Category Archives: Architecture

Oslo Operahuset

Craig Dykers, Kjetil Trædal Thorsen
Oslo Opera House, Oslo, Norway (Scale model, 1:200)

Even if opera is not your thing, and you have little interest in the finer points of auditorium acoustics, Oslo Opera House is a unmissable building. Here is a public building – “a social democratic monument,” say its designers – that captures something of the spirit of Norway’s snow-smothered mountains and icebergs, with its white marble and clear glass exterior.

This vast complex, home to Norway’s national opera and ballet companies, has quickly become a new national symbol, much as Jørn Utzon’s Sydney Opera House did for Australia decades ago. Envisioned by Snøhetta as a glass and marble “wave wall” where the city meets the ocean, the site was designed as a large white wedge that slopes down into the water. The slanted roof has been transformed into a large public plaza closely connected to the surrounding fjord. Available for around-the-clock use, the roof is a new type of city park in which distinctions between architectural and landscape design, music and dance are productively blurred.

Oslo Opera House

In winter, the roof is covered with snow, and, while it is not exactly encouraged, young people will be tempted to snowboard down it. The roof, along with the aluminium-clad fly tower, is very much the dominant feature. In fact, from the water side, the roof is the building.

View from the roof
Oslo Opera House

This vast undulating plane, or sequence of planes, comprising 36,000 individually cut slabs of Carrara marble, slopes down from the heights of the fly tower, covers the auditorium and ends up, very deliberately, under water.

The choice of Italian over Norwegian stone caused considerable controversy, but detailed testing concluded that the visual and technical quality of the Italian marble was superior to – as well as half the price of – local stone. Norwegian sensitivities were allayed somewhat by the placement of local granite at the water’s edge; the green stone mimics the colour of the water. The marble started to turn yellow because of the cold climate, but scientists have developed a way of drying the marble to retain its whiteness.

In freezing weather, the building really does look like a man-made iceberg. In fact, it is firmly anchored, and protected from errant ships by a new sea barrier, solidly built and designed to last at least 300 years.

When the opera house was commissioned in 2000, it fulfilled a century-old wish for Oslo to house the Norwegian National Opera. The National Opera & Ballet was established in 1957 and housed at the Folketeatret Theatre, but the institution had to share the space with others. The National Opera’s first director was the internationally renowned soprano Kirsten Flagstad, who paid for the employment of extra singers and musicians out of her own pocket. The square that houses the modern opera house is named after her, and she is honoured today with the statue that you see as you approach the entrance to the building.

Kirsten Flagstad

The glass façade, 15 meters high in places, rises out of the marble canopied exterior, allowing natural light into the foyer by day and foyer light to illuminate the canopy by night. The main entrance – a crevasse-like slit in the white marble façade – leads into a happily meandering, informal lobby wrapped around the auditorium. Timber ramps, with superbly crafted detailing made by traditional Norwegian boat builders, lead up from cloakrooms clad in hexagonal screens by the artist Olafur Eliasson, and extraordinarily beautiful lavatories (really), to bars and lobbies, and finally to the hush of the auditorium.

Oslo Opera House foyer
Oslo Opera House
Hexagonal screens by Olafur Eliasson
Oslo Opera House
Hexagonal screens by Olafur Eliasson
Oslo Opera House

The large and light lobby is open 24 hours a day and features cafés with beautiful views of the fjord, while large windows make it possible to sneak a peek at the workshops and costume department from outside the building.

Oslo Opera House cafe

Beyond the undulating oak wall lies the three main performance halls. The largest hall, the Main Hall, poses as the heart of the building. Being in the interior of the main hall can be compared to being inside of a large wooden instrument.

Main Hall at Oslo Opera House

The Main Hall is a classic horseshoe theatre built for opera and ballet, inspired by the Semperoper in Dresden. It has a capacity for approximately 1400 visitors divided between stalls, perterre and three balconies. Unfortunately, some of the seats have limited visibility, a trade-off for a floor plan inspired by classical architecture. The orange-red fabric of the seats was specially designed as a counterpoint to the dark oak walls of the hall. Text display screens are built into the seat backs so that the audience can individually choose to read the libretto in a number of languages. The dark colour of the walls (the oak was treated with ammonia) is particularly suited to the theatre space and the oak gives a rich, warm and intimate feel to the space.

Main Hall at Oslo Opera House

The acoustics of the main hall were supervised by the Arup agency. The sound has incredible depth, notably thanks to a particularly sonorous orchestra pit, typical of the Scandinavian conception of opera houses. The reverberation period is 1.7 seconds, a period halfway between opera houses and symphonic halls.

The interior design of the Main Hall was determined by technical and acoustic requirements: a short distance between the audience and the performers, good sight lines and excellent acoustics. The seats are designed to absorb as little sound as possible. The specially designed walls of the Main Hall assist the acoustics by spreading the sound evenly around the auditorium, while the curved fronts of the three balcony levels serve to diffuse the sound. Reverberation time is fine tuned using drapes along the rear walls and control rooms for sound and light are located to the back of the hall.

Main Hall at Oslo Opera House

The orchestra pit is highly flexible and can be adjusted in height and area. The stage is shaped like a horseshoe to achieve the best acoustics possible while the 35 meter high stage tower allows for complex technical stage work. Sixteen elevators run up and down, tilting and rotating to move and construct landscapes within the stage. On each side of the stage are mobile towers which allow for adjustments in the proscenium width for ballet or opera without damaging the acoustics of the hall. Underneath the stage is a ventilation system that maintains the humidity of the hall and the frontal areas of the stage, providing extra humidification for the singers and instruments as needed.

The 23 x 11 meter stage curtain dominates the main auditorium and gives the illusion of being made from crumpled metal foil. It is actually a tapestry called Metafoil by American artist Pae White, which was woven in Belgium by projecting photographs of crumpled foil onto a computerised loom.

The requirement for a long reverberation time resulted in a room with a large volume. In this case the volume is increased by the use of a technical gallery which cantilevers out over the walls below, giving the hall a T shaped section. The main structure of the stone clad roof above is included in the volume of the hall rather than being hidden behind a false ceiling.

Above the audience, on the ceiling of the Main Hall is Norway’s largest chandelier. The moon-like light, crafted of hand cast glass bars, is illuminated by 800 LED lights shining through 5,800 hand-cast crystals. The chandelier, which is suspended inside an oval reflector, also acts as an acoustic reflector: inside it, the clusters of crystals increase in size towards the stage. This configuration allows more sound to pass through, contributing to reverberation throughout the auditorium.

Chandelier in the Main House at Oslo Opera House

Little Puffles and Honey attended a performance of Wozzeck in the Main Hall. Not the most cheerful of operas, but it provided an opportunity for photos 🙂

Cast of Wozzeck at Oslo Opera House
Main Hall at Oslo Opera House
Main Hall at Oslo Opera House
Main Hall at Oslo Opera House

The complex also has two smaller venues and little Puffles and Honey went in search for the second hall hoping for a more fun experience!

Oslo Opera House
Oslo Opera House
Second hall behind the wave wall at Oslo Opera House

The second hall has space to hold up to 55 musicians, and the flexible seating for 400 can be adapted from traditional rows to an in-the-round configuration. The other performance space, the Studio, can be used as a rehearsal room or as a performance space for an audience of 200 patrons.

The action in the second hall looks more promising! There is a Christmas tree and a cute horse on stage 🙂

Jingle Horse!

Jingle Horse! was a Christmas show made up of a collage of well-known stories with a new twist, sometimes funny, sometimes less so. It was in English, evidently some humour cannot be translated. The best part of the show was Puffles and Honey sneaking on stage and meeting the star of the show, Jingle Horse himself! 🙂

Oslo Opera House – Stage 2
Big hug from Jingle Horse

Norway’s oil revenue has allowed it to invest in culture. The Oslo Opera, inaugurated in 2008, cost some €500 million and change. The payoff was immediate. This is the only opera house in the world to have won the prestigious Mies van der Rohe Award for contemporary architecture from the European Union (Harpa in Reykjavik is a Concert Hall and Conference Centre). The jury found Oslo Opera to be an example of the power of architecture to recuperate urban territory and transform it into public spaces of great quality.

Denmark’s Music Wonderland

Ever since Jørn Utzon transformed Sydney forever with his boundary-pushing opera house in the ’60s, harbourside sites have been favourite locations for opera houses and concert halls to capitalise on the wider impact of iconic architecture. Harpa Concert Hall, Esplanade Concert Hall, Oslo Opera House, Elbphilharmonie all take advantage of prominent waterside sites.

The Copenhagen Concert Hall (DR Koncerthuset) doesn’t. It is located in a residential and commercial district on the outskirts of the old inner city, and it is flanked by boring glass residential and office blocks. Elevated train tracks running to the old city swing right by the building; swaths of undeveloped land with tufts of grass and mounds of dirt extend to the south.

DR — the shorthand for Danmarks Radio — has a history that goes all the way back to 1925, yet today, following completion of a 2008 ground-up rebuild, is one of the world’s most modern broadcast organizations, producing content on all platforms available, ranging from radio/TV to Internet-based media. While there are some regional stations and facilities spread across the country, the main facility is DR BYEN (DR Town), in Copenhagen. This facility was completed in 2008. Here is the main concert hall (DR Koncerthuset), 14 big studios for music, drama, and shows, and a vast number of smaller talk studios and so on. The four-building complex also offers all kinds of workshops for electronic equipment, woodwork, mechanics, and so on, and comprehensive libraries for background literature and music. The four different buildings were designed by four different architect teams to obtain maximum variation within the general plan.

How you react to DR Koncerthuset depends on when you see it — and what you are expecting. Because of Ateliers Jean Nouvel’s design approach, both the building and the auditoriums and spaces within assume a vastly different character depending on the time of day you visit.

From the outside in bright light, it looks like nothing more than a large rectangular box that for some reason is swathed in electric-blue scaffolding net and plopped down in an industrial landscape. Approached along the main road from the historic city, the hall’s cobalt blue exterior has a temporal, ghostly quality. Its translucent fabric skin is stretched over a structural frame of steel beams and tension cables that resembles scaffolding. During the day you can see figures moving about inside, as well as the vague outline of the performance space, its curved form embedded in a matrix of foyers and offices. In broad daylight, the main lobby looks like an airport from a 1940s war movie, where sun streams through large window walls and illuminates the dark concrete floor and military-style furnishings designed to resemble flight crates for musical instruments.


It is in darkness that the building comes fully to life. When the sun goes down, it is transformed into an ethereal, dematerialized object with images of musicians eerily flitting across the screens of glass fibre with a PVC coating. The multilevel interior foyer also changes personality at night, taking on the iridescence of a multimedia nightclub, with projections splashing polychromatic patterns and videos across various surfaces. The concert hall, bathed in tantalizing images, is in stark opposition to the sterile desolation around it.

Neither its day- nor night-time persona gets you ready for the large concert hall. Seating 1,809 and raised above the lobby, it looks in section like some giant clam caught among pilings within a huge (60 by 96 metres) blue cage, 45 metres high. Yet when you enter the auditorium, you discover an expansive and warmly resplendent interior.

DR Koncerthuset

To reach the main performance space, concertgoers can either ride up escalators directly in front of the main entrance or turn to climb a broad staircase.

Just to the left of those stairs are elevators that shoot up to the lobby and upper-level foyers, whose ceilings are decorated in fragmented, overlapping panels. As video images wash over the panels, the pictures break apart so that you perceive them only in fragments, like reflections in broken glass. More images stream across the walls. The effect is a mounting intensity that verges on the psychedelic.

None of this would be effective, however, without Jean Nouvel’s keen understanding of architecture’s most basic elements, including a feel for scale and materials. The towering proportions of the lobbies, for example, seem to propel you up through the building. When you reach the upper foyers, you feel the weight of the main performance space pressing down on you.

At the same time, views open up from the corners of the building to the outside world. It’s as if you were hovering in some strange interstitial zone, between the banal urban scenery outside and the focused atmosphere of a concert.

This complex layering of social spaces brings to mind the labyrinthine quarters of an Arab souk as much as it does a high-tech information network. That’s largely because the choice of materials puts you at ease: elevator shafts and staircases are clad in plywood, giving many of the spaces the raw, unpretentious aura of a construction site. The building’s concrete surfaces are wrinkled in appearance, like an elephant’s skin, but when you touch them, they feel as smooth as polished marble.

By contrast, the main performance hall wraps you in a world of luxury. Like Scharoun’s cherished Berlin Philharmonic hall and Toyota’s Suntory hall in Tokyo, the Copenhagen Concert Hall is organized in a vineyard pattern, with seats stepping down toward the stage on all sides in a series of cantilevered balconies. The pattern allows you to gaze over the stage at other concertgoers, creating a communal ambience. Because the balconies are stepped asymmetrically, you never feel that you are planted amid monotonous rows of identical spectators. (I have to add here that the lack of leg room in the first row in the balcony was incredibly uncomfortable!! Serious design flaw.)

DR Koncerthuset
DR Koncerthuset

The balcony walls are canted, so that they seem to be pitching toward the stage. A small rectangular balcony designed for the queen of Denmark and her immediate family hovers over one side of the hall, breaking down the scale. The entire room was fashioned from layers of hardwood, which gives it an unusual warmth and solidity, as if it had been carved out of a single block.

Little Puffles and Honey were very impressed with the acoustics during the Luisi & Beethoven 7 concert. Outstanding acoustics for an outstanding performance. The program included Schönberg – Transfigured Night; Strauss – Horn Concerto No 1 and Beethoven – Symphony No 7.

DR Koncerthuset

The Concert Hall is rated as one of the top 10 classical concert halls in the world by the magazine Grammophone. This impressive venue is basically designed for classical symphonic music; however, variable acoustics, an advanced set design and the vast amount of broadcast installations provides a large number of possibilities. In the standard configuration, the Concert Hall seats 1,800 people around the arena-type stage. Another 150 seats can be added on the stage while, for some purposes, the stage is oriented in one direction, say for a pop show, reducing the available seats to 1,280.

The chairs are designed to have the same absorption when empty as a concertgoer provides when seated. The volume of 28,000 cubic meters ensures that the reverberation time is not too much affected by the presence of an audience.

In addition, all the surfaces of the hall weigh a minimum of 100 kg per square meter which insures the best possible reproduction of the lowest sounds. This means that most surfaces consist of up to six layers of plaster and plywood.

The variable acoustics are obtained by using heavy movable curtains. The curtains are parked outside the room or above the ceiling when not in use. It takes approximately 20 minutes to transform the acoustics from a reverberation time of 2.3 seconds down to 1.6 seconds, which is more convenient for pop/rock/jazz and other rhythmic music.

The stage consists of 29 individually adjustable podiums. So depending on the size of the orchestra, or the genre of the music, the stage setting can be optimized in a very flexible way. For large musical works, the seating area behind the stage can be included for choirs of almost any size.

To make the hall complete, a 92-register Van den Heuvel organ is installed, with 6,142 pipes and a net weight of 40 tons. Further a series of Steinway concert pianos are available.

DR Koncerthuset
DR Koncerthuset

Above the stage, the canopy is suspended. It provides reflections back to the stage to improve ensemble feeling. Normally the canopy is parked in a fixed position 15.5 meters above the stage, but it is adjustable. Further, the canopy serves as a base for suspended microphones as well as the permanently installed sound reinforcement system.

Danmarks Radio (DR) has on the payroll the Danish National Symphony Orchestra, Danish National Chamber Orchestra, Danish National Vocal Ensemble, Danish National Concert Choir, Danish National Girls’ Choir, Danish National Children’s Choir, Danish National Sprouts Choir and the DR Big Band. All ensembles are top-notch in their field. To ensure good sound quality, DR provides all the musical instruments played by the employed ensemble musicians!

The main concert hall is located on top of three-in-a-row studios én suite (you can look straight through all three rooms, through a series of fixed, very thick glass). On the website and the concert tickets, Koncerthuset is sometimes spelt as


alluding to Studios 1, 2, 3 and 4 in the concert house.

The remaining space between the studios and the main auditorium is utilized for offices, rehearsal rooms and the foyer. The foyer also has its own stage and can be used for concerts. In-house facilities at the Concert Hall for musicians include 21 group rooms, 12 rooms for soloists and a further eight rehearsal rooms.

Studio 2
Studio 2

Studio 2 is inspired by the big production studios in Hollywood. On the plywood walls hang large panels with portraits of selected soloists, conductors and composers printed on them as decoration. The portraits were processed with a special vector graphics technique, that turn the images into black and white contrasts, then stensiled on the plywood walls.

Studio 3
Studio 3

Studio 3 is the smallest of the four halls and can be customized for any event since there is no fixed stage or audience seating. The black walls, in alternating polished and matte panelling, are inspired by a grand piano. The floor is stained oak.

Studio 4
Studio 4

Studio 4 is also flexible and can be adapted to a wide variety of events. The walls and ceiling are in deep red shades. The metal coffers are aluminium, the absorbent surface is felt. The floors are stained oak.

Jean Nouvel’s DR Koncerthuset demonstrates that an intimate musical experience and boldly imaginative architecture need not be in conflict — they can actually reinforce each other.

A Mezza Voce


From the outside, Helsinki’s new concert hall, Musiikkitalo, seems unpretentious. Inside, it houses six concert halls to suit different requirements, a school of music and a library.

The discussions about the new concert hall started in the early 1990s when the Sibelius Academy signalled the need for new premises in the centre of Helsinki, closer to the other Sibelius Academy buildings. It was not until resources were pooled that the plans could be realized. The Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra, the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra and the Sibelius Academy formed an operator consortium, meeting the construction costs of €188 million.

The idea of a new concert hall for Helsinki was pressing since Finlandia Hall, designed by Alvar Aalto and completed in 1971, although impressive, is quite an inappropriate structure for symphonic music concerts in terms of acoustics. The new concert hall had to have outstanding acoustics.

A two-phased international architectural competition was held in 1999–2000 and received 243 entries during the first phase and 68 during the second. The competition was won by Arkkitehtitoimisto LPR-Arkkitehdit with their work “a mezza voce”. Yasuhisa Toyota was chosen to design the acoustics.

From an architectural perspective, “a mezza voce” (with a moderate voice) meant to tread lightly without disturbing the surrounding landscape.

The site for Musiikkitalo is located between three of the city’s architectural monuments – Parliament House, in neoclassical style, across Mannerheinintie, Aalto’s Finlandia Hall to the north, and Steven Holl’s Kiasma Museum of Contemporary Art to the south.

The winners had to comply with building height restrictions and some conformity of the venue’s overall countenance with the Parliament House across the street. Also important was the fact that the building was to be located on the same line of landscape, on the shore of Töölö Bay, as Finlandia Hall and the Opera. And most importantly, the architects had to cooperate with acoustics specialist Yasuhisa Toyota, one of the world’s most prominent experts in his field. His collaboration with Frank Gehry to engineer Walt Disney Concert Hall’s famed acoustics brought in commissions from around the world for acoustician Yasuhisa Toyota. For acoustics designers like Yasuhisa Toyota, success arrives when an audience is rapt in the music, oblivious to the complicated physics it takes to project a Beethoven symphony with warmth and clarity. Walt Disney Concert Hall was an outstanding success!

Master acoustician Yasuhisa Toyota’s designs are now found in many classical music concert halls famous throughout the world apart from the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles: the Mariinsky Theatre Concert Hall in St. Petersburg, the Danish Radio Concert Hall in Copenhagen, the New World Center in Miami, the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts in Kansas City, ElbPhilharmonie in Hamburg, Bing Concert Hall at Stanford University, the Radio France Concert Hall in Paris, Vitoria-Gasteiz (Spain) Concert Hall/Auditorium, the Shanghai Symphony Concert Hall and the Helsinki Music Center Concert Hall.

His primary focus can be reduced to just two key elements – space, or the shape of the room, and material – but there is a staggering amount of options to consider and decisions to be made at the detail level of both elements. Overall, Toyota is a consummate collaborator: For Toyota, the success of any one building is ultimately the result of his ears, the architect’s eyes and the collective interpretative force of a conductor and orchestra combining to make something greater than the sum of their parts.

In the world of classical music, acoustics are important and the design might come before even the architectural design. In a hall that doesn’t program classical music, but only pop music and rock & roll, then sound systems, microphones and loudspeakers are more important than room acoustics itself.

Talking about the room shape of a classical music concert hall, details include the seating height and width and shape. When it comes to the material, it’s not just the surface material that is important but the structure behind that. Even with the same acoustic surface material, the thickness is important. The structure behind the panels is not visible, but is important to the sound. The room shape and material are also the issues which the architect is working with. The room shape and material are important visually and acoustically. The architect and the acoustician work in different fields, but designing with the same items, and collaboration is the answer.

Toyota has used wood in some form in all the halls he has designed. In the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles he used Douglas-fir, in Sapporo and Kawasaki he used Japanese wood, in the Mariinsky Theater in St Petersburg he used Finnish wood components and at Musiikkitalo in Helsinki he used pine and birch.

Wood is a good material in concert halls, acoustically and visually. And Toyota finds that natural materials also offer the audience a comfortable atmosphere. He considers the stage floor part of an instrument, with sound, and he designs is out of soft local wood.

Musiikkitalo main auditorium stage

In Helsinki the stage is made of Finnish pine and the boards have no knots. The density of the wood has been precisely calculated, as the stage is the largest and most important instrument resonating in the space. Above the stage, a special concrete object weighing 27 tonnes is hung from 40 steel cables. Four of these cables would have been sufficient to hold the weight, but the builders of the hall wanted to make completely sure, so that the orchestra would not have to steal occasional nervous glances at the threatening object above their heads. The block of concrete is part of the acoustics design for the hall, as is the ceiling of the concert hall. The ceiling of the main hall was named “Sound Canopy” (Finnish: Sointilatvus) following a public competition arranged to come up with a name for it. It goes without saying, sound quality does not depend on the number of people in the hall.

Musiikkitalo sound canopy

Most of Toyota’s best halls resemble Suntory – Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles, Philharmonie de Paris, Shanghai Symphony Hall, Bamberg Symphony Hall, Danish Radio Concert Hall, Mariinsky Theatre Concert Hall and Helsinki Music Centre Concert Hall.

Musiikkitalo main auditorium

The vineyard style is Toyota’s favourite audience layout, a visual representation of his philosophy that the enjoyment of music should be shared – the vineyard design allows viewers to feel a spirit of community in the perception of sonic information. Another of Toyota’s enthusiasms is striving for the presence of the national identity of the respective country. Forest and wood have given the Helsinki Music Centre not only its visual aspect, but also character and atmosphere. The pail-like main hall has been dubbed “smoke sauna”, owing to the tone of its warm, dark birch panels, while the seats in the vineyard-like audience have been described as a “logjam” and the wooden stairs are like creeks. Strips of glass allow daylight to stream in and make for visual reference points between the auditorium and the foyer.

Musiikkitalo main auditorium
Musiikkitalo main auditorium

In case you are wondering, he doesn’t have a favourite hall. He responds to the question with a story.

A few years ago, on January 1, my phone rang. It was Valery Gergiev, the conductor and artistic director of the Russian Mariinsky Theatre. He was with the Latvian conductor Mariss Jansons at the time, and there had probably been some drinking going on. The two had been having a discussion: Gergiev was of the opinion that the acoustics in the Sapporo Concert Hall were the best, while Jansons, on the other hand, preferred the Kawasaki Symphony Hall. I designed the acoustics in both and the gentlemen wanted to know: “Yasuhisa, which is better?” So I simply asked: “Valery, tell me: How many children do you have?” He understood what I was saying straight away.

Suntory, Toyota’s, and Japan’s, first vineyard-style hall, opened in 1987 in Tokyo. Conservative Japanese audiences were quick to complain. A hall layout where neither the listener nor the musician has any place to hide visually or audibly was a bit too in your face. But Suntory had the blessing of the conductor the Japanese most admired. The Berlin Philharmonic’s music director, Herbert von Karajan, had overseen the construction of his own early vineyard-style concert hall, the celebrated 1963 Philharmonie.

Suntory, 30 years later, remains far and away the most prestigious concert address in the East, no matter the architecturally stunning opera houses and concert halls popping up in China, Indonesia, the Emirates and the Southern Caucasus. The Vienna Philharmonic is an annual visitor at Suntory and sounds remarkably comfortable here despite the radical difference between modern Suntory and the orchestra’s heavenly 19th century home, the Musikverein. That comfort hasn’t translated into their acceptance of eastern musicians in their midst however.

The large auditorium at Helsinki’s Musiikkitalo boasts 1,704 seats and is located in the main building, through which the concert house is also accessed. In addition to the Concert Hall, there are five smaller halls for roughly 140-400 people. The acoustics in each hall have been designed to serve the function or purpose of each hall, such as electronically amplified music performances, or chamber music performances or lectures. Owing to height restrictions, the building features a large underground area. Ultimately, an eight-storey building was created, with two-thirds of it located underground. The many underground storeys are also filled with light, thanks to the large glassed atrium, which allows the generous Northern daylight to be manifested to the fullest.

Musiikkitalo Camerata hall – suitable for small music ensembles
Musiikkitalo – Black Box hall – suitable for amplified music and lectures

The Main Foyer is located on the third floor, which is the entry floor for visitors arriving from the Kansalaistori Square.

Musiikkitalo Foyer Level
Musiikkitalo Foyer Level – view from outside
Musiikkitalo Main Foyer with Gaia, by Kirsi Kaulanen, suspended from the Music Centre ceiling

The sculpture by Kirsi Kaulanen was named Gaia after the ancient Greek goddess of the Earth. At 14 metres in length, 10 metres in height, and 2,200 kg in weight, the sculpture in polished stainless steel is visible both inside the Helsinki Music Centre and from outside, in the direction of Mannerheimintie.

Constructed from organic forms, Gaia resembles a saxophone, a horn, a landscape, or a winding shape. It is linked to nature by its flowing form and by the fact that it includes 28 of the 150 currently-endangered Finnish plant species.

Musiikkitalo Main Foyer’s café – the cakes were very good, the salmon quiche is best never mentioned again!

As the architects report, what they were aiming for is a “quiet kind of architecture”. The concert hall does not attempt to outclass its prominent neighbors with extravagant façade designs. Instead, it looks as if it is trying to crouch down in the depression between the busy Mannerheim Street and Töölö Bay. Verdigris copper façades form the transition to the greenery of the nearby park and to the Parliament Building. Generous, seaweed-colored glass fronts face the Kiasma Museum and the Baltic Sea.

The patinated copper roof is also characteristic of Helsinki’s oldest architecture while the large-scale glass façades fit in well with the more modern buildings of Finland’s capital, including the neighbouring temple of contemporary art, Kiasma.

In music circles the biggest expectations were focused on the acoustics. Users of the Main Hall have responded with both praise and excitement. The acoustics of Helsinki Music Centre yield a clear sound, with a long echo and tone beautifully carried everywhere in the hall, to every single seat. Including the seats we had for the Laulu-Miehet Finland 100 concert of Sibelius music.

Musiikkitalo – Laulu-Miehet Sibelius concert as part of the Finland 100 celebrations

A Day at Harpa


The name of the Reykjavik Concert Hall and Conference Centre was made public on 11 December 2009. The name Harpa was the winning name out of 4,156 proposals entered by 1,200 citizens. The rules stated that the name should be in Icelandic but easily articulated in most languages. The name Harpa has more than one meaning. It is the Icelandic name for the musical instrument harp. It is also an old Icelandic word that refers to a time of year and the name of a month in the old Nordic calendar. The first day of that month is celebrated as the first day of summer and marks the beginning of a brighter time where nature comes to live and the colours of the environment sharpen.

Harpa’s history goes way back. Icelanders started dreaming about building a good music house as early as in 1881, but other projects had a higher priority, such as the national theatre and the founding of Iceland’s symphony orchestra. The music house didn’t become a serious proposition until much later.

Music enthusiasts agreed on the construction of the concert hall in 1983, but had to wait until the 1990s before the state of Iceland and the city of Reykjavik decided to take part in the project. An empty plot for the new building was found by the harbour in Reykjavik city centre. The concert hall was to be part of an extensive harbour development project in Reykjavik, the East Harbour Project, with the aim of expanding and revitalising Reykjavik’s eastern harbour with a new downtown plaza, a shopping street, a hotel, residential buildings, educational institutions and mixed industry.

Harpa’s conception took place in 2004, in Iceland’s age of financial hallucination, when consortia of banks, architects and others were invited to bid for the privilege of building the home, long wished-for in this music-loving country, of concerts and opera. The winning group was led by Landsbanki, which would be a leading player in Iceland’s Gatsby moment.


Entering or leaving Harpa on foot, the piazza over which the upper floors loom is all that separates it from Reykjanesbraut (Route 41), which travels north-east from Keflavík directly into Reykjavík. Along with Route 49, these two arteries wrap around and loosely define the city’s older centre – bisected by the bustling Laugavegur – and effectively cut off the coast and harbour, leaving it as a sliver of land that bends up into the township of Seltjarnarnes.

Reykjavík’s harbour has long ceased any industrial activity that would demand a close connection to the city centre. Accompanying Harpa and the docks along this strip of land are small museums, cafés and shops selling Icelandic knick-knacks, united by the walk past Jón Gunnar Árnason’s Sun Voyager. Here you can look back at Reykjavík or take advantage of unhindered views of the Engey and Viðey islands and perhaps even the Snæfellsjökull stratovolcano. It is by no means a neglected or unpleasant area, rather one of disconnection. By Icelandic standards Route 41 is relatively busy – four lanes of traffic traversed via nondescript pedestrian crossings – and this post-industrial edge land, while not short on attractions, feels at times little more than an extension of the roadside that risks drifting off into Faxa Bay.

Sun Voyager, by Jón Gunnar Árnason

Location plan

An international competition in 2004 called for masterplans of the area, to reunite the waterfront and the city centre, with only four partnerships invited to tender due to the scale and complexity of the project.

The winner, selected in 2005, was the Danish-Icelandic collective Portus Group, picked from a star-studded crop including Schmidt Hammer Lassen, Norman Foster and Jean Nouvel. Portus Group comprised the Icelandic Batteriíð Architects, Danish concert hall veterans Henning Larsen and Artec acoustic consultants et al, backed by the private investor Landsbanki. Portus’s masterplan was bold: a concert hall, conference centre, wellness centre, academy of fine arts, bank, cinema, shopping street, residential/commercial units and what would have been Iceland’s first five-star hotel. This was Iceland’s boom-time: it was a hugely zealous proposal around a major artery, one that would not just connect with Reykjavík’s centre but create an entirely new piece of city.

It was the proposed concert hall in particular – which would become Harpa – that would satisfy a longstanding desire for a dedicated performance space in Reykjavík. The Icelandic phrase ad ganga med bok I maganum (everyone gives birth to a book) extends too, it would seem, to music, with an incredible output from Icelanders Björk, Ólafur Arnalds, Sigur Rós and Samaris to name but a few. Early in the 20th century the only concert hall was the minuscule Hljómskálinn, built to house the city’s brass band and itself the subject of controversy over its position in the lakeside park it would eventually give its name to, Hljómskálagarðurinn. This 7.5 meter wide structure had the advantage of being central, but could not house the growing Iceland Symphony Orchestra, who decades later occupied the University of Iceland’s Cinema, itself under pressure for conferences and other events. Similarly, the now world-famous Iceland Airwaves festival used a hangar at Reykjavík airport for its first one-off event in 1999 – trendy, but acoustically not ideal. A building with the facilities of Harpa was long overdue.

The construction of Harpa started in 2007, but stopped in October 2008 when Iceland’s financial crisis hit. Harpa was the only part of the masterplan under construction, and was around 40 per cent complete. Fulfilling the rest of the redevelopment’s aims was out of the question. Harpa’s unfinished state became visual shorthand for economic irresponsibility, and with still-raw hindsight many questioned the collective madness that prompted a city of fewer than 200,000 to plan for such a large venue in the first place. (Rule No 2 of being Icelandic: Think BIG)

How To Become Icelandic in 60 Minutes

The Icelandic financial crisis was a major economic and political event in Iceland that involved the default of all three of the country’s major privately owned commercial banks (including Landsbanki), representing 85% of the country’s financial system, in the same week in late 2008. Relative to the size of its economy, Iceland’s systemic banking collapse was the largest experienced by any country in economic history. The crisis led to a severe economic depression in 2008–2010 and significant political unrest.

Iceland’s response was controversial and represented a two-fingered salute to the polite society of academics and policy-makers who normally lay down the laws on economic disaster management. First, it let the banks go under: foreign financiers who had lent to Reykjavik institutions at their own risk didn’t get a single krona back. Second, officials imposed strict capital controls, making it harder for hot-money merchants to pull their cash out of the country.

While all the other countries started bailing out their greedy and irresponsible bankers, following the old free-market tradition that rules governments should never break faith with financiers, Iceland was the one country that defied the global consensus and did not. More than that, Iceland allowed those responsible for the crisis — its bankers — to be prosecuted as criminals.

There was shock to the system, but it was relatively short, and once the pain was dealt with, the country has bounced back stronger than ever. By refusing to allow its currency, the krona, to suffer ultra-low inflation to protect the assets of the rich — as in the rest of the West did — Iceland let the krona tumble. The resulting inflation and higher prices helped its export industries, unlike what happened in many European Union countries, which are contending with ongoing deflation. By 2011 Iceland had come through the crisis in better condition than anyone in 2008 dared hope.

When asked why Iceland was enjoying such a strong recovery while everyone else is still mired in debt, President Olafur Ragnar Grimmson said in 2013:

“Why are the banks considered to be the holy churches of the modern economy? Why are private banks not like airlines and telecommunication companies and allowed to go bankrupt if they have been run in an irresponsible way? The theory that you have to bail out banks is a theory that you allow bankers enjoy for their own profit, their success, and then let ordinary people bear their failure through taxes and austerity. People in enlightened democracies are not going to accept that in the long run.”

Grimmson’s “famous” reply to the controversial question, “What is the reason for Iceland’s recovery?” is most remarkable.

“We were wise enough not to follow the traditional prevailing orthodoxies of the Western financial world in the last 30 years. We introduced currency controls, we let the banks fail, we provided support for the poor, and we didn’t introduce austerity measures like you’re seeing in Europe.”

By paying off loans for consumers, forgiving homeowner debt (up to 110% of the property value), and throwing the offenders in prison (under the remarkable notion that choices and actions have consequences), Iceland was able to bounce back. There you have it. Instead of conceding to the crooks who made the mess, Iceland listened to its people. And the data speaks for itself.

In March 2015, the International Monetary Fund announced that Iceland had achieved economic recovery “without compromising its welfare model” of universal health care and education. And in March this year, Iceland ended capital controls (which had been winding down over the last few years), finally returning its economy to normal after the catastrophic banking collapse of 2008 and 2009. There is an interesting article on the subject in the Telegraph.

During the financial crisis, many, perhaps most, Icelanders took the obvious view, which was that with people losing homes and jobs, an expensive, oversized concert hall was not their priority. But the building structure was four storeys out of the ground and, faced with the alternative of abandoning it as an instant ruin and all-too-eloquent symbol of failure, the government pressed on. They took over the project and “with the help of very clever financing”, as one of those responsible for running the place put it, they “made it light for the taxpayers”.

With criticism mounting, the decision was made to pump government money into completing Harpa, and construction started again in March 2009. Harpa was the only construction project in Iceland for several years after the financial crisis.

Harpa opened in May 2011, with a concert conducted by Vladimir Ashkenazy. The opening took place a few months before the IMF’s bailout support programme ended. Rather than owing its existence to Landsbanki oligarch Björgólfur Guðmundsson, Harpa now stands as an adopted architectural child of the city and state.

Harpa became the sole jewel in Reykjavík’s ambitious East Harbour Project crown, with the rest of the masterplan postponed. Some visitors criticise Harpa for lacking connection with the city, but such criticism forgets, or is ignorant of the fact, that it was not initially conceived as, and will not always be, such a disconnected structure. Already another part of the masterplan, the first five star hotel in Iceland, Marriott Edition, with 250 rooms, is under construction next to Harpa. It is likely to open in 2019-2020.

It was Iceland’s decision to doggedly continue construction that won over the 2013 Mies van der Rohe Award jury. Chair Wiel Arets described how Harpa ‘captured the myth of a nation that has consciously acted in favour of a hybrid cultural building during the middle of the ongoing Great Recession’.

While waiting for the rest of the East Harbour masterplan to come to life, Harpa is anything but a reluctant icon: the façade has its own accompanying range of jewellery. Danish-Icelandic artist Olafur Eliasson produced not merely an artwork or ‘wallpaper’ to accompany the building but its entire external wrapping. The south façade, modelled on basalt columns, is formed from more than 1,000 quasi-bricks in a double skin (a 3D geometrical form), while the north, east and west façades mirror this geometry with a dragonfly-wing pattern in two dimensions (a cost cutting measure that quite possibly improved the design – 3D all around might have been a bit too much!). Externally it walks the tightrope between bling and artistry, and certainly does not reference anything close by.

The main idea behind the façade is to rethink the building as a static unit, and instead to allow it to respond dynamically to the changing colours of the surroundings. During the day, the geometrical figures create a crystalline structure which captures and reflects the light and initiates dialog between the building, the city and the countryside. In Iceland, light runs from endless translucent days in summer to the brief crawl of the sun above the horizon in winter, with many shades of black, blue and grey in between. Eliasson’s crystals filter, reflect and fragment light. They catch it, play with it, animate it and make it mobile. Sunshine lights up the foyers with a refulgence that is almost nuclear. In dim light the building gleams. The quasi-bricks of the south façade have glass at the back as well as the front, which gives depth. It means that light inhabits the façade rather than just bouncing off it.

In the evening, the façades are illuminated by LED lighting, which is built into each quasi-brick. The colour and light intensity can be adjusted, to bring the entire colour spectrum into play, forming patterns, letters or symbols.

The south façade in particular is rewarding once inside. The welded steel prisms are beautiful objects in their own right, each containing an integrated LED light whose colour and intensity can be individually programmed.

Being in Iceland, nature metaphors abound. Built in a black mixture of concrete and ash, the interior stands in soft contrast to the hard glass and mirrored edges of the main atrium. The main halls represent Fire (Eldborg), Air (Norðurljós), Earth (Silfurberg) and Water (Kaldalón), with Silfurberg and Norðurljós on the second floor linked by two soundproofed portals, allowing the two halls to be connected for larger events, and the smaller Kaldalón hall – named after an Icelandic bay – sitting below Norðurljós. Each hall derives its character from its namesake, Eldborg clad in deep red wood and Norðurljós housing mysterious programmable lights behind acoustic slats.

Harpa main auditorium, Eldborg

The largest auditorium, Eldborg, is named for a famous volcanic crater in Iceland (what else?!?).

Eldborg means Fire Mountain, and the auditorium, which can seat audiences of up to 1,800, is the vibrant red-hot powerhouse in Harpa’s inner core. The auditorium is built in concrete and surfaced with red-varnished birch veneer. Adjustable sound chambers around the auditorium add up to 30 percent more volume, giving a unique opportunity to adjust the reverberation time. With its characteristic shoe box form, Eldborg’s intense expression is a striking contrast to the more everyday atmosphere in the foyer.

The reverberation chamber – its space can add 30% to the size of Eldborg hall by opening the large concrete doors.

Sound, not light, is the main business of a concert hall, and the world is littered with auditoria where acoustics have been sacrificed to spectacle. At Harpa the two are kept apart. If the façade is Eliasson’s, the halls are the domain of acoustic consultants Artec, who have guided some of the most successful modern auditoria in the world (Esplanade in Singapore; Jazz at Lincoln Centre in New York; Bartók Béla National Concert Hall in Budapest; Sala São Paulo in Brazil; the Culture and Congress Centre in Lucerne, Switzerland), and at Harpa have produced a clarity of acoustic that has reportedly moved some performers to tears of joy.

Harpa – Norðurljós recitall hall

Between Eliasson’s light and Artec’s sound comes the architecture of Henning Larsen Architects, and a core of dark concrete the colour of Iceland’s lava fields, that acts as a foil for one and a container for the other. This stands inside the glass box, forming the inner walls, balconies and stairs of the foyer. It is an admirably self-effacing role that the architects have chosen, and a collaborative one: Eliasson’s art was not simply attached to their frame, but created by artist and architect working together. The result is not a perfect integration of looking and hearing but a happy coexistence.

The interior is intentionally spare, suggesting to visitors that they look out at the surrounding sea, mountains, and city — an especially pleasant activity from the multitiered bar descending along the south façade.

Elevenses at Smurstöðin, Harpa

Formally, Harpa is roughly split into two: the southern side housing the majority of the public space and facing towards the city, and the northern ‘backstage’ side housing the green rooms and offices, facing out to sea. Harpa’s shape is determined by the positioning of the main Eldborg hall along the north-south axis, with the Norðurljós (Northern Lights) and Silfurberg (a calcite crystal) halls sitting alongside at a slight angle.

Throughout the design process, emphasis was placed on giving Harpa enough versatility to host large and intimate events simultaneously and without interference with one another. Harpa’s facilities, which offer some of the most technologically advanced equipment available, are capable of accommodating everything from large conventions, concerts, and exhibitions to smaller banquets and meetings.

While the ‘conference’, ‘rehearsal’ or ‘concert’ halls are flexible, it is clear that the best reason to visit Harpa is to hear music. Kaldalón is booked for 90 per cent of the year. Here, steep raked seating with a screen suits film screenings or lectures, but the space has also been used as a black box for performances or recording electronic music, built with the same ‘box in a box’ soundproofing as the other halls. The fiery Eldborg, with its dramatic built-in seating, is less formally flexible, but still has changeable acoustics, seating that can be lowered to create an orchestra pit, and extra seating behind the stage. Each room has this flexibility in a slightly different way, with rotating panels or acoustic curtains.

Iceland’s position between the UK and US is Harpa’s main selling point as a conference hub, and its ample space means conferences can spill out of the halls with exhibitions, trade shows or buffets. They have bookings to 2025! Perhaps it is due in part to a lack of other venues, but Harpa’s programme is packed with everything from the EVE Fanfest – a celebration of the hugely popular Icelandic spaceship MMORPG – to the Arctic Circle Assembly. Björk’s Biophilia educational project – a large-scale pilot that draws together scientists, artists, academics and children in an exploration of music – is based here. Occasionally at weekends, markets flood the atrium and the piazza with local foods.

Harpa is home to the Icelandic Symphony Orchestra, the Icelandic Opera and the Reykjavik Big Band.

Little Puffles and Honey attended a concert in the Norðurljós recitall hall, Kristján Jóhannsson’s annual Christmas concert in the Eldborg hall and the comedy show How to Become Icelandic in 60 Minutes in the Kaldalón hall.

Víkingur Heiðar Ólafsson with Iceland Symphony Orchestra – Norðurljós recitall hall
Kristján Jóhannsson’s annual Christmas concert in Harpa’s main auditorium, Eldborg
How to Become Icelandic in 60 Minutes – Kaldalón hall, Harpa

While How to Become Icelandic in 60 Minutes is a bit hit and miss when it comes to the jokes, having to rely on generalisations and stereotypes, it is actually very accurate when it comes to describing Iceland’s national character, and it does live up to its name. All the obvious stuff is in the show. They eat sheep’s balls (although this is actually rarely done these days), and they drink a lot of Brennivín. While the latter is true, the show also points out that if you’re spotted having a glass of wine on a Tuesday, you will generally be assumed to have a drinking problem, while a bottle or two of vodka on weekends is fine. One of the defining traits of Icelanders is their boundless optimism, even in the face of facts or reason. While this does give the country a certain dynamism, it has also been known to lead to trouble. Why does winter, while being an annual occurrence, still manage to come as a surprise every year? No one ever seems to remember to switch to winter tyres or get their warm clothes out, as if magically somehow this year winter won’t come. Then again, thanks to climate change, they may finally won’t need to.

Karl Ágúst Úlfsson in How to Become Icelandic in 60 Minutes – Kaldalón hall, Harpa

An Alvar Aalto Tour of Helsinki

Anyone who has visited an Apple store will have sat in the sleek High Stool 64 created by Finnish designer Alvar Aalto. His curvaceous Savoy vase is still an icon of Finnish design 81 years after its creation. But these internationally known pieces are not the basis for Aalto’s title as the father of Modernism. His true claim to fame is his architectural prolificacy, and his distinctive Nordic Modernist style is on display throughout Finland, his home country.

During the course of the 20th Century, Aalto’s Modernist style – defined by the concept of functionalism – changed and matured, resulting in experimentation with particular materials like his “red brick period” and other styles such as Monumentalism, which is defined by massive, monumental buildings. In later years, his inclination for functionalism was often tempered with elements of humanism, in particular a softening of corners and an abundant use of wood and other natural materials.

Where Aalto was consistent – and original – was his devotion to the idea of Gensamkunstwerk (“total work of art”), where his buildings incorporated many different art forms, including craftsmanship, interior design and landscape design. He even dabbled in urban planning, lending his artistic vision to designs of university campuses and city centres.

Over the course of his 55-year career, Aalto worked on some 500 building projects, about 400 of which are in Finland.

There was a fortuitous practical side to Aalto’s success; having found favour with a rich industrialist, Harry Gullichsen, and his wife Maire, a series of important commissions suddenly came his way. A new residential area for employees of the Sunila factory was built under his direction in 1936-9, one of Finland’s first housing estates in the modernist context. As such, it could also take its inspiration from such 19th century prototypes as Bourneville, near Birmingham, which the Quaker Cadbury family had constructed for their workers. Like Bourneville, too, it could also be seen to have a social dimension, one in which the well-being of employees could be married to a prosperous democratic vision of the good society.

From the iceberg angles of Finlandia Hall to the ubiquitous curves of his iconic L-leg furniture, Aalto’s presence in Helsinki is inescapable. Visiting the landmarks of Aalto’s life and work is to discover the principles of functionality, a devotion to natural materials and a minimalist beauty that have all helped characterise Scandinavian design since the 1920s, and continued to drive its popularity to this day.

Any tour of Alvar Aalto’s Helsinki ought to begin at The Aalto House, unless you happen to be in Helsinki on the only days when public tours are not available! The Aalto House and Studio are open through guided tours only with days set aside for organised group tours only.

The Aalto House and Studio was the family home and working studio built by Aalto and his first wife, Aino, in 1936. Nestled in the residential neighbourhood of Munkkiniemi, a seaside neighbourhood that was barely developed when Aalto designed and built the home, the house is in largely the same condition as it was when Aalto lived here up until his death in 1976. The very fact that he inhabited this house for over 40 years speaks volumes about the philosophy that informed his attitude towards life and design. Never one for indulgence or over-embellishment, The Aalto House was constructed around ideas of comfortable functionality that would last for years.

Aino Aalto died in 1949, but Aalto continued to live here – later with his second wife, architect and author Elissa Mäkiniemi (1922-1994) – until his own death in 1976. Elissa Mäkiniemi continued to run the practice, and to live in the Aalto House, until she died in 1994.

(L) The Aalto House-studio in the 1930s
(R) Family life at the Aalto House in the 1930s
(L) The fully functioning Studio Aalto in the 1960s
(R) Alvar Aalto at work

Containing distinct studio and living spaces, the home exemplifies the functionalism of Aalto’s early career, with such practical features as a walk-in closet in the bedroom (unusual at that time) and a two-sided china cabinet that is accessible from both the kitchen and the dining room. But the plentiful use of natural materials, including a dining room wall covered in brown suede, hints at the humanist bend his designs would take in the coming years.

The simple appearance of the house masks a complex, even experimental, structural framework that incorporates load-bearing brick walls, timber cladding, steel columns and a concrete structure supporting the ceiling – a mishmash of architectural ideas that is counterbalanced by the stylistic coherence of the building’s interior. As expected, wood dominates inside, from the living room floorboards through to the 1920s Italian dining chairs (purportedly bought on Alvar and Aino’s honeymoon) and the large sliding screen that separates the house’s domestic area from the studio space. The studio was the home of Aalto’s architectural practice from 1936 to 1955, until the gradual growth of the business rendered the space obsolete and the team was forced to move five minutes away to a new location named Studio Aalto.

“Alvar’s idea for a studio at The Aalto House represented an important change in ideas of workspace for an architect in the mid-30s,” explains Malmberg. “This is like an artist’s studio, with a large window facing north providing uniform light, whereas the newer space [at Studio Aalto] has windows on all sides to maximise the sunlight coming in.”

Aalto House exterior today
Aalto House interior today
Aalto House living room

As Aalto’s career progressed, he needed more room to work, and in 1955 he designed a separate atelier nearby, Studio Aalto. The curving walls of this white-washed building arc around a courtyard amphitheatre, a space that was used for client presentations and meetings. Bay windows and skylights allow for plenty of natural light – ideal for examining documents and drawings. Every last detail was designed to enhance the aesthetic and work environment.

Studio Aalto is reminiscent of a modern architectural workspace with large desks, computer screens and scale models. Despite Aalto’s death in 1976, Studio Aalto remained as a working practice until the Alvar Aalto Foundation took over the building in 1994. A small group of architects still work there today maintaining Aalto’s built legacy, which includes nearly 200 major projects.

Studio Aalto today

Like the Aalto House, Studio Aalto is experimental in its form. The only office in the nearby residential area, the building seems to, quite literally, turn its back on the neighbourhood, merely revealing a white wall to the street. Inside, the structure curves around a courtyard and amphitheatre (used for film screenings in Aalto’s day), revealing one of the crucial ideas behind the designer’s architectural practice.

It is from this studio that Aalto designed some of his most celebrated works.

After the Second World War erupted, there were important commissions of a more practical nature to preoccupy the architect. The requirement of providing vital accommodation for those in desperate need of cheap housing came to dominate his work. During the war, Aalto had already come to see standardized housing as the only viable solution to massive displacements. In quest of inspiration, he travelled extensively in the US, seeking efficient prototypes. Thus, when he became involved with the development of the suburb of Haaga, in the hands of a private cooperative association, prefabricated elements played a major role. This approach, with its theoretical background, he was able to popularize through the good offices of the Finnish novelist Mika Waltari, author of the world-famous novel, The Egyptian (1945), who assisted him in the production of a booklet on the subject. A sculpture to the memory of Waltari by Veikko Kirvimäki was erected in 1985 near the Hesperia Hospital, not far from where the novelist lived.

In 1953-5, Aalto built his famous Iron House (Rautatalo) at Keskuskatu 3A. Based upon a simple plan making efficient use of a very constricted site, shops occupy most of the building, in which Artek was formerly situated in the basement, while Marimekko opened, along with other offices, at the top. There is also a spacious interior courtyard on the first floor, containing cafés. In constructional terms, it is the first building in which Aalto made use of marble and travertine for his stepped galleries, incorporated into what is basically a structure of reinforced concrete.

This was followed later in 1955 by the House of Culture, a major concert venue situated at Sturenkatu 4 in the centre of town. A five-story curvaceous building (also containing offices) faced in brick with copper elements, it includes an asymmetrical concert hall accommodating 1,500 people as well as a congress wing. Studio Aalto at Tiilimäki 20 was designed the same year.

House of Culture

His House of Culture in Sturenkatu (Sturegatan), built between 1955 and 1958, was the first great musical venue to appear in the Finnish capital since before the Second World War. Basically composed of two separate units, one side contains the concert hall, with its voluptuous curves and richly textured red brick walls. The other is a five-story office block, adorned by a copper-plated façade, somewhat withdrawn from the street and joined to the other unit by a canopied bridge-like section at the rear.

House of Culture

In 1962, Aalto built the administration building of the pulp and paper company Stora Enso, with its marble cladding, just over the bridge on Katajanokka. This was followed in 1965 by his new plan for the complete redevelopment of Helsinki’s centre. Designed to be carried out in two stages, little of it actually ever came to fruition and his great vision, based upon the purest concepts of modernity, was never fully realized. This had consisted of a fan-shaped square, with terraced buildings, along the western shore of Töölö Bay. Only one component was finally constructed, Finlandia Hall. It provided the city with the most important concert hall since the White Hall was constructed for that purpose on Senate House Square in 1925.

Finlandia Hall

Finlandia Hall is easily Finland’s most recognisable building. Rising up from beautiful Töölönlahti Bay in the middle of the city, this modest white fortress is a breathtaking sight to behold.

While the visual effect is imposing and impressive from the outside, the purpose of the auditorium’s high roof was to enhance the acoustics on the inside (with limited success). and the warm interiors reflect nature’s own hues and forms. Finlandia Hall is stunning at any time of day but come at night and you will see a spectacular display of light as the hall is reflected in the bay.

Finlandia Hall

With a façade decorated by a mélange of Carrara marble and black granite, it reflects Aalto’s late-career interest in Monumentalism. The main auditorium was built in 1971 and the Congress wing, with a number of conference halls, completed some four years later. As such, it is the only building in Aalto’s great plan for Helsinki of the years 1967-71 to be constructed. The principal auditorium of the concert hall accommodates 1,750 people — a sharp contrast with that of the White Hall, which only holds 400; there is also smaller hall for chamber music, seating 350.

Finlandia Hall – main auditorium
Finlandia Hall – main auditorium

The premises he built in 1969 on the Pohjoisesplanadi, opposite Stockmann’s, for the Academic Bookstore took inspiration from his much earlier work at the Library in Viipuri and has become one of Aalto’s best-loved buildings in the city centre.

Academic Bookstore (Akademiska Bokhandeln) – great selection of books, in all major languages

The Akademiska Bokhandeln (or Academic Bookstore) in the heart of Helsinki’s commercial district is fronted by a rectilinear shell of dark copper – a somewhat austere contrast to the atrium space of the bookshop’s ground floor, which is flanked by white marble staircases and sits below stunning, angular skylights. It is the largest bookshop in Helsinki and features an extensive English language books section, which contains work by Finnish writers.

The Academic Bookstore lies at one end of the Esplanade, which consists of two major shopping strips full of essential Finnish design stores including Marimekko, Iittala and Aalto’s own Artek.

Artek store
Artek – Ball chair by Eero Aarnio
Artek – Cute miniature chairs 🙂

Another pit stop for furniture enthusiasts is Artek 2nd Cycle Store, a veritable Aladdin’s cave of vintage stools and armchairs. The store was set up in 2011 to refurbish and repurpose pre-owned pieces of furniture from Artek and other classic designers besides Aarto, including Ilmari Tapiovaara and Charles and Ray Eames.

On the south side of the Esplanade, Ravintola Savoy (Savoy Restaurant) sits atop the Industrial Palace building, where it has overlooked the city since 1937. The bespoke furniture designed especially for the site by Aalto and his first wife Aino combined with the views over Helsinki make the Savoy a special site in itself. And that’s all before you taste the authentically Finnish menu by head chef Kari Aihinen, whose dishes include octopus carpaccio, fillet of deer and cloudberry pastries.

Chef Kari Aihinen of Ravintola Savoy, Helsinki

Main course – Grilled pike perch and lobster , butternut squash and red wine and orange sauce
Selection of Petit Sevens 🙂 by Savoy’s Pastry Chef – including a cherry macaroon!

Stockholm Old Town

The picturesque Swedish capital is located at the intersection of two bodies of water (Lake Mälar and Salt Bay). At its centre stands Gamla Stan (Old Town), a well-preserved vestige of 16th and 17th century life and the modern-day nucleus of Sweden’s largest city.

During the mid 17th century, the Continental Baroque style permeated Swedish architecture. Plans for elaborate palaces and other buildings of major public significance were drawn from models in Italy, France, Holland and Germany – not infrequently with elements from several different prototypes intermingled. The bold, dramatic forms usually associated with the Baroque style were relatively restrained in Sweden, however, at least in architecture, in which the visual vocabulary and design principles of antiquity exerted strong influence. Thus, though the term Baroque serves throughout Europe to define both the historical period and the prevalent style of the latter 1600s, Swedish architecture from this time can more aptly be termed baroque classicism.

In interiors and furnishings from the period, classicism was heavily overlaid with baroque pomp and grandeur. Splendid stucco work with swelling, curving forms, adorned ceilings and chimney pieces, while walls were decorated with gilt leather, lush tapestries and paintings depicting myths, allegories, moral principles and lofty personages both real and fantastic. In general, Swedish architecture and interior design, which had been dominated by the sometimes stern German style, gave way to the extravagant elegance of the French.

In 1632, Charles Ogier, a delegate in the French legation dispatched by Cardinal Richelieu, did not conceal his consternation over the Sweden he encountered. It was a country, he wrote, in which the aristocracy lived in cold, drafty stone houses with simple wooden furniture and unadorned walls, surrounded by barren, inhospitable nature. Indeed, Jacob De la Gardie, the father of Magnus Gabriel and one of the five regents ruling Sweden during Queen Christina’s minority, lived in a house that was no better than those outside Paris occupied by craftsmen and merchants. From such conditions, Swedish monumental architecture rose in only a matter of decades to a level that compared favourably with that of the leading European nations.

This transformation was first seen in the palaces and manor houses of masonry constructed in the provinces at the centre of the Swedish empire as well as in Stockholm itself. Forty years after Ogier’s visit, the capital city boasted buildings that, according to another foreigner, the Florentine diplomat Lorenzo Magalotti, had no equals outside Italy. “Not with respect to the quantity or size,” wrote Magalotti, “but with regard for the consistency that equals the Italian building traditions and consequently that of Roman antiquity.”

The fortunes made in Sweden during the 17th century provided the economic base for such superior building. Land was considered the safest investment, and tax deferments as well as other benefits assured that property belonging to the aristocracy could be built to a noble standard.

Besides the economic, there were also ideological motivations. What a nobleman built was a manifestation of himself and his family, and often a representation of his class as well. Furthermore, to build on a grand scale was also seen as a way of honouring the fatherland. Erik Dahlbergh’s great volume of engravings, Suecia antiqua et hodierna, is indicative of how patriotism could be a motive for building. This noteworthy tome gives not only an impression of Sweden’s topography and dwellings during the second half of the 17th century, but also a reflection of how the nation wished the rest of the world to see her.

Skokloster Castle, built for Carl Gustav Wrangel, exemplifies the nobility’s use of architecture to display status. Wrangel had been a most successful field marshal during the Thirty Years War before rising to great heights in the state bureaucracy. Sweden’s largest private building, Skokloster took two decades to build (1654-74) and is today one of the best-preserved 17th century castles in Europe, providing an invaluable record of the period. It still contains nearly all of its original baroque furnishings, art and textiles, as well as library, armour and scientific instruments.

Skokloster Castle

Several architects were involved in the design of Skokloster, but the quiet elderly German, Caspar Vogel, was responsible for the general plan. Erected on the site of a former medieval cloister, this imposing building consisted of four wings with octagonal towers at each corner and enclosing a central courtyard. Its lavish interiors gave a vivid impression of the style of living enjoyed by the newly rich Swedes of the period. Here, Wrangel lived like a German prince in luxurious splendour and surrounded by objects of art and curiosities. Lorenzo Magalotti, however, found the castle too much and too showy, preferring a more refined aesthetic taste – such as the Italian. With its conservative – even old fashioned – architecture, however, Skokloster did not serve as a model for buildings. Architecture was already evolving in a different direction.

The House of Nobility (Riddarhuset) in Stockholm was Simon de la Vallée’s most prominent work.

House of Nobility (Riddarhuset)
House of Nobility (Riddarhuset)
House of Nobility (Riddarhuset)

Simon de la Vallée (ca. 1600-1642) was the first trained, professional architect to practice in Sweden. Born in Paris, de la Vallée began his career under the direction of his father, Marin, one of the architects working for Dowager Queen Marie de Médicis; Marin had participated in such prestigious projects as the Hôtel de Ville and the Luxembourg Palace in Paris. In 1633, Simon left France to work for the Dutch prince of Orange, and four years later he moved to Sweden.

During his tenure in Sweden, Simon de la Vallée initiated many projects, but relatively few were completed. With these, he replaced the architecture influenced by German and Dutch late-Renaissance styles with a French-Dutch classicism, which was then taken up by his successors. He attracted numerous commissions from private clients. As word of his gifts spread in his newly adopted country, he found himself sought after for public commissions as well. By 1639, he was named to the position of Royal Architect.

For many years, when noblemen convened in Stockholm for political deliberations, they had to crowd into old-fashioned quarters. This situation was to change, however, with the offer of a parcel of land by the renowned Axel Oxenstierna, who had been appointed Chancellor of the Realm by Gustav II Adolf and who, in this powerful office, effectively ruled Sweden throughout Christina’s years as a minor. Oxenstierna’s generosity made possible a suitably splendid meeting place for the nobility on the waterfront to the west of the Royal Palace. The commission for the House of Nobility went to Simon de la Vallée and yielded the earliest example of Swedish architecture in which one can follow the complete design and construction process through drawings.

In 1641, the architect presented two different proposals for the building. The larger one shows a three-story main structure with corner pavilions and four projecting wings, along with a lower entrance wing. The façade, of alternating red brick and sandstone, rusticated pilasters, and a decorative balustrade along the roof, has clear similarities to city palaces in Paris. His inspiration may have come in part from French architect Jacques Androuet du Cerceau’s (1576-79) work, Les plus excellents bastiments de France (The most excellent buildings of France).

The career of Simon de la Vallée came to an abrupt and violent end in 1642, when he was struck down one November evening and left for dead on the public square, Stortorger, in Stockholm. His attacker, a young colonel, was a nephew of Axel Oxenstierna; a settlement was quickly reached between the powerful Oxenstierna family and the architect’s heirs.

During the long building period between 1642 and 1674, the House of Nobility was slowly modified to consist only of the central block. A Dutch architect, Justus Vingboons, was called to Sweden to complete the project ten years after de la Vallée’s death. Vingboons gave the façade of the building its final, harmonious, classical appearance, with colossal Corinthian pilasters of light grey sandstone contrasting against the brick red walls (originally stuccoed and painted brick red with white joinery imitating masonry). The end result closely resembled buildings in Vingboons’ native Holland, such as the Mauritshuis in the Hague or the Trippenhuis in Amsterdam. The House of Nobility was thus transformed into a genuine example of Dutch classicism.

The building was finally completed by Jean de la Vallée (1620-1696), Simon’s son, who took over the project in 1656. Jean de la Vallée cleverly took advantage of the rich façade and added a magnificent roof, which he divided into two sections with a vertical intermediary part and an elegantly curved lower section. A simplified version of this uniquely Swedish roof form – the säteri roof – came to dominate the aristocratic manor houses and palaces built over the course of seven decades.

Latin inscriptions along the frieze named the virtues and obligations of the nobility and complemented the roof’s allegorical figures. The classical virtues of Honour, Strength and Wisdom were displayed in the pediment, while the entrance was flanked by the Roman deities, Minerva and Mars, holding aloft a shield. For all who entered this space, the classical gods’ message was that, through art and war, the nobility who served as civil officials and military officers thus advanced the cause of their country.

The roof of the House of Nobility, as well as the motifs in the façade decorations, recurred on a smaller scale in many other places. Jean de la Vallée himself was responsible for translating the architectural vocabulary used in the House of Nobility into wood for the manor house Fullerö, in Västmanland (which in fact was completed even before its supposed prototype in Stockholm). With its colossal pilasters, a pediment, a Doric entablature and painted in colours meant to imitate brick and sandstone, Fullerö imparted a Dutch classicism to the architecture of the Swedish countryside.

Jean de la Vallée was well prepared to take over the House of Nobility project. As the first of many recipients of royal travel stipends, he had gone to France and Italy in the late 1640s and would surely have remained abroad longer had he not been called home to Stockholm for the important task of preparing the city for Queen Christina’s coronation. In connection with this event, he created two triumphal arches in the capital, both made of impermanent materials, of which the better known echoed the Arch of Constantine in Rome.

A peer and competitor of Jean de la Vallée, Nicodemus Tessin the Elder (1615-1681), came from Stralsund, in Germany (then part of Sweden), where he had been educated in building fortifications. As an assistant to Simon de la Vallée, he had become well-grounded in civil building, although his future development was greatly influenced by a study tour through Europe in 1651-53 sponsored by Queen Christina. Like Jean de la Vallée, Tessin received many commissions from the high nobility, but unlike his rival, he managed his career carefully and was better focused on his goals. While Jean had trouble delivering drawings on time, Tessin carried his tasks to completion. In 1661, after fifteen years as Royal Architect, he took over from Jean responsibility for the Royal Palace and was given the title of Stockholm’s first City Architect. Later, King Karl XI elevated Tessin the Elder to the nobility.

Thanks to his skill and tenacity, and to whole troops of assistants, Tessin managed to produce over three decades some thirty great country houses, as well as a number of churches and palaces in Stockholm. He was the supreme master of his time, and with his classically composed architecture he was able to realize his clients’ architectural ambitions. While Tessin looked to France, Holland and Italy for prototypes, his models came primarily from the 16th century Italian architect, Andrea Palladio, whose books on architecture wielded great influence throughout Europe. Tessin travelled in northern Italy to study Palladio’s famous villas, in which the Italian master had brilliantly melded visions of the houses and temples of antiquity. Eventually, all of Tessin’s time was consumed by the one project for which he is most renowned: Drottningholm, today the residence of Sweden’s royal family.

Councilmen were required to have residences in the capital, near the Royal Palace and their place of work. Within a relatively short time, therefore, a semicircular zone of councilmen’s houses was built around the palace. The growth and transformation that Stockholm underwent during the 17th century was remarkable, but it was not accomplished without sacrifice. Many less-well-off Stockholm residents witnessed the razing of their wooden houses to make way for expansion of the palaces.

The transformation of Stockholm provided abundant opportunity for a gifted architect to apply his skills. Jean de la Vallée received the title of Royal Architect and with it, responsibility for the city’s building projects. His main task was to be to continue building the empire’s capital and the Royal Palace. Uniform rows of government offices and private palaces were planned on the south and west sides of the Royal Palace.  For various reasons none of these projects could be carried out. Instead, he took on a steady stream of wide-ranging and prestigious commissions from private clients belonging to the aristocracy.

Oxenstierna palace (Oxenstiernska palatset)
Oxenstierna palace (Oxenstiernska palatset)

As a reminder of these ambitious plans stands the palace (or rather, a corner section of it since the plans were never fully realised) that Jean de la Vallée designed for Axel Oxenstierna. Oxenstierna palace (Oxenstiernska palatset) was intended to be the first and largest building west of the Royal Palace. Inspired by Roman baroque buildings such as the Palazzo Borghese, the palace’s monumental façade and recessed mezzanine floors represented something truly new for Swedes. It was completed, however, with certain non-Roman features such as a triangular gable and a steep roof (which was later changed). The façade was coloured a warm, brick red.


The largest concentration of palaces was, and remains today, located on Riddarholmen, a small island between Stockholm’s Old Town and Lake Mälaren. The island had long ago been used as grazing fields for goats belonging to residents of Stockholm and later it became the site of a Franciscan cloister. During the 17th century, the area was transformed into the capital’s most exclusive residential quarter. To the far south stood Carl Gustav Wrangel’s impressive, towered palace, with its system of ramps leading to the water and a boat landing. From here, Wrangel could easily reach Skokloster castle by boat, as could the other Riddarholmen residents with country estates along the shore.

Wrangel Palace (Wrangelska Palatset)

On the highest point of the island stood a palace built in the beginning of the 1650s for the public official and diplomat Schering Rosenhane, one of the most cultivated Swedes of his time. The interiors of Rosenhane palace (Rosenhaneska palatset) reflected the taste of an intellectual and the style of a high official. Probably designed by Nicodemus Tessin the Elder, this three-story building, with its cubic form and rusticated exterior, displays a discreetly restrained classicism. Inside, the rooms are clustered around a central stairway and a simple courtyard that is little more than a light well. As in country manor houses, the utilitarian rooms were located on ground level and the family’s private apartments were on the story above. The top floor was reversed for a banquet hall and guest suites. Everything in the house was carefully thought through following a Palladian pattern and, most likely, the patron’s own taste and wishes. In the upper gallery, Rosenhane could explain to educated guests the meaning of the series of paintings with emblematic motifs that were created to illustrate his own ideas. Today, these are all that remain of the original interiors.

Rosenhane Palace (Rosenhaneska palatset, present Court of Appeals)

The Rosenhane palace was considered noteworthy in its own time. When Magnus Gabriel De la Gardie spoke in 1665 on the question of a new exchange building in Stockholm, he stated that it should be not “costly and magnificent, but beautiful and modestly elegant – like the house of the deceased Councillor of the Realm, Schering Rosenhane.”

Close to Riddarholmen on a parcel of land next to the water and neighbouring the House of Nobility, Gustav Bonde, the Treasurer of the Realm, built his palace in 1662. Bonde palace (Bondeska palatset) became one of Stockholm’s greatest palaces of the period. The building exhibits the expanded French plan that can be seen in Simon de la Vallée’s proposal for the House of Nobility: a main building with corner towers, four projecting wings and an enclosed portico. A garden and a boat landing were probably planned to face the sea.

Gustav Bonde engaged both Tessin the Elder and Jean de la Vallée to work on the project. Tessin gave the palace its principal characteristics: the façade’s classical composition, which consisted of a rusticated base and colossal pilasters in the upper level. Jean de la Vallée worked out the remaining details – a project that nearly cost him his life. He got into such a violent dispute with the major who was leading the daily work that the officer attempted to murder the architect and his family by mixing arsenic into their food. The architect recovered after some months; the major was charged with attempted murder, sentenced to death and executed.

Bonde Palace (Bondeska palatset, present Supreme Court)

In 1667, at the time of Bonde’s death, only the main building of his palace was completed and, despite his widow’s attempts to carry out the plans, the building was not finished during the 17th century. The impressive structure depicted in Dahlbergh’s Suecia antiqua et hodierna showed the palace as it was planned, and this was sufficient to win international admiration. When King Charles II of England first saw Dahlbergh’s engravings in 1668, he proclaimed that Bonde Palace had hardly an equal in all Europe, except perhaps in Paris.

Bonde Palace (Bondeska palatset, present Supreme Court)

In his will and testament, Gustav Bonde expressed his desire for the palace to remain forever in his family’s possession, since he had built it more for the honour of his family than for his own comfort. Family legacy was an important element in the building traditions of the period. Thus, the house became a monument to the late Treasurer of the Realm and his family. Great sums were spent on the external appearance, but the interiors were often left in relatively primitive state. The family’s living quarters occupied only a portion of the house; some of the remaining space was reserved for the staff, and other rooms were rented out. The palace even contained office space for the accountants and bookkeepers who took care of the owner’s finances; from these offices, vast properties could be managed.

The Stockholm palaces from the Baroque period have met with different fates. Today, the Rosenhane Palace is occupied by the Swedish Court of Appeals, while the Bonde palace houses the offices of the Supreme Court. As early as the 1670s, Axel Oxenstierna’s palace came to serve as the headquarters of the Swedish National bank (Riksbanken). Soon, however, the bank acquired its own building, designed in 1676 by Tessin the Elder. As with the Oxenstierna palace, only one portion of the Swedish National Bank building had been completed, on a narrow lot next to a small square, Järntorget, in Old Town; construction was not resumed until 1699.

The Swedish National Bank (Gamla riksbanken) building is considered one of the most Roman structures built north of the Alps. The balance of the façade’s horizontal and vertical elements, the recessed mezzanine floors, the pediments over the windows and the low roof all contribute to its Roman character. The robust doorway is directly inspired by the famous Villa Farnese in Caprarola outside Rome, designed by the architect Vignola in the mid-16th century. It is not impossible that Nicodemus Tessin the Younger had a certain influence on the bank building’s appearance. He was studying in Rome during the 1670s and could have sent reports and drawings home to his father. After all, it was he, more than anyone else, who was responsible for spreading the Roman style in Swedish architecture.

Swedish National Bank (Gamla riksbanken)
Swedish National Bank in Erik Dahlbergh’s Suecia antiqua et hodierna (Sweden in Antiquity and Today)

Swedish architecture in the late 17th and early 18th centuries evolved during a time of extreme political swings within and hostilities without. Between 1690 and 1730, Sweden progressed from the royal autocracy under King Karl XI, through two decades of war and hardship, to a long-awaited time of peace, followed by the institution of a new political system – the parliamentary regime of the Age of Liberty. Throughout it all, a continuous driving force came from the outstanding architect and conscious ideologue, Nicodemus Tessin the Younger. Together with the court painter, David Klöcker Ehrenstrahl, Tessin gave artistic expression to the importance and authority of the monarchy, with work reflecting more strongly than ever before, influences from Europe’s leading cultural nations, Italy and France.

Tessin’s architecture did not win over the conservative Swedish nobility, however, and aristocrats continued to commission buildings in the traditions of their forebears. The tone is different form earlier work, however – stricter and more austere. The architecture from this period is therefore known as late baroque or (for the kings Karl) late Karolinian. Though the terms are used interchangeably, the restrained simplicity of forms is today the most closely associated with the word Karolinian.

No architect in Sweden has ever attained the stature of Nicodemus Tessin the Younger (1654-1728), whose multi-faceted career also won him great influence as a politician and courtier to the king. From his youth, his bright prospects distinguished him from his peers. His education began in Sweden, first under his father, Nicodemus Tessin the Elder, then at Uppsala University. In 1673, when the young Tessin was just nineteen, he went to Rome to continue his studies. While he was there, former Queen Christina, having abdicated the throne and taken up residence in the Eternal City, took a lively interest in her gifted compatriot and helped to see that his stay in Rome was a productive one. Tessin was invited to study with the architect Carlo Fontana, through whom he made the acquaintance of the great Gianlorenzo Bernini.

During this six years in Rome and the following two in England and France, Tessin developed the style that would later determine his architecture. Though both Roman antiquity and the Renaissance were important to him, it was the baroque architecture of Bernini that Tessin admired most and that shaped his future work. In Tessin’s hands, the heavier Roman baroque of Bernini was complemented by the lighter, more decorated baroque classicism of Louis XIV’s France. The surroundings being created by Charles le Brun at Versailles and at the Louvre, and, in fact, the entire artistic devotion to glorifying the king of France, greatly impressed Tessin. He was drawn to the new principles of palace architecture that he encountered in France, especially to those developed and implemented by architect Louis Le Vau in his designs for Vaux-le-Vicomte (1658-1661) and to the landscape architecture of André Le Nôtre. Over the years, Tessin compiled a unique and extensive collection of French drawings and engravings, many of which are now preserved at the National Museum of Fine Arts in Stockholm.

Sweden had high expectations for Tessin. Even while still in Rome, he was appointed court architect. Upon his return to Sweden in 1681, he took over the position that his recently deceased father had held as city architect in Stockholm; along with that post, he inherited responsibility for completing Drottningholm Palace for the dowager queen, Hedvig Eleonora.

Tessin the Younger is best known today as the architect of the Royal Palace in Stockholm.

The Royal Palace was just a fraction of Tessin the Younger’s large-scale plans for Stockholm. During the embattled years in the early 18th century, the king and architect had exchanged letters planning radical changes in the urban environment of the palace. The goal was to create a capital city worthy of the absolute monarchy. In reality, however, the plans were more of an escapist’s fantasy. This was probably understood by both the architect and the king, who was detained in Turkey after his disastrous defeat at Poltava in 1709. The full scope of the project to glorify Stockholm is known today only through a drawing by Tessin that has been preserved.

The general plan was to form an axis running through the northern waterway to a monumental open square located on the opposite shore, today’s Gustav Adolf’s Square (Gustav Adolfs torg). There, on the far side, Tessin planned a large baroque church with domes and clock towers, this would serve as a royal mausoleum. The square was to be flanked by courtiers’ palaces, and between them were to be two fountain sculptures in the form of elephants carrying obelisks – an idea from Bernini’s famed Elefante in Rome’s Piazza Minerva, just steps from the ancient Pantheon. The plans also included new royal stables with a show arena (where the House of Parliament stands today), an arcaded space for an open market, and, in the northeast, an enormous armoury to display war trophies.

If Tessin’s utopian ideal had become a reality, Stockholm would have been one of Europe’s most magnificent capital cities, but plans to complete it collapsed with the fall of the absolute monarchy. Not until the end of the 18th century was the project revived, and then it was only partly realised by architects practising in the neoclassical styles.

Tessin’s plan for Stockholm included his own palace, erected on a property that he had acquired in 1692 on Slottsbacken, just opposite the south entrance to the Royal Palace. Behind a Roman façade, he masterfully created for himself and his family an ideal dwelling, which he conceived as a stylistic continuation of the Royal Palace. His son, Carl Gustav Tessin, later wrote, “The Stockholm house of my father of blessed memory is by no means a big house, but it can certainly be considered a model.” Moderate in size and with a simple, refined exterior, the house is easily distinguishable from the other private palaces that had been built in Stockholm by past generations. For its exterior and general composition, Tessin looked at modern palaces in Rome, and like some of this Italian colleagues, he drew inspiration from the noteworthy aristocratic homes of antiquity. The most important rooms are clustered in one main building, with a foyer forming a classical atrium in the middle of the first floor. From the foyer, one can enter a peristyle of greenery and a miniature baroque garden, which is considered one of the most exquisite in all Europe. From the outside, the second floor gives the impression of a piano nobile, but in fact it housed the family’s private apartments. The formal state apartments, containing a salon, antechamber, bedchamber and a cabinet at each end, was located on the third floor and overlooked the garden.

Tessin Palace

Tessin left this description of his plans for this apartment: “After much thought on how to decorate it, I decided to pain both ceilings and walls with all sorts of [antique-style] grotesque ornamentation… [In these] will be figures and small stories in colours, as well as some mirrors, bronze frames, etc. In the salon, the Fine Arts and Sciences will be the subject; in the antechamber, the satisfaction which comes from the study of Philosophy is depicted.” For the rich decorative paintings that dominate the interiors, Tessin enlisted the help of the same French artists who had come to decorate the Royal Palace, including Jacques Fouquet, Jacques de Meaux, and the painter Evrard Chauveau (brother of René Chauvreau). Trompe l’oeil paintings in the salon depict southern European harbours and sunny Italian landscapes with ancient ruins, while the bedchamber gives the illusion of continuity into an expansive sculpture gallery. This apartment has been referred to as one of the finest “French” interiors of the 1690s and ceiling decorations of this quality in particular are rare indeed. Various figures are combined here with ornamentation in the spirit of Jean Bérain but following a subtle allegorical program of Tessin’s own invention. The salon is dedicated to the god Apollo and the nine muses. The theme of the bedchamber is night, while in the antechamber are depictions of the struggle between Virtue and Vice.

The small, irregular lot that Tessin had acquired he transformed with precision and imagination into a symmetrical, terraced courtyard with a garden shielded by wings on all sides from the city’s jagged skyline. Protruding chimneys were once cleverly concealed by sheet metal cutouts faux-painted as trees mounted atop the wings. A pond and a broderie parterre of boxwood, surrounded by marble sculptures of ancient gods and goddesses, made up the front section of the garden. The garden’s rear section functioned as a stage, separated from the front section by a pair of freestanding wings. Behind these, Tessin created an illusion of depth by using false perspectives with a row of columns gradually diminishing in size like the Italian baroque architect Borromini’s false-perspectives arcade at the Palazzo Spada in Rome. From the beginning, a garden grotto, birdsongs from aviaries, the babble of trickling water and the scent of honeysuckle transported the visitor mentally to a southern European idyll. Landscapes painted in the wing’s original open arcades enhanced this sensation.

In 1700, Tessin wrote to his good friend Daniel Cronström, “As God is my witness, my house is costing me more than a hundred thousand livres, even without the furniture. God willing, everything is nearly completed and I expect it to be my greatest source of happiness in my remaining days.” Tessin proudly had engravings made of his house’s architecture, its interiors and its gardens to make known to the world this ultimate expression of his taste and artistry.

The work on Tessin’s own palace drew on experience gained during the early years of this career. As a young man, Tessin the Younger had captured the attention of the highest stratum of Swedish society. In 1681, when he was just twenty-seven and newly returned from travels abroad, he was commissioned by Count Carl Gyllenstierna, the dowager queen’s chief administrator and marshal, to design a palace.

An urgent matter during the Age of Greatness was the construction of mausoleums to honour military commanders and noblemen. These were strictly a privilege of wealthy patrons. They were constructed near existing churches as freestanding structures with their own architecture. All the symbolic adornments of a funeral procession – funeral escutcheons, ancestral coat-of-arms and flags of mourning – were placed along with the deceased’s sarcophagus.

The Gustavian mausoleum at Riddarholm Church in Stockholm played an important role in the development of this Swedish tradition. It was built just after the death of Gustav II Adolf in 1632, in his honour, and the oldest mausoleums derive from this period. Most are nearly cubic buildings, crowned by a spire and with windows on three sides. The architecture is as simple as possible.

Gustavian mausoleum at Riddarholm Church

In the following years, demands for mausoleums increased. Architects received commissions for grandiose buildings crowned by domes, with exteriors prominently displaying their functions. In the interiors, the worldly mixed with the spiritual. Exploits of war were intermingled with the hope of resurrection and eternal blessedness.

The kings of the Palatine dynasty – Karl X Gustav, Karl XI and Karl XII – all rest in the Karolinian mausoleum at the Riddarholm Church (Riddarholmskyrkan) in Stockholm. This mausoleum can be said to mark the end of the Karolinian epoch. Architecturally, it also signifies the grand finale of a long tradition of mausoleums of this type.

By the mid-1730s, the French Rococo style has a firm hold in Sweden. Applied primarily in interior decoration, the Rococo was reserved mainly for regal environments such as the Royal Palace in Stockholm where the style first became evident in newly completed rooms. Not until the middle of the 18th century, however, did the Rococo become solidly established and common in Sweden’s private houses as well. Swedish Rococo is normally considered to encompass the years 1750 to 1770.

The architect Carl Hårleman, who introduced the Rococo in Sweden and was responsible for forming its Swedish character, had already died by the 1750s. Hårleman is credited with having laid the foundation for the modern Swedish house, although in fact his architecture is based entirely on French prototypes. But the models were not simply copied in Sweden. Rather, they were adapted and modified into more moderate and disciplined forms than appeared in France. The Swedish Rococo has indeed its own, very distinctive character, and this applies comprehensively to architecture, to interiors and to the decorative arts of that period. It is sometimes said that the French Rococo cooled down in Sweden’s Nordic climate.

Carl Hårleman assumed artistic responsibility for completion of the Royal Palace, where work resumed in 1727, considered the starting point of the art and architecture of the Age of Liberty. The second largest royal building project during the Rococo period was the rebuilding of Drottningholm Palace for Crown Princess Lovisa Ulrika.

A major building project during the Age of Liberty and one of the few in which Hårleman was not involved was the exchange house in Stockholm. In affluent trading cities, the town halls and exchange buildings have commonly been manifestations of local wealth and power. This was not the case in Stockholm, however. Lacking the usual array of offices, the city’s various administrative bodies were squeezed together in a jumble of outdated office buildings near Stortorget in the Old Town. Merchants had no public trading facilities at all, which meant that they had to conduct business under the open sky.

The construction of a new exchange house became a drawn-out project that continued throughout the entire Age of Liberty. In 1728-29, the city architect Johan Eberhard Carlberg presented two different suggestions for an exchange building. The first proposal was based on restoring the existing city hall complex, providing more room for commerce; the other plan called for replacing the existing complex with a new, monumental building that would accommodate both the city hall and the exchange building. Neither of the proposals were accepted, however, and the point became moot when, in 1730, the city purchased the Bonde Palace to house administrative offices. The move from the square and Stortorget solved the problem of location and meant that the exchange could lay sole claim to the building contemplated.

Year after year, Carlberg’s initial suggestions were followed by new ones, both by himself and by superintendent Carl Johan Cronstedt. One of Cronstedt’s designs was finally approved by the kind in 1768. The year before, however, a young man in the city architect’s office by the name of Erik Palmstedt presented his ideas for the building’s appearance based partly on earlier drawings by Cronstedt. The city administration granted Palmstedt the task of continuing to develop the plans, which resulted in his proposal’s being accepted by King Gustav III in 1773. The building was completed three years later.

The Exchange (Börsen) currently housing the Nobel Museum

The new exchange building, in the form of a two-story trapezoid with covered corners and a flat, baluster-rimmed roof, took up an entire block on the north side of Stortorget. Its rusticated ground floor opens into generous arcades that face the square; the upper floor is enclosed. The building prompts associations with a French rococo private palace, but emphasizes its public status through an accentuated central section with engaged columns, a pediment and a clock-tower lantern crowning the top (the later being a remnant from the baroque). In the large second-floor reception room, which today houses the Swedish Academy (Svenska Akademien), Palmstedt created an austere interior in white and gold with colossal Ionic pilasters and a robust joist system.

The Exchange (Börsen) currently housing the Nobel Museum

The Stockholm exchange was the first building of monumental scale that Gustav III approved during his reign. It was soon followed by many prestigious projects within Stockholm’s centre in which both Carl Fredrik Adelcrantz and Erik Palmstedt were involved. With these, however, Sweden entered a new epoch: the Gustavian.

Creation of the Gustavian style was to a great extent the work of the renowned and versatile Jean Eric Rehn (1717-1795). In 1756 Rehn returned from a year-long study tour that he, court painter Johan Pasch (1706-1769) and a master builder, Georg Froman, had embarked on together. As a designer at the Swedish Manufacturing Office, Rehn had been dispatched to gather information about silk designs and production in Paris and Lyon. The tree friends continued on to Rome and then Naples, where they were the first Swedes to study the excavations at Pompeii and Herculaneum. Rehn zealously sketched the finds: architecture – sometimes just fragments – as well as sculptures, household goods and the furniture depicted in wall paintings. Indeed, the enthusiastic travellers reported having sensed at the ruins the aromas of ancient herbs, grains and balsam – a vivid and very personal experience of the ancient world. Then, en route back to Sweden, Rehn encountered France’s great enthusiasm for antiquity and its influence on the new and prevalent Louis XVI style.

Rehn’s travels initiated a new period in Swedish art history. His exposure to the ancient world and to its echoes in contemporary work definitely shaped not only his own personal artistic development but also that of Sweden. Already before his journey, Jean Eric Rehn had assisted Carl Hårleman with the interiors of the Royal Palace in Stockholm. Rehn’s contributions there obviously pleased Queen Lovisa Ulrika, who soon thereafter engaged him as per personal interior designer. He was also named Court Architect and a professor at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts.

Like Jean Eric Rehn, the architect Carl Fredrik Adelcrantz was at the height of his career during the transitional period between the Rococo and Gustavian style. Even more than his Chinese pavilion at Drottningholm, Adelcrantz’s greatest professional challenge came with Gustav III’s commission for a royal opera house in Stockholm (1774-82). This would become the most prominent Gustavian building in Sweden (and, after seven decades, the setting of Giuseppe Verdi’s opera, The Masked Ball).

The opera house was just one feature in the grand plans of Gustav III and his superintendent. The project was based on Nicodemus Tessin the Younger’s earlier drawing for the area surrounding the Royal Palace. These plans, which had only recently been discovered, agreed with the contemporary desire to create a space comparable to the monumental public spaces that imparted majesty to many Continental cities.

Erected on the east side of the square, the new opera house provided a main element in the architectural setting of the palace. (In 1891, Gustav III’s opera house was razed to make way for the current Royal Opera House, Kungliga operan.) Nothing on its exterior revealed the building’s function. On a rusticated base with windows and entrances framed by blind arcades, colossal Corinthian pilasters contrasting with the smooth façade stretched two full stories. A central colonnade crowned by an attic story marked the entrance toward the square.

Stylistically, the opera house derived completely from French classicism. It was also to France that Adelcrantz turned for inspiration for the stage and auditorium. The interior resembled the theatre designed by Germain Soufflots in Lyon, with its horseshoe-shaped auditorium, long rows of box seats, and raked stage. Adelcrantz’s design was likely based on the French prototype, since engravings of Soufflots’ theatre were publicised the same year, 1773, that Adelcrantz completed his drawings for the opera house. The furnishings in the auditorium and foyer were in red, white and gold with sculpted decoration of urns, laurel swags and musical instruments all in the spirit of the older Louis XVI style. Jean Baptiste Masreliez was responsible for a large portion of this graceful ornamentation.

A companion structure on the opposite side of the square, another palace – also designed by Erik Palmstedt – was erected in 1783-94 for Gustav III’s sister, Princess Sophia Albertina. With money inherited from their mother, Sophia Albertina had purchased the property in 1782; on it had stood a 17th century palace. Having offered to pay to construct his sister’s new palace, King Gustav gave the architect orders to copy the opera house’s façade. The palace was furnished with a number of exquisite interiors by Louis Masreliez. Thus, Sophia Albertina’s palace, which is still standing, gives quite an accurate reflection of Gustav III’s original opera house. The building currently houses the Swedish Foreign Ministry (Utrikesdepartementet).

Arvfurstens Palace –
Designed by Erik Palmstedt, the palace was originally the private residence of Princess Sophia Albertina

The new square just opposite the Royal Palace provided an ideal site for the equestrian statue of Gustav II Adolf, which was commissioned from the sculptor Pierre Hubert L’Archeveque in 1775 but not inaugurated until 1796. In Paris, many of the public spaces created during the 18th century survived the French Revolution intact, while all the effigies of monarchs perished. In Stockholm, the opposite occurred: The architectural framework surrounding the statue was truncated, but the king was allowed to remain in the saddle.

Not far from Gustav Adolf’s Square, work began in 1783 on the Customs House (Tullpackhuset), which consisted of a warehouse and offices. This project afforded Erik Palmstedt an opportunity to carry out on Swedish soil more ideas shaped by his foreign travels. Palmstedt’s customs house is firmly anchored in the Italian Renaissance; it has a severe, uncompromising, rusticated facade in stucco but imitating Italy’s stone, classically shaped window casements, and a portal with heavy banded columns. The building foreshadows the stern neoclassicism that would soon permeate Swedish design. In 1784, Gustav III returned from Italy a strong advocate of a strict, austere neoclassicism. This radically affected the style of public architecture, since the king’s personal tastes were decisive in the aesthetics of all new projects. Though drawings for public buildings were submitted first to the superintendent, the king of Sweden exercised his right to approve or deny all designs. This king often made changes to proposals with his own pen. When reviewing a suggestion for an inflated, baroque-style bell tower for the Kartulla church in Finland (then a part of Sweden), the monarch quickly transformed the drawing to a simplified clock turret composed just of four Doric columns.

Customs House (Tullpackhuset)

From this moment, Jean Eric Rehn and Carl Fredrik Adelcrantz – the proponents of the earlier, much softer classicism – lost their grip on aesthetics in Sweden. Though they retained their influential positions as court architect and superintendent, the king now marshalled fresh creative forces that could better meet his new demands and stylistic ideals.

The Royal Mint (Kungliga mynthuset) in Stockholm illustrates this development. In 1783, Carl Fredrik Adelcrantz began plans for a new Royal Mint to be located just west of the Royal Palace. While the new opera house magnificently displayed the architect’s skills, it also exposed his limits with regard to classicism. Just weeks after his return from abroad, Gustav III approved a new proposal, submitted by a younger architect named Olof Tempelman (1745-1816) for the mint house. Tempelman, who in 1779 had been appointed Sweden’s first professor of civil architecture at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts, had also recently returned from Italy; he therefore had a clear understanding of what the king wanted. His drawings depict a building with very pronounced rustication and a temple portico with four robust Doric columns. In the last phase of construction, however, Adelcrantz did rework the facade slightly. On direct orders from the king, the rustication was removed and the portico was given greater emphasis by extending the height of the columns. The Doric temple facade of the Royal Mint became the first manifestation in Sweden of this new style.

Mynttorget is named after the vicinity to the royal mint (Kungliga mynthuset), during the period 1696-1850 located by the square, and the name appears on a map dated 1733. The location of the royal mint is not known.

Mynttorget – oldest public square in Stockholm
Mynttorget – oldest public square in Stockholm
Stockholm Monuments

Arvo Pärt and Mozart at Harpa

Harpa – Norðurljós recitall hall

Consternation! There is no stage to pose on! 🙂

Little bears are at Harpa for a Friday series concert. The standard program features solo works paired with an orchestral work performed by the Iceland Symphony Orchestra.

Tonight’s main soloist is Víkingur Ólafsson, who is widely considered Iceland’s pre-eminent pianist. Víkingur is no stranger to Harpa. He performed at the concert hall’s opening event in 2011, and has premiered several new works there, performing regularly with the Iceland Symphony Orchestra. In 2012, Harpa started hosting his annual chamber music festival, Reykjavík Midsummer Music. Needless to say, he’s grown very fond of the place.

Víkingur Ólafsson

Víkingur Ólafsson has shot to international fame due to his playing of Philip Glass. But tonight he is playing Arvo Pärt and Mozart.

Although Mozart and Arvo Pärt belong to two different periods, they have much in common artistically. Their music is pure and uplifting, often with a simple surface overlaying inner complexity. Für Alina for piano was a watershed in Pärt’s career, in which he found his own voice after a hiatus of many years. The Mozart-Adagio is Pärt’s piano trio arrangement of a gorgeous movement from one of Mozart’s piano sonatas.

Mozart’s piano works in c minor, written in 1785-1786, are unusually dark and tempestuous – even a sort of harbinger of the type of expression frequently associated with Beethoven. The Fantasia for solo piano is a perfect prelude to the concerto. In both pieces, Mozart explores the depths of the soul in a different way than he had previously done. Víkingur Ólafsson does double-duty as soloist and conductor, leading the orchestra from the piano, as was done in Mozart’s day.

Für Alina (1976)

Nicola Lolli, violin and Víkingur Ólafsson, piano

Arvo Pärt went into a self-imposed creative exile for eight years, trying to find a way to resolve the creative conflict that he had opened up in Credo (1968). His Third Symphony, from 1971, is the only piece that dates from this transitional period, an attempt to fuse elements of the traditions Pärt was drawn to: Gregorian chant, harmonic simplicity, and the spiritual explorations into his Russian Orthodox faith he undertook at the same time.

In 1976 he succeeded in his quest, and the result sounds as if it had existed all along, music of the “little bells”, the so-called “tintinnabuli”, which you hear for the first time in this two-and-a-half minute piano miniature, Für Alina. This little piece is the seed from which the rest of Pärt’s musical life has grown: in the space of just a couple of years, Pärt composed the pieces that are still among his most popular today, including Fratres, the Concerto for two violins, Tabula Rasa, Summa, and the Cantus in Memoriam Benjamin Britten. These works helped establish his international reputation, especially in the West.

Mozart-Adagio (1992)

Nicola Lolli, violin, Víkingur Ólafsson, piano and Sigurgeir Agnarsson, cello

This short piano trio was written by Arvo Pärt in memory of his friend, the Russian violinist Oleg Kagan. Kagan is particularly renowned for his chamber music partnership with his wife, cellist Natalia Gutman, and pianist Sviatoslav Richter. Kagan had become seriously ill with cancer in 1989 and died a year later aged 43 in Munich. 216 years earlier in the same city, the 18-year-old Mozart had written his Piano Sonata in F K.280. Its Adagio, in the form of an F-minor Siciliana, has an extraordinary tragic power emphasised by poignant use of the semitone interval of a minor second (as in the opening three notes). Pärt’s reworking of the Mozart Adagio is respectful and moving.

Arvo Pärt is an Estonian classical composer and one of the most prominent living composers of sacred music, whose shimmeringly beautiful music is a curious and compelling blend of the secular and the sacred.

He was born in Estonia in 1935. In 1939 the Nazi-Soviet Pact handed the country to Stalin, and Pärt grew up under Soviet rule. That did not preclude a sophisticated musical education. At school he studied piano, percussion and oboe, and at 14 he began composing. Within three years he had written Meloodia, a solo piano piece in the style of Rachmaninov, which was commended in a young artists’ competition.

In 1954, he was called up for National Service in the army for two years. On his return from National Service, Pärt studied at the Tallinn Conservatory with Heino Eller, then a leading Estonian composer, whose teaching provides a thread running through modern Estonian music. Besides Pärt, Eller taught the great symphonist Eduard Tubin, who left Estonia in 1944; and his last student (Eller died in 1970) was Lepo Sumera, one of Estonia’s leading contemporary composers. By no means a modernist, Eller was tolerated by the Soviet authorities, and Pärt recalls him fondly: ‘There is only one central composition school in Estonia, and it’s Eller’s school. He gave me a path, but this path was very broad. He didn’t push in any direction, he supported you even if what you wrote wasn’t exactly like his own credo. He was very human, and it was a vivid apprenticeship.’

Still, it was not easy to be a composer in Estonia. In 1961, Pärt wrote what is widely acknowledged to be the first piece of Estonian serial music, his oratorio Maailma samm (‘The Stride of the World’), a work no longer included in the composer’s catalogue. The authorities regarded serialism as Western and decadent, and Pärt could not but come into conflict with those who controlled musical life, especially since much of his work was overtly religious. For many years he made his living working in radio and film, while writing music that struggled to find an audience.

In 1968 the authorities criticised Pärt’s work Credo, because its religious title seemed to challenge the pillars on which the Soviet Union was built. It seemed impossible for Pärt to be true to himself while also pleasing the authorities and so he hardly wrote a note during the next decade.

In the first half of the 1970s, Pärt’s health, damaged during his time in the army, recovered. He also joined the Russian Orthodox Church and married his second wife. A period of close study of medieval music led in 1976 to the style which Pärt labels ‘tintinnabular’ in recognition of his quest for a bell-like simplicity. Eventually the unending frustrations of Soviet life caused Pärt to emigrate in 1980, and he has lived in Berlin since 1982.

Pärt’s music relies on his deeply held faith and is infused with the centuries-old traditions of European church music, but it is for each listener to make up their own mind whether his music really is ‘religious’.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart – Piano Concerto no. 24 in C minor, K491 (1785-1786)

Víkingur Ólafsson with Iceland Symphony Orchestra

Mozart composed 12 piano concertos during the years 1784-86, an astonishing feat given the originality and exceptional quality of these works. To a large degree, much of their originality lies in the sonority and textures resulting from the expanded role of the wind instruments. Mozart was so taken with the abundance and abilities of the wind players in Vienna, that he used them in his scores as a distinct “mass” of sound against which the voice of the piano could be pitted, or to which it could respond in an interplay of motivic and timbral dialogue. In this sense, Mozart’s woodwind writing in this series of concertos figures prominently in the articulation of their forms; the winds no longer simply double the strings but function structurally as “dramatic personas” in their own right.

One of only two concertos Mozart wrote in a minor key, Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 24 in C minor, K491 possesses a much darker, stormier nature than his previous piano concertos. The kaleidoscope of angst and emotions bundled inside of this work are far beyond those presented in Mozart’s previous concertos. A minor key signature establishes a distinctly different character than that of previous piano concertos. The foreboding character set up through the minor key signature is continued through the changes in structure and form, allowing for the introduction of more themes and contrasting ideas than most concertos. The synthesis of themes between orchestra and soloist also work towards the dark and turbulent character presented in this piece.

Premiered in Vienna on April 7, 1786 at one of three subscription concerts by Mozart, K491 was the last piano concerto of both his time of highly prolific piano concerto compositions, as well as his “Figaro season”. A dramatic change from his previous piano concertos, it was written only twenty-two days after the premiere of Piano Concerto No. 23 in A Major and is regarded by many to be “one of Mozart’s most popular works in any genre.” One of Beethoven’s favorite pieces, Beethoven commented to his friend Johann Cramer after hearing a later performance of this concerto that “we shall never be able to do anything like that!” Many critics have noted the menacing, emotional mood of this concerto, describing it as having “an unrelenting, tragic character” that has a “gloomy agitation, but… a major mood, violent and energetic, to be sure, but not ‘tragic’.”

The fact that this concerto is written in a minor key departs from compositional norm of the time. This choice of a minor key illustrates a deliberate conveyance of something different, moodier, and more tempestuous than past concertos. German American musicologist Alfred Einstein, in describing the significance of different key signatures for Mozart observed that “If G minor is the fatalistic key for Mozart, then C minor is the dramatic one, the key of contrasts between aggressive unisons and lyrical passages. The lyrical quality is always taken over by gloomy outbursts.” Mozart’s use of C minor as a dark and emotional key had a large influence on Beethoven who later wrote his Pathetique Piano Sonata No. 8 in the same key, most likely hoping to express the same emotions of emotional turmoil presented in Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 24.

The torrid turbulence of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 24 in C minor is achieved through a variety of compositional techniques. The choice of a minor key signature, unusual for the time, sets up a more expressive, emotional turmoil than a major key signature would.

The innovation in dialogic interaction between the orchestra and the soloist creates a darker and more foreboding sound as well as providing a vaster array of themes. While Mozart’s piano concertos typically start with a dialogue like interaction between the orchestra and the soloist, K491 does not incorporate any of this direct interaction of dialogue in the initial theme. The first four notes of the orchestral introduction are never played by the soloist. The removal of this dialogue between orchestra and soloist at the beginning creates a more hostile, foreboding sound than the back and forth sharing of themes found at the beginning of previous piano concertos.

The topics expressed in each of the themes synthesize the symphonic storminess of the orchestral expositional theme with the more subtle conflict and struggle of the ascending and descending motives in the soloist expositional theme creating a highly emotional and stormy character. The form of the piece differs from previous concertos possessing a longer exposition into the relative major key as well as introducing more themes.

Finally, the expanded instrumentation of the orchestra gives the piece a larger range of sounds and dynamics to draw from to portray its emotional conflict and stormy nature. The vastness of the orchestra K491 is written for creates a sense of storminess and passion that a smaller orchestra would be unable to produce. Counted among one of the “symphonic concertos”, the instrumentation of Piano Concerto No. 24 includes not only the traditional instruments found in most piano concertos, but also a particularly large woodwind section with oboes and clarinets. The vastness of the instrumentation for this concerto adds to the stormy contrasts of emotions and volume of this concerto. Containing flute, bassoons, horns, trumpets, timpani, and strings, oboes, and clarinets the palette of colors, tones, and harmonies enhance the dark and stormy character being created in this concerto.

The pre-concert talk was not optional! Each piece and composer was introduced in depth, and in Icelandic 🙂 , as part of the concert.

For the encore, Víkingur Ólafsson played Philip Glass’ Etude No. 9.