The area known as Bústaðir and Háaleiti was once one of the most important sources of peat for the residents of Reykjavík. While peat has since lost most of its allure, Búastaðir and Háaleiti have assumed a new, no less important role: as one of the city’s main shopping areas.
Bústaðir and Háaleiti is one of the ten districts in Reykjavík city. It currently hosts 14.000 inhabitants and encompasses the postcodes 103 and 108. In the not too distant past, the area was characterised by its wetlands and its bountiful peat reserves (peat was used for kindling and fuel, the harvesting and use of it thus played a large role in everyday life until around 1920).
The name Bústaðir comes from a farm that was located in the area. The farm’s original name was Bútsstaðir, named after a man called Bútur, but at some point in history it got misspelled as Bústaðir, which has stuck ever since (Bústaðir can be loosely translated as “dwelling place”). The name Háaleiti (literally: “High hill”) comes from the fact that it is a hill and geologists tell us that 11.000 years ago it was actually an island—one of the few spots in Reykjavík that was actually above sea level at that time.
Right up until 1930, everything outside 101 Reykjavík was considered to be ‘the countryside.’ This started changing with the great depression of the ‘30s, when an impending lack of food instigated radical action. It was decided that the wetlands that made up the area should be dried up and distributed as land plots to the residents of Reykjavík, who were encouraged to grow their own vegetables on the piece of land they had been assigned. Some residents even built dairy farms, as a shortage of milk started to be a problem in Reykjavík at the time. The cows are long gone, but some buildings that used to host dairy farms can still be found in the neighbourhood.
THE SMALL APARTMENTS NEIGHBOURHOOD
When the UK (and later US) began occupying Iceland in May 1940, the area again underwent radical changes. Reykjavík’s population grew 60% between 1940 and 60. The city was by no means prepared for such a sharp increase in population, and lack of housing became a serious problem. It did not help that due to a currency crisis in 1950, strict investment rules were set in place and restrictions were put on construction work. Special permission was needed to build houses, with one exception: if the house you planned on building was really small, it was legal. Thanks to this loophole, a new neighbourhood called Smáíbúðahverfið (literally “The small apartments neighbourhood”) was planned and built in what is today known as 108 Reykjavík.
In 1960, a new plan was introduced, in which shops, private cars, parking and business-centres played important roles. One idea was to transform a part of Bústaðir and Hálaleiti into a new city centre with businesses, hotels, restaurants, The Icelandic National Broadcasting Service (RÚV) HQ, movie theatres, and The Reykjavik City Theatre. The plan also put an emphasis on the private car, allotting large areas for parking spaces and traffic structures. The delay in determining the precise location of this new city centre caused the construction to be postponed for years, and eventually new shops sprouted up all over the district to meet the demand and needs of the growing number of residents in Reykjavík. Therefore, the idea to centre all of the shops in one specific area was never fully implemented. The stores ended up mostly around Suðurlandsbraut and Skeifan. In the 1960 plan, Skeifan was meant to be an industrial zone but instead became a somewhat important shopping centre.
THE FUCK YOU HOUSE
Finally, after deciding the location for the so-called new city centre, the first building was finished in 1981. With fourteen stories, it became the tallest building in Iceland, housing the chamber of commerce and The Icelandic Federation of Trade, amongst other businesses. Amongst children and teenagers, the building soon got the nickname “The Fuck You House,” inspired by its shape (which resembles a couple of fingers, with the one in the middle sticking up). In 1985, the first shopping mall in Iceland, Kringlan, opened next to it. With Kringlan, Icelanders lost a certain innocence and it did not help that the credit card invasion started around the same time. For the first time, Icelanders could buy food, clothes, drinks and go to a movie theatre and restaurant, all under a single roof while paying for it with a plastic card. This marked the beginning of a new life-style that has been fairly popular in Iceland ever since.
Myths and stories about elves and ghosts are rampant in Háaleiti and Bústaðir, as they are in every district of Reykjavík. One interesting story claims that Iceland’s first settler, Ingólfur Arnarsson, is buried there with his ship. Nobody knows if this is really true, but if you are not in the mood to go native—being a shopaholic in Kringlan—you can always check out what some believe to be Ingólfur’s tomb. It is located 1.2 kilometres southeast of Kringlan, next to a primary school called Breiðagerðisskóli. Don’t blame me if can’t find Ingólfur’s helmet, but if you do, please share it with us.