From Iceland — Grand Design for a Grand Institution

Grand Design for a Grand Institution

Published August 1, 2008

Debates rise as the Art Academy reveals its dream of a new home

Grand Design for a Grand Institution

Debates rise as the Art Academy reveals its dream of a new home

Hjálmar Ragnarsson, Director of The Icelandic Academy of the Arts (LHÍ), has been in the news a lot lately. He recently introduced a proposal for the academy’s new headquarters to be built by Reykjavík’s main shopping-street, Laugavegur, by 2011. The proposal was the result of a competition set up by Ragnarsson and a school committee to determine LHÍ’s long-awaited new building.  Out of twenty entrants, five were short-listed for the leading blueprint and received funding from the Academy to complete their designs. The winning proposal is currently showcased at the academy’s future site, but the issue remains locked in political debate between those who wish to preserve Laugavegur’s 19th century street-image (to which the proposed building does not adhere) and their adversaries. Ragnarsson told the Grapevine all about it.

At present, the academy is split into five locations. Ragnarsson believes these establishments would be better utilised in a unified entity: “It would be not only a teaching institution, but an art institution focusing on the cross-disciplinary work and studies between art disciplines”. Conjoining the departments then is crucial to Ragnarsson and his vision. International awareness is also high on the agenda:“We believe that the standard of competition is very high and shows more than ever that architecture in Iceland is developing at a high level”.

Nothing to do with Aesthetics
Recently, the debate has risen to the forefront of Icelandic discourse, as the main opposition to the school focuses primarily on the preservation of Laugavegur 43-45 – two houses that were built at the beginning of the 20th century. “None of them have actually been declared off-limits,” explains Ragnarsson. “It has nothing to do with aesthetics or value, and should be kept professional and not too emotional.” He is philosophical about the three-to-six month wait for a verdict from city council’s planning department. “We are very positive about the results”, he explains, but concedes: “ since it has become a matter of city politics, you never know what will happen”.

The contentious issues at stake in the construction of the Academy involve both architectural and social space. “The feminine design that was picked from the five finalists stood out against the more masculine runners-up,” says Ragnarsson. The Director explains that the interior of the building employs different levelled ceilings to suit the different disciplines of dance, drama and music. Ragnarsson also stresses that in terms of exterior space the Academy building would free up a couple of feet on the pavement, creating more space for pedestrians to appreciate the grand design.

Making History
Ragnarsson champions the winning submission as “Representing the feminine culture of Iceland, one that’s not as connected to nature as one might anticipate”.  The winners of the competetion took note of the task at heart. “They took note of different spaces, different sizes and different heights that were outlined in the design brief to determine that the building grows from inside out, like a living organism.”

Ragnarsson has an upbeat view on the future of Reykjavík: “We believe that having the Art Academy here will be a major step towards renovating the city centre.” He points to the architectural degeneration of the city as a reason to act with the spirit of the time: “I know the value of history. I also realize that history is not frozen, it has to be made. The academy is certainly part of the 21st century and we definitely want to make our mark on the city life.”

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