The most popular public institutions in Iceland are probably the swimming pools. We have a lot of them in the greater Reykjavík area and if you venture to the countryside and reach a town of more than 50 inhabitants, chances are that it has a pool. But none of them quite feels like an established institution, or classic, as much as Sundhöllin (the “Hall of Swimming” in English). Not only is it Reykjavík’s oldest pool, but also it’s just really awesome.
For 75 years the pool has been located in the majestic white building standing on the corner of Barónsstígur and Bergþórugata. The building—a blend of modernist, Art Deco and Cubist styles—is designed by former state architect Guðjón Samúelsson (who has designed a number of other landmark buildings in the city, such as Hallgrímskirkja, the University of Iceland and The National Hospital). Both the building’s exterior and interior are protected, and one of the first things you’ll notice inside is the cool labyrinth-like layout of the locker room, which is made up of small cubicles that you can close yourself in if public nudity is not your thing.
The swimming pool is 25 metres long and ten metres wide. The deep end of the pool is almost four meters deep and is popular for diving exercises. There are two diving boards, the higher one about three meters above the water. On the other end, there is also a smaller pool for children with various playthings. And on the poolside there are weights for pumping iron, but none of the shiny airbrushed equipment you find in World Class and the like, just a single bench and worn dumbbells.
Outside on the balconies are two hot tubs, one at 39°C for the people who are warm at heart and the other at 42° C. There is also a small steam bath and a lounge area with garden chairs where you can cool off out there. But what about the sun, you might ask. Well, there is another large upper terrace especially made for sunbathing with lots of benches to bake on while enjoying a great view of the city. And for those who embrace public nudity, it is partitioned by gender so that one can sunbathe in the nude and get rid of those pesky tan lines.
The regular clientele is a mix of old people, 101 bohemians and tourists during the summertime. It opens at 6:30 in the morning and if you go early enough you can witness old men doing the classic Müller’s exercise routines. The atmosphere is generally relaxed and friendly but conversations between strangers about politics or gossip in the hot tub can get heated. This is pretty much a national pastime; the Icelandic equivalent of “word on the street” is actually “heard in the hot tub.”
The beautiful interior of the pool has been used on countless occasions for cultural events and as filming locations. One of the more notable ones is the dreamy video for “Believe,” the first single from GusGus’s debut LP. It has singer Daníel Ágúst floating through the locker room, jumping hoops from the diving board and performing mouth to mouth on co-vocalist Hafdís Huld. Another one is the final scene from ‘Skytturnar,’ the first full-length fiction film from Oscar nominated director Friðrik Þór Friðriksson. In a magnificent scene, a whaler on a drinking binge breaks into the pool at night and is shot to a pulp by police special forces and crawls to the bottom of the empty pool, leaving a trail of blood behind him. And then a couple of years ago the pool was also the venue for a special screening of Jaws as a part of the Reykjavík Film Festival.
Sundhöllin has no fancy waterslide or modern equipment, but it is rich in history, atmosphere and aesthetic. It is the most beautiful and unique swimming pool in Reykjavík and anybody coming to the city who isn’t allergic to water should take the time to pay it a visit.
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