more money to keep it going.

On the other hand, the Icelander taking us around Reykjavik was clearly so proud of this building, it represented to him a visible sign of the recovery of the country from its economic troubles. Architecture can be more than just a building. More at Mies Arch and Designboom

2013 Mies van der Rohe European Architecture Prize goes to Harpa Concert Hall in Reykjavik
It is a wonder that the green glass gem by Hennig Larson Architects and Olafur Eliasson ever got finished.

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