IS HARPA JUST A FAÇADE?

Ólafur Elíasson finally talks about his involvement in the long-awaited music and conference centre, his hopes, ambitions and disappointments
6.5.2011
Words by Haukur S. Magnússon
Like it or not, HARPA, Reykjavík Concert Hall and Conference Centre, is now open for business, permanently altering downtown Reykjavík’s cityscape while revolutionising the conditions for live music in the country. It’s been argued about, obsessed over, protested, defended and a really long time coming, as you may read in Egill Helgason’s ‘Troubled History Of The Harp’ (page eight).

But while Icelanders have been throwing fits and hosting screaming matches about the merits of erecting a fancy 27 billion ISK concert hall during a recession (actually everything else to do with the building has been argued about), one voice has remained conspicuous by its absence throughout all the verbalising—that of the man responsible for Harpa’s outside appearance, world renowned artist Ólafur Elíasson. Just last month he declined to comment on Fréttablaðið’s questions regarding his fee for the project.

Imagine our surprise, then, when we received an e-mail from his representatives, offering us ‘an exclusive interview’, saying he wished to talk in-depth about Harpa, with an emphasis on explaining why the building was being inaugurated even though his contribution wasn’t ready. “Sure, that sounds interesting,” we replied, thereby commencing an interview process that at times seemed as agonising and lengthy as the actual construction of a 27 billion ISK concert hall.

The conversation itself was fairly pleasant, as you may read below. The artist did not leave a lot of room for questioning, he mainly talked and talked and talked, and then he talked some more. Our purpose seemed confined to transcribing it and trimming the fat, and this is mostly fine, as Ólafur seems like a thoughtful and eloquent person.

Did Harpa almost turn into a downtown shopping mall? Was it too expensive to construct? Read on to learn what Ólafur Elíasson thinks of Harpa, its cost, his fee, detail, concerts in construction sites and lots more.


WHO IS ÓLAFUR ELÍASSON?

Start by telling me about yourself. For the sake of our readers. Who are you?

My parents were Icelandic. They emigrated from Hafnarfjörður to Copenhagen in the sixties. I guess it’s fair to say that my father went there to find his father, who had disappeared from Iceland, and my mother followed him. They were both incredibly young, and soon after they got there, she was pregnant. My father started studying to become a chef; my mother to become a seamstress. They settled in Copenhagen, where I was born, but always maintained a close relationship to Iceland. Had they not done so, I would have probably been more Danish than Icelandic.

Throughout my life I have fostered a deep-rooted, emotional relationship with Iceland. It’s maybe unusual though: I’ve spent more time in the countryside than in the city. My father lived on the south coast, in Hella, when he was still in Iceland, and another friend of mine—my father’s closest friend, actually—lived there too. It was through the two of them that I developed a very intense relationship to the nature and landscape of Iceland, especially the region around Hella and Þjórsárdalur and the opaque line into Landmannalaugar.

My father passed away ten years ago and his friend Gunnar Örn passed away four years ago. Both were my travel companions and the fact that they are gone has meant that I have had less connection to Iceland lately. Since then I’ve mainly visited in the company of foreign friends, most recently with my students, for hiking, driving around, photographing and filming.

NEW AGE VIKINGS

You very frequently mention Iceland in your interviews. Can it be thought of as a ‘launch point’ for your art? Has it been a resource for you? If so, how so?

Yes. It’s funny, because not being in Iceland has made it easier for me to work with Iceland in many different ways, in abstract ways. I have always been very open about my close relationship to the country, but I have also always made a point to note that this was my relationship, and that as such it would not necessarily be relevant for others.

Iceland is thus more of a reference point than a launch point. The things I’ve been able to do there have certainly shaped the way I think about art, but it also inspires me on a more fundamental level.

However, there is always a challenge because Nordic romanticism has influenced how a lot of people think about Iceland, so bringing up the idea of Icelandic nature in discussions about art always entails a balancing act. In discussions about Iceland, there is a tendency to instantly develop a sort of melancholy, with elves and so on, while I have mainly been interested in cartographic questions, the history of the compass... My interests are not connected to mythology and mysticism.

I feel that over the years I’ve become more confident in how I talk about Iceland and I’ve managed to do so in a non-mystical way. This is important to me because Iceland holds great potential in the actuality of its landscape. But I am very emotional in my feelings connected to the land or landscape. I’ve rationalised my relationship, to liberate the language from all the new age Viking stuff that Iceland seems to be constantly flirting with, yet I still feel I can have a highly emotional, rational conversation about it.

The whole Viking new age stuff gets boring after a while. One can only imagine how musicians like Björk, múm and Sigur Rós feel about it...

Oddly, I think the music industry has made better use of this image. I am impressed with the kind of music that comes from Iceland.

I should say that while I try to avoid the new age Viking tendencies, it is not something I transfer to how I think other people should work or perceive... I am merely discussing my own relationships. Usually I make a point about being obsessed with not telling others what to do and how. To moralise is not very interesting or creative.

LOCAL MUSIC CULTURE

How did you get involved with the building of Harpa?

Prior to the Harpa project, I had worked on a number of artworks that involved different spatial questions, and through a few of my earlier attempts, I had got close to a number of different architects. But essentially I backed out of those projects because my place there would have been to create more conventional works of art, where the integration wasn’t really complete. My art would be integrated into a wall of a building that could well have existed without me. Typically, an artist is brought aboard when everything has been decided, and there is a little extra budget remaining that the artist is allotted to ‘do something creative with’, to tack onto the building—or there is a problem with some sort of dead end and the architects are seeking an art solution. The artist is brought in to rescue a planning mistake. I had in the meantime grown more interested in actually making a building by myself.

So when I was contacted by Henning Larsen Architects about collaborating with them on the façades of the building and submitting this joint project in the competition, I was quite excited—it meant realising a longstanding ambition of mine. Firstly because it was a project in Iceland, and also because it was during the very early stages of the process, which meant I might have some influence on the project and how it would develop.

 As far as I remember, the concert house is the result of a discussion that has spanned decades, and at the time of the competition phase—when I entered the discourse—the feeling was still that this was supposed to be a concert house, a culmination of ambitions and plans that went back a long time and seemed important. When I first met with the architects in Copenhagen, they not only presented me with their ideas about the building, but they also explained its significant role in the history of music in Iceland and that there had been all these attempts to generate a concert hall. The design team was very much working with the idea that the local musical culture was at the core of the design.

The successful Danish architectural offices have a tradition of working with cultural or public institutions in a way where public opinion and history play a role. I guess this is a Scandinavian thing. So the research and groundwork done by Henning Larsen Architects wasn’t your typical corporate or commercial research. The firm works with infrastructure and integration with city planning; they consider public access, public impressions and public use.

So the design of Harpa was very much about creating a public cultural institution—to meet the longstanding demand of Icelanders for a concert hall that the public could enjoy and appreciate as its own.

A SHIFT IN FOCUS, AND ANOTHER

Can you describe the process?

When my studio team and I got involved with the team of architects, it was already quite a complex situation. There was a private entity at the helm of the project [Björgólfur Thor’s Portus Group—see page 8], which was guided by a public entity [Austurhöfn-TR—an enterprise company owned by the City of Reykjavík and the Icelandic State]. Essentially the building was to be made by a commercial company working under the direction of a public company, with the public company committed to renting the building for thirty years; should the commercial company not succeed in running it, there was a clause that the public company could take it over. A seemingly risk-free investment; one mainly sees these public/private partnerships in England, and they mainly entail the private company coming up with a management model that will render a building or institution profitable.

But obviously the private entity pushed for us to use more commercial building materials, for instance, opting for items that would increase the commercial potential. Portus were less interested in the cultural aspects of Harpa, so there was a strong focus in that period on optimising and detailing the commercial parts of the building, the conference centre aspect, whereas the cultural aspects—the music part, the public cultural institution part, where it all started—were toned down. During that time there was strong pressure to create something with a very sound business plan. This steered a number of design decisions, the insides of the building were optimised for its commercial potential.

So in the beginning stages, during the competition process, there was a strong focus on it being a music hall with a conference centre on the side, but it very quickly became a conference centre with some music on the side.

Was this shift on focus frustrating?

I think one of the benefits of being an artist, and this might come across as a bit arrogant, is that I can refuse to compromise my work. Nobody wants to compromise a work of art; nobody wants a painting where the foreground is painted for ‘business reasons’.

ENTER THE CRISIS

However, we hadn’t really come that far when the crisis started. Most of the crucial aspects of the interior, its building materials and all the details were still mostly undecided when it hit. The architects had to take a lot of things back to the drawing board, and my impression was that they were very happy to do this, to be able to redraw with a focus on creating a stronger cultural signature, while of course maintaining commercial efficiency to an extent. The crisis shifted Harpa’s focus back towards its original purpose. Building materials were changed and a lot of new design decisions were made to cut budgets and save money. I think we got out of it a more honest and straightforward concert hall.

Maybe it was also better to get a second chance to look at the plans. Things became simpler. They were scaled back to their most basic element, away from the ambitions that had led the project in a different direction. The private investors had wanted something that would stand out and were applying a lot of pressure to—how should I say this—follow an international style of ‘noveau riche good taste’. They didn’t want it to be too contemporary, they wanted neutral and accepted ‘current’ styles. This was at least my impression.

I believe that the architects were also happy that we could simplify the language. We got a better building out of it. For example, we redesigned some handrails so that they were left pretty raw, not sandblasted and painted over. I think this is refreshing and much more in sync with what Iceland is today.

The main point is to underline that after the crisis the focus was once again shifted to coming up with a building that was both a cultural institution and a conference centre, with strong statements on each side and equal attention paid to the details. Then the Icelandic Opera was added to the project, which I feel was a huge success.

You’re talking a lot about the interior design. It was my understanding that you only worked on the building’s exterior... did the architect team consult you for the interiors as well?

No, I wasn’t involved with the inside of the building at all. I asked to have the walls darker in colour and for them to use a darker concrete. I also lobbied pretty hard against the foyer having parquet floors, which the architects and I were strongly against. We discussed the interiors many times, but they were not part of my task. My job was the façade.

THEY ALL THOUGHT WE WERE OUT OF OUR MINDS

Did you change the façade plans in any way?

I worked very hard on cutting the budget on my part, even though it had already been negotiated and contracted by that time.

Using Chinese contractors for the south façade wasn’t just a pricing issue—it was the question of finding a company that would actually attempt to build it. Frankly, there was no one else who wanted to even try to do the façade; they all thought we were out of our minds.

Talking about it in these terms makes it all sound black and white, while such a detailed and intricate design process actually is much more subtly coloured.

Speaking of the façade, why is it not yet finished?


I find it very sad that the one question I am asked repeatedly when I travel is: “What happened to the music house they were building in Iceland? Did they stop building it or are they still working?” There is definitely a bit of communication to be done because a lot of people are still in the dark about the project. There obviously hasn’t been a big budget for international press campaigns, but we need to ensure that the right people will know that Harpa is indeed being finished and what an ambitious project it is.

Now, while people abroad are curious whether the building project has been abandoned, locals want to know why the façade isn’t finished and the house is being formally opened.

To make a long story short, the Chinese contractors employed five subcontractors that provided the materials for the façade’s metal units. One of those companies delivered materials that did not meet the requested standard—specifically, the iron cast for the metal used in the corners. Upon discovering this, the construction, which was already being assembled, was inspected, and it was decided to reproduce the entire south façade to ensure that the high standards were met.

This was obviously a big problem for all involved, and could have had enormous consequences had it been left unchecked. It was a matter of safety. The contractors didn’t argue; the mistake was obviously theirs and they just went and dismantled what they had already built. And then they built the whole thing again.

So that mistake resulted in a major delay. There were a lot of smaller things that added to it, but this is the main reason the façade isn’t ready.

A CONCERT IN A CONSTRUCTION SITE

How do you feel about Harpa opening for business without your contribution being ready?

I have been thinking a lot about that. The building is now opening from the inside out. Maybe there’s quite a good point to that. It’s almost like getting back to why we built the house in the first place, for the music and the cultural aspect. So I am actually quite happy that the first function of Harpa will be music.

But thinking like that, I am also trying to give myself therapy because I am so incredibly unhappy with it not being finished. But on the other hand I also think we have got past the need for glamour and more representational luxury. For the nation it seems it is time to focus on the essentials, and the music being made and performed inside is its essence. In the end, I am lucky to have been able to create the façade, and I hope that the building will eventually be an icon for the city of Reykjavík. This can wait for six months—Reykjavík is not going anywhere.

Still the truth is that Harpa will be opening with a concert in a construction site. The inside is finished, yes, but people might not realise that the skin of the building, my contribution, is not finished. You are not going to see what it looks like for another six months, even though looking at the south façade now gives an impression of what some of it will look like in the end.

Maybe it’s also fair to say that one of the other reasons for the delay is the crisis and the fact that everyone had to take a deep breath to continue again, with everything being restructured to save money.

THE QUESTION OF COST

The onslaught of the crisis completely and suddenly shifted the atmosphere in Iceland. The cost of the building, not much discussed when it was a ‘private enterprise’, became the project’s main point of discussion ...

It’s no wonder. The building is now being funded by taxpayer money. Furthermore, these are traumatic times that have involved some very painful cutbacks. I am not at all surprised that people look at the cost.

However, after the crash, everybody involved with the project started raising questions about the cost and looking at ways to minimise it; this response was not limited to the public but also included the team responsible for the building. The design team, the construction team, my team—everyone was in the same boat.

There was never a point where people were unclear about the gravity of the situation. The fundamental question was whether we should finish the building or not. I think by that time the building was too far along to be stopped, and quite a bit of the bill had already been paid. In terms of funding and construction, we were further along than people probably realise.

The public is right to be vigilant about the costs of Harpa, especially in light of the crash and the fact that it subsequently had to be publicly funded. But there were also some odd situations that arose from the crisis and the fall of the króna. Suddenly the project could employ local craftsmen because the króna was so low. The devaluation of the currency was sad and horrible, but one of the positive side effects, if such events can be viewed in a positive light, was that a lot of local subcontractors were hired. Things like the EXIT signs, which normally would have been ordered from some factory in Poland, were being made by small companies in places like Hafnarfjörður. This was nice. I am not trying to spin a positive story, but it’s worth mentioning that in light of the situation, these small local companies that employ excellent craftsmen began working on the project. And they develop a sense of pride in their work, which is clearly reflected in the end product, and this maybe also creates a better sense of ownership for the building; it belongs more to Icelanders.

THE PRICE OF ART

Lately Icelandic newspapers have discussed your commission for the project, questions about which you have declined to comment upon. What are your feelings on this?

I thought a lot about that. Since Harpa became a publicly funded project, I somewhat expected that information would be available as a matter of public record. With public enterprise in Denmark, the law says you can look into all the pertinent documents.

I do have a clause in my contract, which I always do, that grants me the right to refrain from naming my fee, but if one looks into the artworld and looks at the prices... you can essentially contact a gallery and ask about the price of my artworks. You’ll find there is a price structure; there are relationships between the pricing of, say, a small bowl, a bigger sculpture, a large photograph, a space installation and then the very large pieces.

My works follow a price structure that is somewhat conventional in the artworld. There are enormous sums flying around, with artists like Jeff Koons or Damien Hirst, whose works of art are selling for millions of dollars—and I wonder if this is why people are wondering about me being overpaid. Which I assume to be the case. But I am relatively inexpensive compared to what goes on in the greater artworld.

Obviously one must take into account that I have to pay a team of fifty people that work with me in my studio, not just on Harpa but on every other project of mine. I work to make sure that the turnover allows me to have a small profit. In light of all that, I feel I was reimbursed correctly for my work on Harpa. There is a healthy relationship between the amount of work that has gone into the project and the amount of money I got paid. It is not at all overpriced.

I should mention that the numbers that have been speculated about in the Icelandic media—my fee does not come at all close to them [Vísir.is reported that the cost of the façade totalled in excess of 3 billion ISK, and that Ólafur could have received up to 20% of that amount for his fee].

The truth is that I am being paid the same amount I would receive for a very large work of art. If you were to buy a very large pavilion for your garden from my company, I would ask about the same amount of money as I received for my work on Harpa.

But this was a very boring way of answering that question, throwing some realism in there. I can understand why people want to know who’s being paid for what. I guess the question people are asking is at its core: is there any sense in the way the money is flowing? And my answer to that question is: yes, it makes complete sense. I am not being paid incredible amounts of money.

A BRUTAL CONTRACT

I can also say that as an artist, I have worked a lot on upgrading the legal rights of artists in regard to contracting. My team and I have worked with German copyright lawyers on creating a strong contracting basis for artists. These contracts came out of me working with Louis Vuitton and BMW, highly capitalistic companies that handle art in a super commercial way. The contracts have become standards in America and the UK; some people consider them harsh, but I have such strong contracts to ensure my status as an artist and that I would not have to compromise my art while working with commercial entities. Artists are always the ones that don’t consult a lawyer, and they always lose against large corporations. This is a long discussion, but to boil it down, the most important part of these contracts is to ensure that while I am working for a commercial entity, I am also creating a work of art that will not compromise to business concerns or political concerns or anything outside of the art itself.

The Harpa exterior is a work of art and I look forward to seeing that work of art grow into the city and hopefully into the population. Of course some people might not like it—I am less concerned about that; it just means it is on par with every other work of art.

So you’re not at all worried about the reception?

In truth: of course I am worried about the reception. Not in the sense of whether people think it’s art or not; it’s more important to me that people can identify with the building and the concert hall. If they can do that, then I’m happy. Harpa now has to build its own history. If the façade can serve as its identity, that is good, but the signature lies in the success of running the building. Ideally this will be a famous concert hall, renowned for its concerts and acoustics, that happens to have a fantastic work of art surrounding it. It would be sad if it were thought of the other way, as a fantastic work of art with OK concerts. The façade doesn’t make the concerts sound better, but the concerts can make the façade more meaningful.

NOT WALLPAPER

Is the result as you imagined it would be, when the project commenced?

When I started working on it six years ago, I didn’t know what the outcome would be, but my hopes were that this would be a unique collaboration between art and architecture. Unique in the sense that artistic input and the architectural world would seamlessly work together. And I feel this has been accomplished; the south façade is actually holding up the roof, it does not have columns holding it up. It is a work of art, but it is also structural, meaning, it statically holds its own weight—it doesn’t have any hidden columns or support beams on the inside. That’s a design decision. If I had been integrated later into the process, like artists usually are, I would have been presented with a finished building with a south wall that needed decorating.

This is extremely interesting to me, and it has been an ambition—creating art that does not merely serve as wallpaper, but as the actual wall, so to speak. Everything from the lighting to the way it sits on the harbour front, the things related to the outside... all these discussions we’ve had... I don’t know any examples of an artist and an architect team collaborating so closely.

When the project started I was curious to see if this was even possible, and now, nearing the successful completion of it, I feel incredibly proud to have worked with such a great team of people on creating this dynamic project. The coming together of all these different individuals and ideas has made the seemingly impossible possible.

THE DEVIL IN THE DETAILS

How is it working on such a large-scale project with many involved partners? Have you had to make more compromises than usual?

No. I think the people I have worked with can verify that I have been very insistent on making clear what is art and what isn’t.

I believe there is no limit to what can be considered important about a work of art, and my team in Berlin is well known for being—without it sounding negative—obsessed with detail. It basically goes relentlessly into every detail of any of our projects. Sometimes an engineer or an architect will come up with a better solution that also works better artistically. What makes it a work of art is not necessarily that I did it; it is the outcome of a dialogue that renders the artistic idea stronger or better, and I think it’s important to keep an eye out for why you’re doing what you’re doing. When you are obsessed, you tend to focus on how things are done. Very often the why and how go hand in hand. Sometimes you’ll get so obsessed with understanding the issue that you forget why you’re doing it in the first place, and I think working on these large scale projects brings out the artistic strength.

Tell me about some of the details that concerned you...

I looked a lot into the difference between the colour palette of the north and south sides of the façade. The coloured glass integrates different colours from inside and outside, which resemble colours you find when you look at different types of light and minerals. They reference a sense of geology.

I worked with glass specialists to develop the right colour, and they of course might have an opinion about what looks good and what looks wrong. I had to ensure their opinions didn’t influence the course of the project. The glassmaker will also have an opinion and even the person that installs the glass. I have to make sure to monitor every step of the process and see that it comes to fruition in the way it was envisioned.

A PARTICULAR ICELANDER

But I don’t do this alone. The design team and the architects have been very helpful, and my own team has been working with me since the very first stages in my studio. I would also like to mention one Icelander in particular, who works in my studio, an artist and architect called Einar Þorsteinn. I think he has an exhibition opening in Iceland soon, which I urge all to visit [more on Einar Þorsteinn’s Hafnarborg exhibit in our listings issue].

Einar has lived most of his life in Iceland and he has an incredible mind for experimental thinking; he is a wonderful person. He has collaborated with me on almost thirty different projects—our first project together was back in 1996—always inserting a sort of crystalline or arithmetic or mathematic parabola geometry. I know that he’s returning to Iceland and expects to spend more time working in Iceland over the next years.

He and I developed the early stages of the geometry from which the ‘quasi bricks’ that make up the south façade evolved. The bricks themselves are not, as a matter of fact, meant to reflect the Icelandic basalt columns as some have speculated, but the idea of the intricate language of mathematics. This polyhedric form has relevance in the world, and I have used it in a lot of different projects. I’ve benefited a lot from Einar’s insight in making shapes and geometries. Making the bricks was a very sophisticated process. By the time the brick gets to Iceland, maybe fifty different people have been involved with thinking about it—how every angle reacts to different shades of light, strain, mechanics, etc. The very early beginning stage involved Einar sitting and thinking about mathematics, and the last stage was a worker sitting in a crane. And I follow every step of the way.

Tell me more about Einar Þorsteinn. What is his role in your art?

Einar was a visionary when I met him in Iceland during the mid nineties. He lived and worked by Álafoss in Mosfellsbær, and had already done a lot of different and impressive things by then. At the time, I was very interested in [the world renowned engineer/designer/futurist] Buckminster Fuller and was working with a couple of his geometries... I contacted Einar because I was working on creating a sculpture using Buckminster’s mathematical system and somebody in Denmark pointed out Einar, remarking that he, unlike Buckminster, was alive and working.

I went and met him and I found him to be a visionary. Personally, I was a bit surprised that Iceland had not further embraced him and his work and integrated him into a bigger role. I later learned that the entire class he studied with in Stuttgart had gone on to become professors or highly respected professionals.

A few years later Einar married a German woman and moved to Germany. I immediately offered him a job at my studio and this was the beginning of a long relationship involving a lot of projects. We worked on a book together and are planning on making another one that will revolve around our collaborations.

A CONSTANT DIALOGUE

I am very interested in re-evaluating the spatial systems in which we work and the way we view architecture, landscape and ourselves; in changing our perception of reality because I think reality is highly constructed. Einar has these ideas about different types of reality—which he should really be telling you about. He has an incredible mind; fundamentally he has a lot of confidence in the idea that there are other ways of doing things. This is such an important human quality, fostering the idea that there must be an alternative to how we do things. This has become rare and this is why I think Einar is truly unique. In most societies people who work and think like that are often marginalised, especially if they are opinionated. If you think differently from the masses, you have to be an incredible diplomat; it is not an easy route, especially in a place like Iceland.

Einar is part of my core studio team, where each person plays a different role. I have been very explicit about the part my studio plays as a workplace, laboratory and haven for experimentation. My studio is not a place of isolation, but very much involves a constant dialogue with the team and with the surroundings in Berlin.  

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SIDEBARS

Harpa’s Cultural Booking Manifesto:

Harpa is fully booked for 2011, with 230 music events scheduled for the remaining 32 weeks of 2011. That’s an average of one concert per day. While Harpa doesn’t have a written cultural manifesto when it comes to booking concerts, Music Director Steinunn Ragnarsdóttir, who is also a concert pianist, is responsible for transmitting Harpa’s unwritten manifesto. “Part of my job is to have an artistic vision for the hall, to keep a versatile programme that follows parameters of professionalism regardless of the genre of music,” Steinunn Birna says. “It’s important that the hall portrays the best quality, whether international or Icelandic. There will be exciting concerts, whether they’re classical, pop, rock or whatever style you favour.”

Best Known Works

Ólafur Elíasson draws inspiration from the natural landscapes of his Scandinavian homelands. Much of his work deals with the environment in one fashion or the other. For instance, he has dyed rivers bright green using a non-toxic dye (of course) to get people thinking about pollution. In other instances he has brought nature-inspired installations into a museum space to draw attention to the relationship between culture and nature. The following are some of his best-known exhibitions:

1. The Weather Project, Tate Modern Museum in London (2003)

With the Weather Project, Ólafur explored the connection between cities and the weather. Using hundreds of monochromatic lamps to create a sun, 37 meters in diameter, Ólafur filled the expanse of Turbine Hall in the Tate Modern Museum in London with a bright yellow light. He used a humidifier to create a delicate mist, which also filled the space and, throughout the day, formed into gentle, man-made clouds. He also covered the ceiling with a mirror, which gave the illusion of a far more expansive atmosphere and offered spectators the chance to gaze up, through the mist, at their small reflections. The exhibit attracted two million visits during the six months that it was open and marked an important turning point in Ólafur’s career. “The work became one of those pop-culture events, like ‘Survivor’ or the Academy Awards or the Tate's own Turner Prize: spectacle and tabloid news, its popularity almost transcending logic,” according to The New York Times.

2. The New York Waterfalls, New York Harbour (2008)

Commissioned by The Public Art Fund, Ólafur designed four man-made waterfalls that ran for three months at sites along the shores of Brooklyn, Manhattan, and Governors Island. With the waterfalls, Ólafur brought nature into the urban city to draw attention to the riverfront and how it has been developed. A common theme in his work, Ólafur looked at the relationship between humans and nature. He worked with a team of 200 people to complete this project, which required a lot of technical work. The 90 to 120-foot tall installations cost 15 million USD.

3. Take Your Time, The Museum of Modern Art (2008)

'Take your time' at MoMA was the first comprehensive U.S. exhibit of Ólafur’s works. MoMA curators compiled pieces—ranging from photographs to sculptures to installations—from all over the world spanning fifteen years of his career, from 1993 onwards. The rooms in the museum that held Ólafur's works were transformed into hybrid spaces of nature and culture to give visitors a fresh way to look at everyday life.

Harpa's Key Facts and Stats:

Harpa’s name comes from the English instrument, the harp, and the name of the month that marks the beginning of summer in the Old Norse calendar.

Harpa has four main concert halls inspired by the elements fire, air, water, and earth, which are called, respectively, Eldborg (Fire Castle), Norðurljós (Northern Lights), Silfurberg (Iceland spar, a rare translucent calcite crystal), and Kaldalón (Cold Lagoon). Eldborg is the grand concert hall, and it seats 1.800 people.

With state of the art equipment and spacious exhibition and reception areas, conference facilities seat up to 1.600.

Harpa is home to the Iceland Symphony Orchestra and the Icelandic Opera. It will serve as home base for Iceland Airwaves 2011.

The building façade is designed by renowned artist Ólafur Elíasson in collaboration with Henning Larsen Architects. The building is designed by Henning Larsen Architects and Batteríið Architects, and the acoustics are designed by Artec Consultants Inc.

Construction commenced on January 12, 2007. During construction, 200.000 square metres of earth was cleared out and 6 million tonnes of ocean water were pumped from the building site.

Size: 28.000 square metres

Height: 43 metres

Materials used: 30.000 cubic metres concrete; 100 tonnes of glass

Cost: 27 billion ISK (includes cost of financing over the next 35 years loans while the loans are paid off)

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