The area in Reykjavík called Hlíðar (“Hills”) is made up of six smaller neighbourhoods: Norðurmýri, Hlemmur, Holt, Suðurhlíðar, Öskjuhlíð and Nauthólsvík. While ten thousand people call Hlíðar home, the 3.3 square kilometre area is not exclusively a residential one.
Norðurmýri was the first planned neighbourhood to be built outside of the city centre. It was 1935 and the existing urban plan was already too small for Reykjavík’s growing population. The houses in Norðurmýri are characterised by their concrete facades—some of which were covered with sea-shells—a technique that architect Guðjón Samúelsson developed while working on the National Theatre on Hverfisgata—to protect the houses against the harsh weather conditions in Iceland. As State Architect of Iceland, Guðjón Samúelsson designed many notable buildings, such as the main building at the University of Iceland, Sundhöllin swimming pool, Landakot Roman Catholic Cathedral, and Hallgrímskirkja church.
Bums, junkies and artists
Not far from Norðurmýri is Reykjavík’s main bus terminal, Hlemmur. Before the bus evolution, the area had for centuries an important, yet different, travel-related role as the main water-well for the horses of those travelling to and from Reykjavík. A statue of two horses stands there today in a memory of the water-well and the horses that served us. For many Icelanders, however, Hlemmur immediately conjures up images of bums and drug abusers, who did a lot of hanging out there in the ’80s and ’90s. This scene was depicted in Ólafur Sveinsson’s 2002 documentary called ‘Hlemmur,’ which follows some unfortunate homeless people who spend most of their time in and around this bus station. The soundtrack to the film is composed and performed by the Icelandic rock group Sigur Rós, who some of you might know.
Not far from Hlemmur, at Flókagata 17, you’ll find a house called Englaborg designed by the modernist architect Gunnlaugur Halldórsson. Built in 1942 for the artist Jón Engilberts, Englaborg is one of very few houses in Iceland that have been built specifically to be an artist’s working and living space (another example is the Einar Jónsson Museum on Skólavörðuholt). On the same street, you will find Kjarvalsstaðir, the first museum in Iceland built specifically for art. It was built between 1966–1973 in honour of one of the greatest Icelandic artist of the twentieth century, Jóhannes S. Kjarval (1885–1972).
Kjarvalsstaðir is adjacent to a green park called Klambratún, which served as farmland until World War II. Today it is a fairly popular place for picnics, playing volleyball, football or guitar during the summer. Although the farm Klömbrur, from which the park gets is name, does not stand there today, one does not need to go far to find a farm in Hlíðar. One such farm, Þóroddsstaðir, dates back to the ’30s when it was built to meet the growing need for milk and meat during the Great Depression. It is one of few farms from that time that can still be found in the city.
Perhaps Hlíðar’s most visible landmark is The Pearl, a dome atop large water tanks, located on a hill called Öskjuhlíð. While one might be tempted to think that the structure was designed by someone that had OD’d on Sci-Fi movies, the idea dates back to 1930. It was Kjarval, the aforementioned artist, who proposed the building of a mirror-covered temple in Öskjuhlíð, the idea being to bring the northern lights closer.
Nine years after Kjarval’s grand ideas, or in 1939, the first geothermal water tank was built in Öskjuhlíð. The location was almost chosen by default, as the top of the hill at Öskjuhlíð is 61 metres above sea level, which was enough to provide sufficient water pressure for high rises. When the first geothermal tank was built, an architectural competition was held to design something around it. Nobody won, as all of the ideas were too outrageous and costly. Several more competitions were held in the following decades, but none of the ideas were ever fully realised. The Pearl was finally opened in 1991, 61 years after the idea of the mirror covered temple was introduced.
Artificially heated beach
Although the geothermal tank was not much to look at, it had some pleasant side effects. Hot water ran from the tanks to the ocean at Nauthólsvík, through a stream that soon became a popular bathing spot amongst residents in Reykjavík. However, it was closed in 1983 after becoming a bit too popular, especially during the weekends after bars closed. A few years earlier, two architects were serious about the idea of using hot water to build a tropical zone in Nauthólsvík—a tropical paradise with a hotel and shopping centre, among other things. This idea was unfortunately never realised. Today the hot water coming from the water tanks is used to heat up the ocean in Nauthólsvík, making for a popular beach year round. Nauthólsvík has become a popular place to go sea swimming, which has become a fairly popular sport in recent years.
Öskjuhlíð itself is also full of history. It has for a long time been a meeting place for lovers, dealers, climbers, and airplane enthusiasts who go there with binoculars to watch airplanes take off and land. In 1930, a large rocky part of Öskjuhlíð was moved to build the harbour in Reykjavík. The rocks were moved via train on a railway—the only that has ever existed in Reykjavík.
Then, during World War II, the British military was posted up in Öskjuhlíð and one can still find evidence of this military presence. In fact, they make a perfect playground for Öskjuhlíð’s rabbit population, which was begun at some point when proud owners of pet rabbits ditched them there. They have since multiplied like, well, rabbits.
Take a walk through the neighbourhood and you will definitely find something that amazes you. If the weather bothers you, you can sit in the hot tub at Nauthólsvík, enjoy the art at the Kjarvalsstaðir museum, take a bus from Hlemmur to someplace else, or just close your eyes and imagine yourself in the tropical paradise that never materialised!