Published September 7, 2007
“I’m like a raven, I collect things,” Icelandic film director Hrafn Gunnlaugsson says of his seaside hidden abode. As an observer, the house at Laugarnestangi 65 can easily be mistaken for an eclectic museum, an offshore eatery or an enormous unfinished sculpture. Like so many artists, Gunnlaugsson has a vision for his anomalous haven – a living, breathing display of history, his travels, family, nature and above all, recyclable materials. It’s simply not enough to observe; only active participants are allowed in this bizarre existence that Gunnlaugsson calls home.
The gravel road leading up to the house lingers for a bit, almost insisting that there is nothing to see. However, with a slight look to the left a luscious natural habitat for a flush of ducks cordially presents itself through its unassuming entry way. To the right, a handful of eclectic sculptures are randomly dispersed among the tall uninhibited blades. “I like to direct nature,” Gunnlaugsson says jokingly about his horticultural skills. Given the jungle-like gardening concept, the greenery is wild and grows without boundaries or control. A massive raven, acting as the knight for his castle, perches regally on the single branch protruding from an enormous caramel coloured stone.
According to Gunnlaugsson, there are 160 massive stones scattered around the extensive property, collected as souvenirs from various locations around the country. “Some people come to Iceland and go whale watching because they want to see a whale; instead they get a flicker in the water. They’re more likely to see an elf behind one of these stones than a whale in the ocean.” As a proud endorser of the Icelandic folklore of elves inhabiting large mounds of stones throughout the country, Gunnlaugsson also respects the past life of the land itself. Once occupied by a hospital, a cemetery, the barracks of the British Army during World War II and the burial site of an Icelandic feminist icon, the property is rich in history. When Gunnlaugsson purchased the land thirty years ago, he not only wanted to give it new life, he also wanted to preserve its past existence as well.
The Raven’s Nest
Much like an amusement park attraction, the first image of the house exudes an intentional playfulness that sets the tone for the rest of the tour. A geometric iron sculpture (a memento from an old World War II ship) decorates the outside walls resembling elements of the solar system including crescent moons and orbiting spheres. The colour scheme is not shy, vibrantly articulated in shades of red, yellow, white, turquoise and a rustic orange. The patio or balcony, made only of rusted iron, connotes a love that Gunnlaugsson has for heavy materials that have stood the test of time. “First I get the material and then I become friends with it,” says Gunnlaugsson on his methods for designing. Unlike the excruciatingly neat harbour that runs along the downtown coastline, his private shoreline is raw and unpolished – left the way nature intended. His hobby of garnering things materialises with a stone chimney left by the British Army resting happily on the rocks, a deserted chicken coup nestling in the bushes and a lengthy storage shack covered in numerous masks detailing his travels from the deep waters of the Amazon to the roots of Madagascar. After completing the tour of the surrounding area, it was time to step inside the three-level dwelling that shows a personal side to this bearer of all things.
Upon entering the thirteen-door complex, it is clear that the ground level is absent of walls, forcing guests to take it all in at once. To the left, the dining room – a glass gazebo elegantly adorned in redwood furniture made in Vienna by a missile specialist more than a decade ago. A golden, ceiling-high, a-line shaped heating unit warms up a cosy corner of the living room while a cushy, seventies-style chair hangs listlessly from a wooden plank. Black and white photographs of Gunnlaugsson’s family play an important role in this mosaic space as he stops to introduce each member by revealing their relationship and occupation. The kitchen, made of smooth, oak countertops is cluttered with glasses and an array of antique collectibles. On the walls and ceilings are canvas paintings of ravens, copies and reproductions of Monet, Van Gogh and Gauguin, and most importantly handcrafted masterpieces from his children in their early years. A wooden spiral staircase delivers you into a sea of books and films gathered and used for reference over the years.
The second level is small and private, only occupied by two bedrooms and a bathroom. Gunnlaugsson’s bedroom is dark with the back wall reserved for a film screen. An array of angels with unusual faces align the crown moulding, as he adds, “If I see an angel that looks like former Prime Minister, Davíð Oddsson, I buy it.” The underground level feels essentially like a large cave composed of a hot pot that meanders out to the harbour rocks, a dry and wet sauna, a quaint little gym, a spare bedroom and a hole where Gunnlaugsson likes to dig when he gets depressed. Like any work of art, this home continuously evolves and has no intentions of completion.
At a time where every corner in Reykjavík is consumed with construction and cookie cutter modernisation, Gunnlaugsson’s hideaway offers a breath of rarity. On the whole, the perfect nest for the bird that has to have it all.