One of the oldest quarters of the Icelandic capital, nowadays Ingólfstorg is the haunt of summer vacationers and boys on skateboards. Soon, however, it will be the bulldozers moving into the square at the heart of downtown Reykjavík’s Kvosin district.
An open competition to transform the square was launched earlier this year—and the winning design, developed by ASK Arkitektar, has been on display this month at the Landssímahús building on Thorvaldsensstræti.
The design presents a stark change to the area’s cityscape, which will be dominated by a new six-storey hotel and marked by a facelift for the old NASA nightclub. However, the plans have been met with widespread criticism among locals, with a campaign led by pop star Páll Óskar and an online petition against the development already attracting well over 11,000 signatures.
But what do the plans mean for the look and the spirit of 101 Reykjavík? And why has the debate become so fierce?
The committee selected to assess the strengths of 68 different submissions on the future of Ingólfstorg and Kvosin described the winning design as “an ambitious proposal that takes into account the history of Kvosar town” whilst showing “interesting development potential.” The plan has, they insist, “a clear and holistic view of the fragile and important city centre area,” enabling “strategic development without demolition or relocation of the old buildings.”
Hjálmar Sveinsson, representative of the Reykjavík Planning Authority on the contest jury, describes Ingólfstorg and the surrounding area as a sad place: “It’s okay in the summer, but dark and almost dead for nine or ten months of the year—not appropriate for the core of the city centre.” Thorvaldsensstræti and the nearby streets, he says, are “like a slum,” drained of light and activity throughout the day thanks to the use of the current Landssímahús as office space, leaving the old timber houses of downtown Reykjavík looking “rather sad.”
The development comes at an opportune moment, they argue, as more and more tourists are heading to Reykjavík—a trend which the authorities and businesses hope will spiral with the attraction of a new luxury hotel in the heart of the old city.
The proposed culture house on Ingólfstorg similarly offers an exciting opportunity, proponents believe. Ingólfstorg has traditionally been covered, previously the site of Hotel Iceland until it burned down in 1944. Large spaces of Ingólfstorg and Austurvöllur will remain open and accessible, they say, with improvements made to the existing traffic grid.
These plans however are still very much in their infancy. How much will it cost? “No idea,” says Hjálmar. The contest jury has responded to ASK Arkitektar with its recommendations, and hopes that this winter work will begin on final drawings detailing the look of the hotel and surrounding buildings. It is anticipated from then that exact plans will be on display by next spring. The visionary culture house meanwhile remains a distant dream: a future issue to be explored further by the City of Reykjavík in the years to come.
Well over 11,000 locals have already signed a petition at Ekkihotel.is (Ekkihotel = “Not hotel”) opposed to the plans, with pop star and child of NASA Páll Óskar fronting the campaign to stop the hotel. Björgum Ingólfstorgi og NASA (“Save Ingólfstorg and NASA”) is the organisation striving to keep the square and preserve the historic club and community centre.
Páll Óskar argues the plans are motivated solely by the desire to make a profit. Landowner Pétur Þór Sigurðsson has reportedly planned for some time to build a hotel on the site. But Páll insists he should look elsewhere: “This is the oldest part of Reykjavík, where Reykjavík was born.” He labels the project damningly as “Hotel Godzilla,” a modern architectural scar on a once picturesque townscape of small timber houses, in an area already crowded with hoteliers. “If I was a tourist going to Scotland I wouldn’t dream of demanding a hotel on top of Edinburgh Castle.”
In an opinion piece elsewhere in this issue, former Iceland Music Export MD Anna Hildur Hildibrandsdóttir analyses the supply and demand of hotel rooms in Reykjavík: within the next two years, she writes, the number of rooms in the city is set to rise by 30%, “much more than the projected increase of tourists over the next few years.”
The future of NASA is another source of fear. The club and its adjoining building has served historically as a community centre, with dancing, weddings, cabarets, and movies all frequent fixtures on the social calendar. The entire building is “an example of very special Icelandic architecture,” according to campaigners. “You can find a community centre like that in every small town,” says Páll, “and Reykjavík will lose its only one.”
The music festivals and club nights to which NASA has traditionally played host will be no more, fears Páll. “I’ve seen the same story again and again. New hotels start with the intention of providing entertainment but the music is always thrown out because hotel guests complain about the noise. The concert hall will become nothing more than a venue for PowerPoint presentations and occasional cocktail parties.”
“Whenever we fight to preserve a building, they tell us it’s in ruins,” laments Helgi Þorláksson, University of Iceland history professor and a fellow supporter of the BIN campaign. Páll Óskar goes further: “When Iceland became rich after the war, the Americans gave us nylon stockings and Wrigley’s gum. We are still enjoying all that, but it’s made us believe that everything traditional and original Icelandic is tacky, and has to be replaced with whatever’s new and fashionable.”