From Iceland — Time And Tides And Hotels

Time And Tides And Hotels

Published February 3, 2012

Time And Tides And Hotels

Although it is by no means a young city, Reykjavík has very few structures older than a century left standing. Perhaps it is for this reason that Icelanders feel a special affection towards those public places that have been around for decades. NASA, a nightclub that sits on the corner of Ingólfstorg square, is one such place. Not that Reykjavík has any shortage of nightclubs, of course, but NASA has been around in its current incarnation and present location since 2001, which is an historical feat in a city where the same building might host five different clubs in as many years.
Contributing to that success is probably the space itself. With an enormous dance floor and stage, NASA can easily host big-name concerts and Eurovision parties. This versatility, as well as being located downtown, but not forcing patrons to queue up on a busy sidewalk, could in theory lead to long-term success.
However, it was announced in early January that come June, NASA the nightclub would be no more—that it would be torn down to make way for a hotel. Ingibjörg Örlygsdóttir, the manager of NASA, told reporters that it was “tragic news,” adding that not just she but many others, including numerous musicians, make their living through NASA. Indeed, a number of musicians expressed their regret at NASA’s impending doom, with singer Páll Óskar going so far as to say he would chain himself to demolition machinery to prevent it from happening.
The man behind the decision is the building’s owner, Pétur Þór Sigurðsson. After public outcry to the news, he stepped forward and told the press that a) there would be an “idea contest” hosted by city council for what to do with NASA, and b) the club had been behind on their rent for some time.
However, The Grapevine learned from Reykjavík City Council Planning Committee member Torfi Hjartarson that Pétur wanted to tear NASA down during the previous city council government, which balked at the idea. In addition, the “idea contest” being hosted by city council is being bankrolled by Pétur, who also sits on the jury for the contest.
The building itself has a very rich history. Originally built in 1870 as a girl’s school, it became a centre of operations for the Independence Party in 1943. Believe it or not, this was to be the germination of its form as a nightclub—apart from political meetings, the party would also host dances and live music there. Nobel Prize winning author Halldór Laxness was a regular. In the ‘70s, under the name Sigtún, the club would be the first in Iceland to have strippers. Over time, it grew to be one of the most popular nightspots in the capital.
However, even then developers had their eyes on NASA. In 1978, the conservative-led city council had bold ambitions to tear down a number of old houses in the area to make way for more modern buildings. The conservatives were ultimately defeated in municipal elections before their plans materialised, and the leftists who replaced them in 1994 had a strong desire to preserve the old buildings downtown.
Torfi has previously argued that the city ought to simply buy or rent NASA, but this was not the opinion of the city council majority. He is strongly opposed to NASA being torn down, and thinks that replacing it with a hotel would create a number of logistical problems. For example, many of the surrounding houses are legally protected from demolition due to their historic value, so they would need to be dismantled and moved.
“The problem with the hotel idea, as I see it, is the location,” he told The Grapevine. “To me, it would break up the beauty of the old houses around the square. Not to mention the fact that a large building would block the southern exposure.” As Ingólfstorg is the preferred spot in the summertime for enjoying the sunshine, many city residents would likely not be pleased with a hotel there, either.
Torfi concedes that whether or not the city needs, the trend is to build hotels downtown. “That’s where the tourists want to stay.”
Having said that, he mentions a number of places downtown that could be better suited for creating hotels, with structures already in place for conversion. “There are so many other plots in the city, also close to the centre, that would be better suited; even old buildings with great charm that could be turned into hotels.”
NASA’s fate is no island. The development of towering modern apartment buildings on Skúlagata in 2005—blocking the harbour view that residents in smaller, older houses enjoyed—was fiercely resisted. In 2009, squatters who called themselves Aftaka took over an abandoned house on Vatnsstígur whose owner intended to tear it down to build a more modern structure (while the squatters were driven out by police, the abandoned house still stands). Regardless of the pride many average Icelanders take in the older buildings you see downtown, developers are seemingly always looking for a way to replace them with tall, steel-glass-and-concrete structures.
Still Torfi believes that it is still possible to stop NASA from shutting its doors for good in June. “Our ambition over the last few decades has been to conserve and strengthen remaining houses and street views from the old town still apparent in the city centre,” he says. “It would be a terrible mistake to remove or demolish old houses at this historical spot, not to mention the cultural value of a unique music scene in NASA. If the city wants to prevent this, it can.”   

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