Harpa Concert Hall, Reykjavik

So Reykjavik is a funny little place. Perhaps my expectations of a European capital city have been mis-managed after visits to Berlin, Istanbul, Paris… but Reykjavik, as I suppose naturally befits the capital of a country where there are more sheep than people, is small, kooky, quiet and strangely, wonderfully, contradictory.

The inclement weather dogged us for the entire trip, a long weekend with my husband and in-laws, but it didn’t in any real sense ruin our time there. It just added to the odd factor. And I mean odd in the most compelling “you had me at hello” sort of way. Even now I still can’t put my finger on Reykjavik. It has no discernible CBD, no crowds, most of the buildings have a fabricated layer of corrugated iron to them, the whole city feels subdued, muffled even, and yet the mornings are littered with the detritus of clearly wild nights before. There’s a sense perhaps, and I still can’t quite articulate it, that something is happening only its happening somewhere else.

And yet. And yet. They serve consistently world-class food in unassuming buildings that play to their strengths of lamb, fish and slow food, and in small but incredibly stylish stores all the way along the main street Laugavegur, they sell interesting, thoughtful, beautifully crafted works of design, art and fashion (albeit at considerable prices.)

Oh, and they have also built the most staggeringly beautiful, confident, poetic, enormous music hall, with a facade by Olafur “sun in the Tate” Eliasson that makes you almost want to weep.

Harpa was only half-built when the 2008 global financial crisis decimated Iceland’s economy and the building was consequently – and controversially – finished using government funds while the rest of the plans for a redeveloped harbourside were abandoned.

And so it sits at a scruffy end of the harbour, this lone, truly magnificent jewel. It’s a testament to the vision of Eliasson and the Danish architects Henning Larson that it’s resolutely not a glimmering beacon of financial folly but something so much more subtle, beautiful, poignant and stand-alone impressive. Clad in reflective geometric glass in opalescent shades, inside the roof consists of mirrored tiles and strong lines that use staircases to clever visual effect. I have no clue what the acoustics are actually like but if the outside is anything to go by, the actual concert hall must just be unreal.



A visit to Paul Cezanne's studio

Entrance to Paul Cezanne’s studio in Aix-en-Provence

I’m on holidays in the south of France and yesterday we drove to Aix-en-Provence to visit to Cezanne’s studio. Cezanne was one of several major 20th century artists (Picasso, Matisse, Van Gogh...) who invested considerable time in this beautiful part of the world and when he died in 1906 the studio of this Aix native was closed shut with everything left as it was. In 1925 it was bought by Marcel Provence to protect its historical value and in 1954, under the then-ownership of Aix-en-Provence University it was opened to the public, and it’s now managed by the city of Aix and being in this part of the world.

My earliest, most distinct encounter with Cezanne and his evocative bowls of fruit, was as one of a bunch of postcards my Mum brought me back from a visit to the Louvre when I was a teenager. Even then its quiet beauty struck me, for reasons I still can’t articulate, so to snoop around his studio, to get the opportunity to experience what was a very personal, creative space for someone with considerable art history heft, was incredible. 

One of the guidebooks I read mused that Cezanne would probably be horrified at the thought of all these people trampling through his private studio and well that’s probably true but it didn’t stop us.

For me there’s something so intrinsically special about getting to see where an artist works and, particularly when considering the work of older or more historical painters, to break down the experience of looking at their work to imagine them in that space; against that particular moment in broader history, putting brush to canvas. Sometimes, looking at really dull works by, I don’t know, Velazquez (sorry Velazquez fans…) it’s often only the dexterity of the paint stroke that fascinates me. That and picturing whoever painted it wearing velveteen pantaloons while they did.

Thankfully velveteen pantaloons were long gone by the time Cezanne came to be painting his still lifes and portraits of card players and geometric plein air landscapes that would go on to shape and inform the development of Cubism.

Paul Cezanne,  Mont Saint-Victoire,  1904, oil on canvas

Paul Cezanne, Mont Saint-Victoire, 1904, oil on canvas

We weren’t at the studio for terribly long - it’s not a huge space - but Aix itself is very pretty; a classic, buzzy university town with excellent people watching, great food and lovely squares and narrow streets to wander. Despite the torrential downpour that engulfed us as we left, the visit to Cezanne’s studio will be a highlight of this trip for some time to come.