Since the local fish factory in Stöðvarfjörður closed down in 2005 and its 32 employees lost their jobs, the eastern municipality of roughly 200 people has faced a serious decline. Like many of Iceland’s small towns, this community has faced a systematic shutdown of social services, followed by large-scale depopulation.
Designers Rósa Valtingojer and Zdenek Paták—who together form MupiMup, a design team focused on turning what usually is considered waste into functional products—have been working since 2010 on a project that might lead the town in a different direction. In collaboration with a few other parties, including a group of MA communication design students from the Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design in London, Rósa and Zdenek are in the midst of setting up a creative centre in the abandoned fish factory, which would have been torn down a few years ago if it weren’t for their enthusiasm.
“On the one hand, the fish factory embodies Stöðvarfjörður’s decline. Immediately from the day it closed, this town started to go down,” Zdenek explains. “On the other hand, however, it is Stöðvarfjörður’s stronghold, a massive building located by the harbour at the centre of the village. So it is very symbolic.”
A NEED FOR FREEDOM
The creative centre will house artist workshops, studio spaces, a museum, café and a market selling produce and local food products, thereby retaining some of its original purpose by supporting the local fishing industry. With the help of their fellow handyman Alexander Smári Gjöveraa, Rósa and Zdenek are renovating the house with little to no money, planning to partly open this coming summer. In about four years time the centre should be fully operating with the clear aim of creating a platform for the increased self-sustainability and independence of the village.
Rósa, who has lived in Stöðvarfjörður for the biggest part of her life, says the village could just as well be wiped off the map if it doesn’t sustain itself. “It is expensive, within the system we live in, to keep small communities running and it is obviously not on the list of priorities.” Zdenek, who moved there in 2007, says that due to the cutting of social services, inhabitants have to travel for basic needs such as groceries, bank and postal services. Recently, there have also been talks of closing down the village’s elementary school. “That makes this place less and less interesting for people to come and live here, especially young people,” she says.
Why do they find it important to keep such a small village going? Rósa’s answer is simple and honest: “It is amazing to live here. One’s life is full of nature and endless space. Every house has a garden where one can, for instance, grow food,” she says with an underlying urge for more freedom than is possible in big cities. Zdenek agrees: “At this point, living in a place like this is more of a statement expressing the need for more freedom to be outside of the system.”
The two describe their hometown as a suburb of Fjarðabyggð—a municipality made up of six nearby towns with Reyðarfjörður being the central town, not only containing the municipality’s key offices and services but also an Alcoa aluminium smelter, which began operating in 2007. Its construction—which was and remains a divisive decision amongst Icelanders—was originally presented as a solution to population problems in the East. However, Rósa and Zdenek don’t see it that way. On the contrary, they see it as a part of a large-scale centralization, based on the merger of many small municipalities, where what is on the margins is considered less economical. “The interests of Fjarðabyggð are not really flowering in Stöðvarfjörður. Everybody here feels it,” Zdenek says.
NO, NO, THERE’S NO LIMIT
“People often want to come up with solutions for others,” Rósa says, referring to mega-scale projects like the smelter. In fact, Alcoa has funded a bulk of the area’s cultural and educational projects, providing the company with an image of a “life-saviour,” as Rósa phrases it. “Our project’s pure advantage is that we are living here and the project comes from our own needs, based on the potential of this place,” Zdenek says. “You have to know your problems very well to come up with solutions,” Rósa adds.
Finding solutions to problems seems to be the essence of Rósa and Zdenek’s approach to design. “Design is just a word,” Zdenek says. “I mean, who is a designer?” Rósa elaborates, “Design is about solving problems.” They believe everybody has creative skills and that is what their project is about. “It is based on the belief in the creative skills,” Zdenek explains. “The project will provide a wide spectrum of creative options, from food to music and crafts.” In summary, Rósa says it touches on everything to do with culture. “The possibilities are endless, and we are not going to limit them. The project will be developing constantly,” she says.
And the problem they aim to solve is not only the above-stated one of small countryside towns declining. Operating on the same principles as MupiMup, the creative centre will also focus on minimizing waste, which will instead be used as material for something different. Already one could say that Rósa and Zdenek are, by taking over the abandoned fish factory, turning trash into something usable—an act fuelled by a vision perfectly described by handyman Alexander: “We are taught to see things in the way we are told to see them. This project is about seeing through that image—to envision something different.”