There are three reasons to be sceptical about the Harpa concert hall. One is that it is promoted as a “unique” artist-architect collaboration, when such collaborations are quite commonplace and often involve an alliance between architects with too little confidence in their ability to design buildings and an artist with too much. Then it is called “crystalline”, a word usually applied by hack practices to glass boxes with a few wonky angles.

And it is in Iceland, the country that went so spectacularly bust that the British government mobilised anti-terrorism laws to freeze its assets. What business have they, three years after leading the world into the abyss, to be opening a $150m (£90m) building, with four halls for music and conferences, the largest of which has 1,800 seats, in a country of 300,000 people, and in a city the size of Ipswich?

The facade of Harpa is the work of an artist, the Icelandic-Danish Olafur Eliasson, who gets more attention and a higher billing than the hall’s architects, the 52-year-old practice Henning Larsen Architects. They wear sober suits; Eliasson’s leather waistcoat and silver-framed shades suggest creative leadership. His job is to provide that service that would once have been performed by Corinthian columns and statues of buxom nudes: to endow the house of culture with meaning and importance. He has come up with a tilted cliff face made of multiple hexagonal glass tubes, with coloured and mirrored panes inserted here and there. Inside, the hexagons continue, forming a faceted and mirrored ceiling to the foyer.


Rowan Moore