Opened earlier this summer, the Reykjavik Concert hall and conference centre Harpa is the home of the Icelandic symphony orchestra and Icelandic Opera, as well as a wide array of other concerts and cultural events.


The designers include Danish practice Henning Larsen Architects, Icelandic Batteriid architects, and Icelandic-Danish artist Ólafur Eliasson−responsible for the multi-angled façade of the house.


As a music hall, however, the most essential design lies behind the façade and inside the walls. Harpa’s acoustics were developed by Artec Consultants Inc , a New York-based consultancy, designing innovative performance art facilities, with previous projects including the Culture and Congress Centre of Lucerne, Switzerland; Bartók Béla National Concert Hall of Budapest in Hungary and Jazz at Lincoln Center in New York, US.

We asked Partner Damien J. Doria to tell us more about the secrets behind Harpa’s design.

Which unique design solutions did you use at Harpa?

There are a number of unique aspects to this building.
A dozen Artec concert halls include secondary coupled volumes (often referred to as reverberation chambers) to help tailor the natural acoustics of the room for different periods of musical repertoire, various sizes and orchestrations, and to help accommodate more modern music, including amplification.


In Eldborg, we’ve utilized two secondary coupled volumes in a way that is configured differently from past projects.  The doors that couple the main hall and secondary volumes are different from past projects in location and design, as well as how intricately we can control their settings.


There is also a system of banners to add or remove acoustical absorption from Eldborg that was developed specifically for Harpa.


Henning Larsen Architects and Artec developed unique acoustical designs for the other three spaces to address a desire for architecturally consistent appearance while allowing variation in acoustics through adding or reducing the amount of sound absorptive material in the room.


Many of these artistic architectural and acoustical elements are in response to Icelandic geology, culture and programming goals, making it impossible to separate them from Harpa or consider them directly for use in other projects.

Which specific challenges did this project include?

All projects include a variety of challenges, since they respond to their community needs and goals. Harpa has a lot of unique qualities that made its design process interesting and it’s resulting facility extraordinary.


For the best possible acoustic experience, we focus a lot of attention on preventing exterior noise intrusion into the performance spaces while maintaining ultra-low background noise from air conditioning and lighting systems.


Harpa is in an urban setting and adjacent to the sea.  The building needs to resist the elements as well as noise from traffic on the sea, ground and air.


Additionally, the facility includes four main performance spaces plus practice rooms and conference facilities.  The resulting space layout for best architectural function and sound isolation of rooms was a complex puzzle when first approached. I believe that Henning Larsens Architects did an excellent job of utilizing the available views for public and artist spaces, while Artec and Henning Larsen Architects together sorted out inter-relation of spaces and their isolation from one another in a very optimal way.  In a way, the context of the building in its environment led to a very unique solution to the puzzle of how to best organize it.


There are other “challenges” – the need to isolate the building while maintaining a water-tight basement because of the sea level, the integration of an art installation as the curtain-wall of the building, addressing a broad range of programming (for all spaces), including symphony, opera and amplified music in the concert hall.


In the last example, opera of the artistic level desired by the resident company is the unique challenge for Harpa – many of our concert halls present opera in a much simplified way using little scenery or making only small set changes between acts and scenes.  Here, the intent is to create productions much more similar to those presented to Reykjavik audiences in the existing opera house.


What is the key to successful acoustic design?
Flexibility is essential. There is debate in the acoustical community about how flexible a symphony hall needs to be if it’s dedicated to only symphonic use.  However we at Artec believe that even a facility that serves symphony, and only symphony, should have some elements of variability to address the centuries-long development of symphonic repertoire and the potential for compositional variety in the future.


Of course, in rooms like those in Harpa where events using natural acoustics and overt amplification are both presented at highest level of performance quality, flexibility through adjustable acoustics is mandated.


How do you as audio design consultants relate to the rest of the design scene? Do you consider yourselves as designers?

Artec’s staff is made up of architects, engineers, physicists, musicians, actors and theatre technicians. So, we consider ourselves designers, scientists and artists.


We try to balance a knowledge and experience of art and musical needs with a very strong foundation in the practical disciplines of science, technology and building construction.


The people that make an arts center thrive after it is built come from many disciplines – artists, administrators, technicians, educators, and more. For us to develop designs that allow them to give their best to the arts center and its community, we must have an appreciation for the artistic needs as well as understanding building technologies and ongoing operations needed to sustain the facility.


Ps. This year, the ATypI conference takes place at Harpa on September 14-18.

Images Courtesy of Harpa
Photographers Bara Kristinsdóttir and Hördur Sveinsson