Published August 19, 2011


A few weeks ago I was wandering around Skóla-vörðu-holt where Hallgrímskirkja—the large church dedicated to the poet and psalmist Hallgrímur Pétursson—stands. From the top of the church tower there’s a great view over Reykjavík and the surrounding landscape. Reykjavík is arguably not a beautiful city in itself. It is very spread out and the architecture is chaotic, but the way it interacts with the surrounding nature can be rather lovely. Thus Reykjavík is in many ways an outward looking city—looking out to the sea and the hills.
It is sometimes said that the poet Tómas Guðmundsson was the first to discover the beauty of Reykjavík, which had generally been frowned upon as a place without culture and grace (surely Akureyri in the north was much prettier). Tómas, who was born in 1901, wrote poems about summer nights in Reykjavík, lovers meeting by the Pond, and the girls on Austurstræti. Some people think these poems are more pastoral than urban, which is perhaps not so strange, as Tómas originally came from a farm by an idyllic river in the south.
Then the poet and cynic Steinn Steinarr–possibly the most widely read poet in Iceland–came along with a harsher view of the city. Steinn was also a farm boy, but he was bought up in poverty and hardship, and Reykjavík is marked by an existential anguish in his poems.
From the top of the church tower, you will see some of the oldest neighbourhoods in town: Þingholt, Skólavörðuholt, and Skuggahverfi. You will notice that the roofs are painted in a most colourful array of reds, blues, and greens. They are mostly made from corrugated iron, a building material much appreciated in a country with a lot of wind and rain. Corrugated iron is also cheap and it was very popular in Iceland in the early twentieth century.
In the same way that the doorways of Dublin with their many forms and colours are a symbol of that city, the colourful roofs could be a symbol of Reykjavík.
Looking east and a bit to the north from the tower, you will see two main thoroughfares of central Reykjavík—Laugavegur and Skólavörðustígur—as well as the maze of small streets between them. You will notice the small scale of the buildings and their diverse architecture. There is little architectural tradition in Iceland so people have basically built houses anyway they liked. The authorities cared little about symmetry and form, and the architects studied in many parts of the world, bringing home with them different ideas.
It is even said that Moorish influence crept into the architecture when Icelanders started going to the south of Spain in the late 1960s. An Icelandic tourist might have come home with a picture of the Alhambra and told his builder, “I want something like that.”
During the first decades of the twentieth century, taller buildings like Hotel Borg and Austurstræti 14 (which houses Café Paris) were built in downtown Reykjavík. These buildings look rather affluent and ornate, and the style is sometimes referred to as “Reykjavík classic.” But the financial crash in 1930s hit Iceland very hard and this style of building was soon history. When construction began again after the war, the period of modernism had taken over and its impact can clearly be seen on the cityscape. Some say that unfortunately Reykjavík was built during the wrong time, in a period when modernism, functionalism and brutalism were dominant in architecture.
Old houses were torn down to make way for new modernist structures. One such building, which houses the conservative newspaper Morgunblaðið, towers over the rather modest square where Austurstræti and Aðalstræti meet. This was in a way fitting, for Morgunblaðið dominated the media and public discourse for a long time (it is said that governments were formed in the offices of its editors), not losing its overwhelming influence until about ten years ago.
Many felt ashamed of the old timber houses. A famous union leader said they reminded him of poverty, the cold and damp. For a long time most of the timber houses in town were in a state of decline—they were mostly the abodes of poorer people—and many of the larger ones burnt down. In the 1980s, fires were quite frequent in the city centre and the authorities seemed almost glad to be rid of them.
It was not until the late 1980s that preservationist efforts became popular. The turning point was when it was decided to rebuild Bernhöftstorfa, a row of old timber houses facing Lækjargata, now housing the restaurants Lækjarbrekka and Humarhúsið.
Still, a lot of harm had been done and more was yet to come. During the boom years from 2000–2008, speculators started buying up old buildings downtown in order to tear them down and build larger and more profitable ones. Plans were even drawn up for a huge shopping mall at the top Laugavegur.
These structures were mostly to be made from black stone, glass and steel—the favourite building materials of the boom. This would surely have added to the stylistic diversity of these streets. But there was quite a bit of resistance to these projects, especially from young people, and alternative plans to preserve old houses were also put forth.
Ultimately, it was once again the economy that intervened; the crash of 2008 put a stop to these big projects. Even so, the battle is not quite over. Speculators still own many of the old houses and they have been allowing them to fall into disrepair so that they can get permits to tear them down when the economy picks up again.
Back to the streets that you see from the church tower, the name of Skólavörðustígur comes from a mound that stood at the top of the hill where schoolboys from the old Latin School used to meet in the nineteenth century. At that time the hill was extremely rocky and the town didn’t reach further than the building that now houses the Eymundsson bookshop. It was a bank until the economic collapse. Further up the hill there were just a few vegetable gardens.
During the war there was a big corrugated iron barracks for British soldiers on the hill. The British and Americans left a lot of these camps around Reykjavík and after the war, they became homes for people who couldn’t afford other housing. Some of these camps lasted until the 1960s and being a child raised in one of them was not always easy.
Laugavegur was traditionally the main road to the countryside. In the old days one would have seen farmers on horses riding down the street to town, dressed in their best attire, but maybe returning in a dishevelled state. There were not many bars or restaurants in Reykjavík in those days, but the travellers hung around the shops where they would be given strong alcohol. Hanging around the shops was considered quite problematic in those days. The streets were sometimes muddy or dusty, and open sewers used to run down them with an overwhelming stench, so if you fell onto the ground while inebriated you were liable to get dirty.
Jónas Jónasson, a priest who put together a big book about the folksy ways of the Icelanders, has very vivid descriptions of the general lack of cleanliness. Many never bathed, and only turned their clothes inside out every once in a while.
But there were also those who practiced cleanliness. On Laugavegur there was heavy traffic of women, many of them servant girls, taking laundry about a mile from town to the hot springs in Laugardalur where clothes
were washed. You would also see sailors from foreign ships going there with their garments. The remains of the washing springs can still be seen at Laugardalur, not far from the national football stadium, and of course Laugavegur itself also takes its name from these springs.
In recent years, many of the old timber houses have been rebuilt, some of them quite beautifully, but it should be mentioned that these houses are not especially Icelandic. The oldest style of buildings (see Bernhöftstorfa) is Scandinavian and some of the larger ones, built in the early twentieth century, are in fact catalogue houses in the so called ‘Sveitser’ style from Switzerland, which were imported from Norway where it was popular at the time.
The only buildings that can be called truly Icelandic are the old turf houses, which the nation lived in for centuries. Few of these turf houses are left today as most people wanted to erase the memories of these dwellings.
Icelanders have never had enough wood to build houses from, and one still wonders how the beams for the huge cathedral that stood at the bishop’s seat at Skálholt in the twelfth century were transported. Also Icelanders never mastered the art of building houses from hewn stone—knowledge imported from Denmark in the late eighteenth century.
Today, people seem to favour the timber houses, rather than for example, the Reykjavík classic style. There have been three projects in the last few years wherein houses were rebuilt in the old timber style or adapted freely from the buildings that were once there. One is at Laugavegur 4–6, another is on the corner of Austurstræti and Lækjargata, and a third one is on Aðalstræti.
Generally this has been considered a success. People seem to like these buildings, even if some of them are not especially practical. But this mixture of old and modern is a delicate balance, and some might consider it a bit kitsch.   
“Jónas Jónasson, a priest who put together a big book about the folksy ways of the Icelanders, has very vivid descriptions of the general lack of cleanliness. Many never bathed, and only turned their clothes inside out every once in a while. ”

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