From Iceland — Surely, You Can’t Be Serious

Surely, You Can’t Be Serious

Published June 24, 2013

Surely, You Can’t Be Serious

Do you know what really grinds my gears? Seeing developers tear down vibrant city hot spots like Nasa and Faktorý in order to build another stinking four star hotel. Don’t get me wrong, I understand hotels are in high demand with the great influx of tourism that Iceland is experiencing, but I believe those hotels can be located more than a minute away from the downtown Austurvöllur parliamentary square. Aren’t there hotels on every corner in the city centre already?

Why do developers want to hollow out our community by removing great musical venues and replacing them with massive hotel monoliths? Surely they don’t hate the music scene as they recognize that it is one of Iceland’s largest attractions. No, I suspect they are instead blinded by the mountains of money that is to be made by creating more hotels.

Caught in a prisoner’s dilemma, developers may fear that if they don’t seize the initiative and build a new hotel today, someone else will do it and they’ll miss out on the opportunity. He who dares, wins, right? Besides, there will be other music venues, won’t there?

No, no there won’t be, not if developers keep getting away with this.

So who can we rely on to protect our beloved Reykjavík from being defaced by private money-grubbers?

Maybe the City Council? After all, it is in their interest to make room for new tourists, without sacrificing what makes Reykjavík such a great place. And, remember, we have an actor-comedian mayor who loves the arts, and his party is filled with musicians and artists. Surely they’ve got this under control, right?

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This doesn’t appear to be the case for Nasa, one of the capital’s most historic and celebrated music venues. You see, a building permit was granted in 1986 to change the Nasa plot, and property developers are now, twenty seven years after the fact, trying to use that permit to tear down the house and build a brand spanking new hotel right next door to our parliament.

There’s no question about it being morally dubious—the permit was granted by city planners from the ‘80s who had no idea what Reykjavík would be like in the 21st century, or what kind of buildings we’d want to preserve. For all they knew, we could have flying cars and not need any low buildings.
But is it legal to use such ancient documents to justify wanton destruction of cultural buildings? The City Council is in a prime position to test that, but it has yet to show any indication of wanting to oppose the permit through legal channels, or any other channels for that matter.

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What if the law was clearer? That should constrain those greedy developers, right? Wrong. Another live music venue, Faktorý, has a three-year notice period on its lease, but they are being kicked out a lot earlier than that, owner Arnar Fell Gunnarsson says. Is it because the building is run down? Is nobody going there? Quite the opposite, the place is always teeming with activity and music-goers. But there is profit to be made for developers, and Faktorý is only a stone’s throw from the city centre.

But surely our newly elected Prime Minister Sigmundur Davíð Gunnlaugsson, with his fancy city planning education from Oxford will step in, won’t he? We would hope so, since last year he blogged about his innovative ideas for a solution with the Nasa plot, which did not involve tearing the house down.
It may be worth considering that the owner of the Nasa property, Pétur Þór Sigurðsson, is a wealthy member of the Progressive Party – the same party Sigmundur leads. Hopefully, however, this won’t interfere with the PM’s convictions and decision making.

As of yet, our elected officials have yet to show themselves interested in preserving these community hubs from the private sector. So who does this leave to protect our city?

It leaves us responsible for showing up in solidarity and protesting against private interests of a few wealthy fat cats overriding the interests of the public. A thousand people showed up and did just that on the June 15, protesting the tearing down of the Nasa building. More than two hundred bands and almost 18,000 people also signed a petition opposing the proposed building permit.

Nasa is not just a music venue that hosts live bands, it’s a historical building built in 1946, and has been a part of several generations’ lives. During autumn, it has played an important part in the Icelandic Airwaves music festival, and during winter months it was booked week after week with upper secondary school parties.

Ingibjörg Örlygsdóttir, the manager of Nasa, tells me the venue was running as it should, but with the economic crash it became more difficult to keep afloat. “It was hard,” she says, “but doable.”
People care greatly about their environment, both outside city limits and in their immediate vicinity, as is obvious from the public’s reaction to the city planning permit. Icelanders are very hospitable to tourists, but it’s only common sense to make sure we keep our music scene alive for all to enjoy. Nasa and Faktorý are iconic venues, integral to Reykjavík’s cultural identity. They are two of the more prominent mid-sized places for bands and artists that have grown out of the watering holes mini-stages, but haven’t gathered the critical acclaim needed to put on a show at Harpa.

Without them, the city will not be the same. Do we need to get pepper sprayed and tear gassed to be taken seriously? Do we need to burn benches and squat in the building for our elected officials to do their job?

So please, Jón Gnarr and Sigmundur Davíð, take a hint from your constituency, and put your money where your mouth is.

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