Published January 6, 2012
As a kid I used to love visiting the district of Grafarvogur, mainly because Reykjavík’s garbage dump was located there and, as everyone knows, garbage dumps are great for treasure-hunting. I still have old foreign coins I found there amidst stacks of expired lamb-meat and pieces of unwanted ‘60s furniture. The site of the dump is now covered with grass and provides the perfect place to run around soft, green, trash-based hills, Teletubby-style. However, you should note that there is a reason nothing has been built there; the area is full of methane gas and therefore highly flammable.
Aside from hosting the dumps, the neighbourhood of Grafarvogur has a history and lots more treasures to uncover. So let’s take a look!
ARE YOU FAT ENOUGH TO BECOME FALCON FEED?
From looking at a map of Grafarvogur, it might seem like your ordinary suburb built in the late 1980s and continued well into ’90s, with decent amounts of speed bumps, basketball fields, and schools. But further perusal reveals that the area is rife with history, in fact our earliest sources of information date back to Iceland’s first settlers.
In 1180, the area was found to be the perfect place to build a sanctuary, and a church dedicated to St. Mary was constructed right next to an old graveyard where many of the settlers are buried. None of these ruins can be seen today, as they are all covered with an inactive fertilizer factory, which ceased its production in 2002 after operating for fifty years, starting when Grafarvogur was still far away from the outskirts of the city (and not yet residential). A fire incident in 1990 instilled great community pressure to shut the factory down, both from Grafarvogur’s residents and the city council. The factory’s fate was finally determined in 2001, after a powerful explosion in its hydrogen and ammonia production facilities that shook houses in the neighbourhood and emitted a pressure shock-wave that was felt far away.
Not far from this old factory lies a cape that in the eighteenth century was used to keep sheep. These animals had been marked to become fodder for the Danish King’s precious falcons. Such falcons were used for hunting among royalty, and Icelandic falcons were considered among the best in the world. The falcons themselves were kept in downtown Reykjavík, before they were sent to the Danish King. The falcons sort of fell out of fashion in the beginning of the 19th century, however, and falcon-feed production in Grafarvogur subsequently came to a standstill.
INTERESTING BUILDINGS AND EXOTIC PLANTS
In 1929, a farm called Korpúlfsstaðir was built in Grafarvogur. At that time it was the most technologically advanced dairy farm in any Nordic country, but it did not operate for long. Alas, in 1934 special laws on dairy production were implemented, and the country was divided into several areas, each with only one milk processing plant. Each plant held a monopoly of the market in its area, and milk prices were decided by special committees. This caused many of the previously privately run dairy farms, such as Korpúlfsstaðir, to go out of business.
The 2.400 m2 dairy farm still stands, however, currently used for artist residencies (www.sim.is/sim-res/korpulfsstadir). It is among my most favourite buildings in Reykjavík, as it brings to mind the past, the future, and the search and the invention of what is “Icelandic.”
But Korpúlfsstaðir is not the only interesting building in Grafarvogur. The neighbourhood also hosts the only building in Reykjavík’s suburbs protected by the National Architectural Heritage Board. It was constructed in1964 as a library for The Institute for Experimental Pathology, Keldur, and still serves the same purpose today. Those interested in the history of art can check out its library between 08:00 and 16:00 on weekdays. The building was designed by Hannes Davíðsson, the same architect who made Kjarvalsstaðir museum on Klambratún, and its interior was designed by the artists Þorvaldur Skúlason—one of the pioneers of abstract art in Iceland—and Sigurjón Ólafsson—who has his own art museum, The Sigurjón Ólafsson Museum in Reykjavík, located in Laugarnestangi.
Not far away from Keldur you’ll find an area that was a fairly popular spot for summer cabins in the ’60s and ’70s (bear in mind that this is when Grafarvogur was still considered ‘the countryside’). Today, you’ll spot summer cabin ruins; floors made out of mosaic tiles, benches and even exotic plants that were imported from Asia sixty years ago.
POLITICAL DEBATE, CELEBRITIES AND THE NORDIC COUNCIL LITERATURE PRIZE
Before the suburb of Grafarvogur was planned in 1982, it had been a source of political debate for some time. The left-wing parties wanted to expand the city to the east. These plans changed when the right wing Independence Party, lead by the infamous Davíð Oddson, won the municipal elections in 1982 and the foundations were laid for Grafarvogur becoming what it is today.
Grafarvogur was Reykjavík’s second suburb experiment, and never became the ‘ghetto’ some sceptical people anticipated at the time of planning. Grafarvogur has attracted a lot of talented people and celebrities over the years. Two out of the three living Icelandic authors that have won the Nordic Council Literature Prize live in Grafarvogur (2011 recipient Gyrðir Elíasson and 1995 recipient Einar Már Guðmundsson. Musician Damon Albarn (Blur/Gorillaz) bought a house a couple of years ago not far away from Korpúlfsstaðir, and close by lies the biggest entertainment and sport hall in Iceland where, among others, Snoop Dogg, Duran Duran, Foo Fighters, Metallica, Queens of the Stone Age and Placido Domingo have performed (unfortunately not together as a single act).
THE GOLDEN BRIDGE AND MORE TRESURES
“The Golden Bridge” (Icelandic: Gullinbrú) was for a long time the only way to get into and out of the suburb of Grafarvogur. The bridge’s name, along with some other names in Grafarvogur, are derived from poems by the poet Bjarni Thorarensen, who lived in the area in the beginning of the 19th century.
What I find fascinating about Grafarvogur is the area’s nature. One does not have to have grown up in Grafarvogur to enjoy walking or running along its coastline. It is also a perfect place to take your kids or yourself to the beach to find treasures (children in Iceland go often to the beach but not dressed in swimsuits—they go dressed in wool and raincoats, armed with a bucket and a shuffle). On the beach you’ll find easily find shells in the black sand, crabs and beautifully shaped stones. And if you are very lucky, you may even find old foreign coins.