The Volcanic Principle in Architecture: Harpa Center, Reykjavik

In the beginning was Geology…then Geography…then Architecture.

September of 2012, I visited Iceland and had the opportunity to view the new Harpa Concert Hall and Convention Center in Reykjavik.  Not knowing what to expect, and  having no preconceived notions, I was awestruck.  This building, the story of its inception, the development of its technology, its raison d’etre , existing as it does at the intersection of architectural design, technology, economics, and politics presents a dramatic insight into the forces giving form to the built environment of our age.  In a leap of inspiration, the seed of its morphology derives from the geology and spirit of this volcanic, and seismically active island. 

Geology.  Iceland, the land mass, continues to be generated by volcanic and seismic forces coming from the earth’s depth.  Sitting atop an active volcanic hotspot emanating from the earth’s core, and straddling two tectonic plates – North American and Eurasian-Iceland feels like it will either erupt and flow away into a field of black lava, or be swallowed into  a crack in the earth.  The land mass is 40,000 square miles, roughly the size of Kentucky and Virginia.  Travel forty-five minutes outside of Reykjavik and one is in a valley between two mountain ridges , the edges of the tectonic plates, slowly grinding against each other, or separating.  These crevices are rifts, stretch marks in the earth, the result of continental plate tectonics.

Rim of a dormant volcano

 Fabulous geological features seen on the island include geysers, waterfalls, volcanic craters ringed in oxidized,  red, rust, lava and delicate yellow-green lichens;  glaciers, and columnar basaltic formations on black lava beaches by the at the edge of the North Atlantic.

Panorama of basltic formations on the North Atlantic

Geography.  Iceland sits strategically between Northern Europe and North America, four hours from New York, two hours form London.  It was discovered and settled by Norwegian Vikings over one-thousand years ago.  Decidedly Scandinavian in its approach to social services and government, the population of the entire country is 320,000 with roughly one-third living in Reykjavik.  It is rich in clean energy producing resources – hydro-electricity and geothermal.  Particularly interesting is the Chinese presence in Iceland.  According to a Reuters news article dated April 20, 2012, the Chinese are interested in the natural resources, energy cooperation , and in developing polar science and geothermal energy.  In addition, other foreign industries locate to Iceland to utilize its inexpensive energy sources.

Hexagonal basalt fluting

 Architecture.  The Harpa is a 300,00 square foot building built at a cost of $150 million US dollars. It was conceived as part of a larger urban design project with social goals to revitalize the eastern harbor of the city with a downtown plaza, shopping street, hotel, residential building, educational institutions, and mixed industry.  The project was privately financed with cheap credit  prior to the Icelandic banking meltdown of 2008. The crises, engendered  by the overleveraging of short term debt within the context of  bank deregulation, resulted in the collapse of all three major commercial banks when the Central Bank of Iceland could not guarantee payments of  debts to the United Kingdom and the Netherlands.  Unemployment tripled.

The Harpa was half built when the banking crises struck.  According to Michael Stothard  writing  on March 29, 2012 in the Financial Times,, Iceland’s  parliament approved a bill to pay the UK and the Netherlands more than 5 billion dollars in lost accounts; and the State of  Iceland picked up the funding and completed the project. Today, according the  Reykjavik Grapevine, the Harpa is lauded as a symbol of Iceland’s economic recovery.

Hexagonal glass module

This might be the largest  building in Iceland.  The 1600 seat concert hall is regularly filled and is a venue for international artists and conferences.   It is a highly sustainable building, depending  upon natural light in the central atrium space, natural ventilation,  recycling, renewable energy based on geothermal and hydroelectric resource. The building is formed as two contiguous glass boxes. The cool exterior glass, subtly  colored, tending to black and grey,  is contrasted by the fiery red interior concert halls – a metaphor for the combinative potential of fire and ice.  The south facing, multi-faceted façade sparkles  in the sunlight; at night its lines are accentuated by LED lighting.  The façade geometry is inspired by formations of columnar basaltic rock thrown up from the Vulcan guts of the earth, and cooled into long, spindly, vertiginous, hexagonal columns. These formations are astonishing in their geometrical consistency and monumentality.

New uses of basalt in materials fabrication are presented in a recent blog called Tekton: Exploring Sculptural and Architectural Fabrication, a searchable on Archinect.  Basalt is one of the building blocks of earth geology; and may be processed and used in the same way as carbon fibers, or woven into sheets of material for structural purposes.

Atrium lobby

Here at the Harpa, the façade was conceived based on the geometry of basalt. The naturally occurring hexagonal forms were translated into modular framed glass walled building units: formed in glass – an allusion to the basaltic columnar formations found the south coast of Iceland – as if  geologic process was augmented by the intentions of the  mind, and an intensely collaborative process.

It is the conception of  the Icelandic artist Olafur Eliasson in collaboration with the Danish architecture firm Henning Larsen Architects of Copenhagen.  Eliasson is internationally active and currently based in Berlin at the  Institute for Spatial Experiments, which he founded. His site specific sculptures are known around the world. His work in  New York may be known to some as the New York City Waterfalls: a man-made waterfalls erected on scaffolding under the Brooklyn Bridge.

Modular glass curtainwall units

 The records of all successful building projects consists of  thousands of dramas hidden away in job meeting notes, memos, sketches and telephone call records tracking the ebb and flow of competing priorities, technical concerns, political calculations,  legal liabilities, financial concerns, and aesthetic imprints.  It  has been said that architecture mirrors the society that made it.    In the world we face going forward,  we should expect our great projects to become more and more complex, the product of international entities, conceived by stake holders which may be a consortium of private and public entities.

As well,  these projects will take heed of increasingly stranger and unprecedented climate patterns.  It is indeed a notable achievement when such a project as the Harpa can survive the process of conception, financing, construction, and completion, and in the end maintain a clarity of purpose and design, and poetic élan.


Written by


Michael Sackler, AIA has worked as an architect since receiving his degree in 1980. He is an integral member of the The Ives Architecture Studio team.


  1. Joel Ives Joel Ives says:

    Excellent article and photography.

  2. admin Tony Kowidge says:

    Its awesome to see organic form translated into civic architecture, let alone actually get built, albeit over a very long period. Good article.

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