Portrait of a City: Reykjavik Between Legend, History, and Tourism

Portrait of a City: Reykjavik Between Legend, History, and Tourism

Published August 21, 2020

Portrait of a City: Reykjavik Between Legend, History, and Tourism
Nico Borbely
Photo by
Sofia Nannini

This article originally written in Italian for Il Giornale dell’Architettura (The Architectural Post) by Sofia Nannini was translated by Nico Borbely. Sofia Nannini is a PhD student in History of Architecture at Politecnico di Torino. Her research interests focus on construction and material history, with a special attention to the history of concrete. For her PhD dissertation, she is researching the role of concrete in Icelandic architecture between the 1850s and the 1950s.

For a long time Reykjavik was one of the European capitals most ignored by those living on the continent. Iceland often doesn’t even appear in the maps of European history books. Always thought of as a sort of mythical place, from Giacomo Leopardi’s ‘Small Moral Works’ to Jules Verne’s ‘Journey to the Center of the Earth,’ Iceland and its capital continued to float in a sea of fairy-tale references, from elves to volcanoes, until our time. Even in the early 2000s, Iceland was a distant, cold, incredibly expensive country, and thus inaccessible to all but the most intrepid. Then two disasters followed each other in quick succession: the 2008 financial crisis, in which the country’s major banks all collapsed spectacularly, and the April 2010 eruption of the volcano Eyjafjallajökull, which brought European air traffic to a grinding halt for weeks. Both of these events brought Iceland and Reykjavik specifically along with it to the front pages of foreign newspapers, and opened a particular door to something that had seemed impossible up until that point: the beginning of mass tourism to the island. Thanks to the reduced prices in the aftermath of the financial crash, the winning commercial campaigns (Inspired by Iceland’s promotional video was one of the first attempts to attract tourists after the pesky eruption), and the island’s breathtaking nature, Iceland drew more and more tourists flocking towards its borders, with the boom culminating in over two million visitors in 2017.

“The history of Icelandic architecture is a fascinating one of survival, struggle against the elements, cultural self-determination, and political independence.”

Not Just Nature

Tourism is by no means a new phenomenon in Iceland. English scholars were already sufficiently fascinated by the language and culture in Victorian times to set sail northwards. One of the most enthusiastic of these voyagers was William Morris, who visited the island twice in 1871 and 1873. Portrayals of Iceland in travel writing by foreign authors are well near innumerable, as attested by Haraldur Sigurðsson’s 1991 anthology, which includes accounts by explorers, literati, scientists, and many tens of curious, ordinary tourists. It’s a form of literature that lives on until today: in Italy alone, the publishing house Iperborea has published many works about Iceland in recent years (thanks to the tireless work of its translators, such as Silvia Cosimini), which range from popular legends to anthologies of contemporary socio-political essays. However, nearly all travel writing pieces (and almost all of the opportunities for incoming tourists) center around nature: the mountains, the glaciers, the volcanoes, and so on. Currently Icelanders are doing their best to educate visitors on the fantastic worlds of the Nordic sagas and the quite ancient history of the island’s settlement in the year 874, thanks to the support of research centers such as the Árni Magnússon Institute for Icelandic Studies, and numerous local museums such as the National Museum of Iceland. Recently the Icelandic music scene has also become something of a tourist attraction, thanks to the international success of artists like Björk and Sigur Rós, with great participation in festivals such as Iceland Airwaves and Secret Solstice.

What About Architecture?

The poet Wystan Hugh Auden seems to have the answer. He wrote Letters From Iceland together with Louis MacNeice in 1937, in which he stated, “there is no architecture here.” In spite of its scant population, barely pushing 300,000, and its distance from international powerhouses of architecture, Icelandic architecture very much does exist. Its history is a fascinating one of survival, struggle against the elements, cultural self-determination, and political independence. In spite of the ever-increasing autonomy it began to gain in the second half of the 1800s, Iceland remained a de facto Danish colony until its 1944 declaration of independence.

The nearly complete lack of trees on the island, which is believed to be due to the original settlers clearing the forests which once covered 40% of its surface, down to their contemporary 2%, always led to a chronic lack of wood with which to build. Furthermore, Iceland’s hard basalt is too difficult a stone to mould for building walls, and there is no clay for brick production. These extreme conditions meant that one building material held a monopoly in Icelandic architecture for nearly a millennium – peat, forming the traditional Icelandic ‘baðstofa.’ The few stone buildings present were built by the Danish government, and expensive wooden houses were a Scandinavian import as well, often commissioned by merchants living in coastal villages and covered in brightly colored metal plates.

The possibility of building structures able to protect the island’s inhabitants from the humidity and cold only emerged from the end of the 1800s. Cement imported from Europe and welcomed literally as a “magic potion” became the most widespread building material in the capital and soon the rest of the country in the span of just a few years. Cement, and concrete specifically, was adopted almost immediately by the architects at work on the island at the beginning of the 20th century, particularly Guðjón Samúelsson (1887-1950), the first Icelander to graduate with a degree in architecture, active as a state architect for thirty years. With Icelandic identity having always been based on linguistic and literary values (with an ancient language and literature considered among the most epic in history), architecture was perceived meanwhile as a foreign import. Samúelsson had a key role in the years between autonomy in 1919 and full independence in 1944 in the definition of a national identity through construction projects centered around public buildings, which transformed a fishing and trading village into the capital of the new republic. Perhaps its best-known and most monumental work is Hallgrímskirkja, which juts out from the center of Reykjavík and can be seen from kilometres away. Designed in the 1930s and completed only as recently as 1986, it quickly became a symbol of the capital, thanks to its great concrete facade which pays homage to Iceland’s basalt formations, like a gigantic lava flow that turned itself into a work of architecture.

But the distinctive nature of Iceland’s construction industry is not just limited to the struggle against the cold and the wind: the absence of a local school of architecture, until the unveiling of a three-year architecture degree at Iceland University of the Art (Listaháskóli Íslands) in 2002, obligated all aspiring architects to study elsewhere: initially in Denmark, then in Germany, and France, and further yet overseas, such as Canada or the United States. This educational diversity may also be one of the reasons for which the word ‘architecture’ can almost always be translated as ‘arkitektúr,’ even in a language that prides itself on coining new terms of Norse etymology, even for neologisms and loanwords (in the past varieties of local origin were more commonly used, such as ‘byggingarlist’, ‘building-art,’ and ‘húsagerð’ (house-production).

Such heterogeneous academic backgrounds can seem a bit unexpected for an island characterised by such a strongly homogenous cultural identity. But this architectural variety, with sometimes original and sometimes mismatched results, is exactly what one can perceive while strolling about the capital. Colorful wooden houses alternate with buildings that seem like they were transplanted from the Weissenhof neighborhood in Stuttgart, Germany, or the Expo in Stockholm. Samúelsson’s multi-colored constructions stand right next to the polished concrete projects at Studio Granda. Not far from the centre lies the isolated and bright Norræna húsið (Nordic House) cultural center, Finnish architect Alvar Aalto’s only brainchild present on the island, built in 1968. In spite of the vast suburbs of prefabricated houses emerging from the lava fields, the center of Reykjavík is a surprising kaleidoscope of architectural styles, materials, and colors which make this small, vivacious capital a very unique place, quite different from its continental cousins of Copenhagen, Stockholm, and Oslo. Reykjavík’s architecture doubtlessly reflects the island’s geographical position between Europe and North America, in an Atlantic Ocean much richer in cultural relations and materials than one might imagine.

Another element was added to the city’s mosaic in the midst of the financial crash: the transparent concert hall Harpa, located along the sea near the old port. Designed by Hennig Larsen architects, the building is entirely covered in three-dimensional glass panels built collaboratively with the Icelandic-Danish artist Ólafur Elíasson, transforming the structure into a giant crystal. After all, the island was known for centuries for the production of local crystal, known in English as “Iceland spar,” widely used for producing optical lenses. Harpa came about as an ambitious project, imagined before the financial crisis, and almost immediately after its opening in 2011 it was seen as a symbol of economic recovery following the crash, which brought Reykjavík to an even playing field with the other Nordic capitals and their majestic seaside opera houses.

“But this architectural variety, with sometimes original and sometimes mismatched results, is exactly what one can perceive while strolling about the capital.”

Building In The Boom (Versus Tourism In Decline)

But what’s happening in Reykavík the last few years, a decade out from the economic crisis, that’s allowed it to reach a level of tourism that brings in a number of annual visitors at least six times its population? On one hand, the tourism Reykavík is a city rife with resources and opportunities, restoration projects on historic monuments and old factories (such as the recent restoration of Marshallhúsið on the port, financed by the local studio Kurt and Pi.

However, the immediate availability of money due to the tourist boom has influenced a great many hasty decisions, among which the construction of entire new neighborhoods, such as one south of the center next to the city’s bus station and airport, and one to the north, along the docks of the old port. In fact, in recent months a long series of hip but mediocre buildings has been emerging, somehow even more drab than the suburbs, which look as though they were fished at random from the Dezeen or Archdaily web pages. Some construction projects have been finished; other sites have long been in delay. Gains from the tourism industry have in fact been decreasing over the last two or three years, due to economic rebound and the consequently high cost of living, as well as the recent collapse of the airline WOW Air, leading many builders to delay their projects.

Will hotels and apartments remain empty? Will they be converted into housing for students and young people? (The increase in rent prices thanks to Airbnb has made it almost impossible for this demographic to find remotely affordable housing in the center of town.) These buildings have surely always blocked part of the panoramic view of the old port and the snowy fjords extending across the bay of Faxaflói.

To add a surreal element to the current construction scene, there’s another construction site not far from those of the new hotels and brand-name stores near the port. The sign beside it reads, “Rebuilding of Hafnarstræti 18. The house is actually two buildings originating from the years 1795 and 1799. It was rebuilt in 1924. Current construction will restore the building to the drawings from that time. [The] same building material and construction methods will be used as in the original buildings.” This initiative seems to echo a debate from several years ago, in which the idea of reviving an old design of Guðjón Samúelsson’s for the extension of the parliament building in celebration of Iceland’s 100 years of political autonomy (which was subsequently abandoned).

Such out-of-date initiatives may be amusing, but they reflect one of the greatest fears for the Reykjavík of today, and perhaps for any contemporary city beset by out-of-control tourism: the loss of historical and cultural individuality, and the flattening of any new construction project into a repetitive, predictable, and rootless model.

Identity Versus Homogeneity

The Reykjavík of 2019 is quite different from the tiny fishing village that Morris visited, or the non-descript little town Auden ridiculed. By now Iceland’s capital is a cosmopolitan and multicultural city, whose structures reflect a long and layered history, from when it obtained its status as a kaupstaður (market town) in 1786, until today. From the first wooden houses to its little cathedral, built and rebuilt by the Danes all throughout the 1800s. From the construction of the port from 1913 to 1914 to the American and British occupation of the island following the year 1940, and finally to the skyscrapers which symbolized the boom years of the 2000s prior to the economic crisis. The eclectic architectural mix that characterizes its center is a direct result of its architectural history, and the diverse places in which its professionals were educated. Its new quarters in construction, ironically destined to remain empty and unoccupied, reduce entire parts of the city to obscurity, depriving them of any sense of time or place.

In the last few years, one of the foremost concerns in Iceland has been the loss of its ancient language, rendered ever more vulnerable by the omnipresence of English thanks to the tourism boom and from the media (among other reasons, including the lack of Icelandic translations or language settings for numerous technological services and devices). This depletion of significance reaches the world of architecture as well, transforming the city’s architecture into a render collage which disappointingly falls short of expectations and erases differences at any latitude.

In the special case of Reykjavík and all of Iceland, hope rests in the constant curiosity and creativity of its inhabitants. In spite of the North Atlantic isolation, Icelanders have always been able to embrace and absorb external influences while also laying claim to a strong sense of national identity, in terms of language, art history, and literature (and therefore hopefully also in terms of the city’s future construction) alike. A shared identity which goes well beyond the postcard-nature photographed by tourists, which, today as much as in Victorian times, continues to fascinate whoever should choose to study it.

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