Up until a year ago, Reykjavík was in the throes of a serious building boom. Projects all over town planned to tear down the old and put in new shopping malls and high-rises. Tenants of older buildings were being forced out by rising rent prices and the owners were chomping at the bit of sweet deals being offered to them for their properties.
When the shit hit the fan last October, the construction industry took one of the first big hits on the chin. From one day to the next, the money was gone and projects were immediately put on ice. Businesses all throughout downtown were going bankrupt and closing up shop, buildings that were sold to be demolished stood vacant and forgotten.
However, some people began to see the potential for the phoenix to rise from the flames of these deserted shells. Groups of artists and creatively inclined individuals began appropriating spaces into workshops and galleries. This did not necessarily fly over too well with building owners and obstacles were thrown in the path of those trying to bring new life into the quickly dying city centre. I recently spoke with two of these industrious individuals about their projects and the challenges they faced.
Doing it by the book
Hlín Helga Guðlaugsdóttir, managing director of the Aurora Design Fund, set up the Design March in March 2009. She told me that the group targeted empty, abandoned spaces all along Laugavegur with the aim to bring new life to the street that was rapidly losing air and show that these spaces could be used for something else. However, over the course of January to March, more and more empty spaces were cropping up and it started to look like they bit off more than they could chew. “It was so difficult,” Hlín told me, “when we started there were thirty designers wanting to do something, and there were five or seven empty spaces. By the time we did it in March, there were thirty.”
The group went about acquiring these spaces by contacting the building owners to borrow the space, but were immediately challenged. “It was quite difficult to get them to lend the spaces for a couple of days,” she says, “finding the building owners by going through real estate agents to talk to them, that was the headache.” Hlín attributes the reluctance of building owners to lend them the space to indifference. “I think they couldn’t be bothered in a way,” she goes on, “I think they were also afraid that we would do something and mess it up. Some of them were instantly positive and understood that it was an opportunity, but others just didn’t see the point.”
Eventually it all came together and the group got eight spaces up and running, all of which they worked hard to clean and give a fresh coat of paint. They then threw an opening party which led into a walk along Laugavegur to visit all their locations. Hlín tells me that she received lots of positive feedback from people who were glad to see the street alive again. Reykjavík mayor Hanna Birna Kristjánsdóttir paid a visit to the event as well.
A couple of days later, Hlín was asked by the city to continue a project to revitalize Laugavegur’s empty spaces. She worked with designers to split them into small groups that would occupy spaces together and has now stepped back from the project, but continues to oversee the situation in 101 and assess if they need to become more proactive.
“We took it.”
Not everyone has chosen to go about the most legal means of acquiring space. A group of young street artists, The Pretty Boys, recently opened the Gallery Bosnia at Hverfisgata 34. The group had taken notice of the amount of abandoned space in 101. They had originally planned to covertly take spaces a week at a time, quickly set up their display, throw one big party and move on to another location. They busted their way into the locale on Hverfisgata in June, cleaned and white-washed it in one week and threw an opening party, where a dozen cops showed up asking them to shut off the music and get the party-goers out. They boarded up that night and came back the next day with fresh plans.
“We started to look into the prospect of making it ongoing,” Pretty Boy Geoffrey Thor Huntingdon-Williams told me, “we were getting quite attached to the place and we didn’t want to leave, basically. There was no one who was ripping us out, so we said ‘okay, let’s just stay here a bit longer.’”
The group then contacted Central City Director Jakob Frímann Magnússon, who already knew the guys from their involvement with the Reykjavík graffiti scene. With his help, they managed to get the go-ahead from the building owners to occupy the space rent free and properly open a gallery. The group did a second clean up of the space, working day and night until they finally opened their doors on Menningarnótt, which Geoffrey feels went very well.
Bust in vs. call ahead
So which method is simpler and most effective? It seems as though the going about the legal process of finding the owners and requesting permission for use of the spaces can be a pain in the ass, but the pay off is worth it. Hlín stressed this point to me as well. After gaining the mayor’s approval and speaking to people on the city council about her new project on Laugavegur, she placed fresh calls to the building owners she had spoken with to prior to her project and was met with an overwhelming positive response.
“I’m pro-activism, but I think there is a line where you have to have credibility to make good things happen,” she says, “Taking a space might be a good and necessary means to communicate what you believe in and make a statement, but I think that if you want to build something up, I believe in getting direct dialogue and selling your ideas.”
She also suggests that a young artist without a degree and no money can build legitimacy by grouping with other artists and getting a spokesperson.
Hlín does see the other side of the coin though. “In some cases I think it’s necessary to take over houses,” she goes on, “Some houses are really neglected, in really bad shape and people are just letting them rot. They don’t care about the property, they care about the land, so they let them rot so they can get permission to build earlier.” This was the case with Gallery Bosnia’s space. The building was a run-down eyesore that the owners were neglecting, according to Geoffrey, and despite a few snags with the law, he says they ultimately didn’t face any real hassles when it came to getting permission to use it.
He also points out that his group didn’t take their space to make a political statement, but rather they went about this route to make something beautiful out of something that was rotting away.
“I’m not squatting and we’re not waving black flags,” he says, “it’s not a political manoeuvre. We just wanted to make something nice and do something fun.” One thing both Geoffrey and Hlín agree on is that people need to take initiative to transform these spaces into worthwhile endeavours, and not let abandoned space go to waste.