Calls for an opera house in Reykjavik appear in Icelandic newspapers all the way back to the late 1800s, envisioning an iconic cultural incubator for a country on the brink of independence. Harpa’s groundbreaking in 2006, then, felt like a long-held dream coming true.
That’s nearly as far as it went.
In early October of 2008, Iceland’s three main banks collapsed under a global recession. These closures signaled the start of a three-year financial crisis that was, relative to the size of Iceland’s national economy, the largest in the world.
Construction on Harpa was still in the early phases, the footprint of its foundations only just taking form along the waterfront. The crash threatened to strand Harpa there, jeopardizing a longstanding aspiration for the city of Reykjavik.
“When the crisis hit, many of the parties that were involved [in the project] went bankrupt. But three months into the crisis, despite the difficulties, Iceland’s cultural minister made the very brave decision to finish the cultural house,” Osbjørn Jacobsen, Partner in Henning Larsen, explains.
When construction resumed on Harpa in 2009, it was for a time the only active construction project in Iceland. Its opening in 2011 punctuated the Iceland’s economic resurgence, one fueled largely by a booming tourism industry: The nation of some 340,000 now draws over 2.2 million tourists every year. Emerging as an iconic cultural and social center in the Reykjavik, Harpa has had a hand in Iceland’s tourism surge – Since 2011, the opera house and conference center has welcomed over 10 million visitors.
“Because Harpa was half-built in 2008, when the whole financial sector crashed, we had two opportunities: We could give up and have a half-built ruin and an eternal reminder of the Icelandic crisis standing right in the center of the old town – Or it could be finished and opened, and be a symbol of resurrection and the comeback of Iceland. And that is what it became,” says Halldór Gudmundsson, former Director of Harpa.
Harpa’s story of uncertainty and phoenix-like revival parallels that of Iceland itself, giving the building a new layer of meaning for the people of Reykjavik.
“It’s been mentioned that Harpa was one of the catalysts of bringing Iceland out of the economic crisis. I remember showing the jury from the Mies van der Rohe prize around Harpa, and they were shocked with the building’s story…they couldn’t really see any other project with that precedent, of a nation, deciding to invest in culture in a period where people were really on their knees,” Jacobsen adds.
“In the end, it was a really strong decision – Like finding light in the darkness.”