From Iceland — Alþingishúsið (Parliament House):Redefining Open as Closed

Alþingishúsið (Parliament House):Redefining Open as Closed

Published July 22, 2005

Alþingishúsið (Parliament House):Redefining Open as Closed

The House of Parliament, the working place of the oldest of its kind in the world, is open for public, claims my shabby guide book. And the locals agree: “I’ve been there dozens of times, with my class when I was at school for example, to see how it works. It’s so easy, you just walk in,” my Icelandic friend tells me, when I ask about whether to trust my well-served yet rather touristic and not so locally produced source of information.

Yes, during the meetings, the next one starting in the beginning of October, anybody can go in and follow the work of the leaders of the country, confirms Solveig K. Jónsdóttir from the public relations in the Alþingi. But I, as it turns out, as a random, innocent visitor interested in how the oldest democracy in the world is doing these days, wasn’t so lucky.
My step number one towards the place of real political action was the tourist office. They agreed with all of us, I mean me, my friends, the guide book and the representative from Alþingi: the building is open to public, but that’s about all I found out there.

Step number two: I walked straight to the hot spot. And around it. And knocked on the door even, accompanied by few others wearing bright-coloured windbreakers. The grey, monumental building, looking as impossible as Alcatraz to get in, stayed locked.

“To me it looks like a fortress,” says Kathi Meyer, 25-year-old exchange student who has lived in Reykjavík for roughly a year now, when I tell her about my failed pilgrimage to Alþingihúsið. “And I think that they forgot the windows of the new annex in the original plan, ‘cause they look like they would’ve been added there later on,” she continues.

The main building, designed by the Danish architect Ferdinand Meldahl in 1879 and the new annex that was finished in 2002, together with a few other buildings close-by, house the parliament that the Viking population originally started more than 1000 years ago. Alþingi, or literally the “all-thing”, or General Assembly, was first held in 930, in Þingvellir, not Reykjavík.

With its thick, grey walls built of cut basalt stone, Reykjavík’s Parliament House certainly has a castle-feeling to it. As the premises of the oldest parliament in the world, the renaissance building with arched windows and a hipped roof indeed stands ahead of the nation in a rather modest and difficult-to-notice -kind of a way, especially compared with its cousins in Scandinavia, let alone the similar buildings in other old cultural capitals of Europe. By the time it was built, it played an important role in establishing Reykjavík as the capital it is today, however.

The building houses working rooms for the three government parties, and the meeting room for the 63 parliament members. There’s also working space for the president of the parliament, representatives of the media and a handful of other offices.

The members of the parliament have their offices close by in other buildings. Right now, there’s mainly building materials, paint cans and ladders on the ground floor, but normally that’s where the office of the President of the Alþingi and the rooms used by the three party groups are. The assembly hall and the secretariat of Alþingi are located on the second floor, while the third floor houses a gallery and offices.

In addition to being the centre of the political decision-making of the country, it has also, over the years, housed various institutions such as the National Library the National Gallery. The University of Iceland was founded in 1911, and at first it used the first floor of the building, because the museums and archives had by then been transferred elsewhere. The university moved to its own buildings in 1940.

After my wide investigations among pretty much everybody who remembered where the building is and how it looks like, I returned to the starting point, once more. That’s when Solveig K. Jónsdottir from the office for Alþingi told me that the building is locked simply because of renovations. “The summer break in the parliamentary sessions offers a perfect opportunity to renovate the old building,” she explained in a friendly tone. So I guess I have to wait patiently.
Parliament house (Alþingishúsið), Austurvöllur square. Open again from the beginning of October.

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