Walking through Elliðaárdalur towards the dreary brown factory that houses Toppstöðin, I somewhat expect to step into a vast industrial space full of dead machines and time-clocks. Instead, I find myself stamping my boots off in a vestibule with faux-wood panelling, neatly designed event posters, and a glass display case featuring clever design products. It’s only when I reach the second floor that I’m taken aback—behind protective glass, a gigantic moon-like sphere dangles freely between the ancient turbines of this defunct power plant.
“It’s covered in these old power print-out sheets that one of the members here found,” Project Manager Sæþór Ásgeirsson says about the sphere, as he greets me in his second-floor office. “There were tens of thousands of them. It was like they didn’t throw anything from the plant away. We even found the blueprints from 1942!” From his interior window I am looking directly into the massive industrial structure I originally expected, but the offices flanking his are stocked with fabrics, creative posters and designer products. This innovation centre is a haven for entrepreneurs, a place where people can rent out offices or workshop space for cheap to develop their projects and find their footing.
Originally built in 1947, it functioned as a backup power station for Reykjavík Energy until it was shut down and essentially left to rot in 1982. Nowadays, although there are still active 20,000-volt transformers inhabiting the place, the primary energy source is mind-power.
After the financial collapse in 2008, some people began to redirect the focus of industry in Iceland onto idea-based businesses and entrepreneurship. This led writer Andri Snær Magnason, Sæmundur Ásgeirsson (now chair of the board) and Páll Einarsson to the doors of this abandoned factory in the hopes of breathing new life into it. After some rigmarole with the building’s owners, Landsvirkjun and the City of Reykjavík, they got the keys in December 2008.
Sæþór is a Master’s student at the University of Iceland in chemical engineering who became project manager in June 2012 soon after joining the centre with his enterprise IceWind, where he develops small vertical-axis wind turbines for summerhouses.
NOTHING YOU’VE HEARD OF
“Most people come with a concept of what they want to do,” Sæþór explains about the type of work that goes on within these walls. “Not many people are focused on one project. They usually have a basic product line in mind.” The board of directors adhere fairly strictly to bringing in members with ideas that they find particularly exciting and unusual.
“If someone is making an app for mobile phones, that wouldn’t rate high on our scale since a lot of people are doing that these days,” Sæþór says. “A good example would be Hnoss, a company that is with us now. They are building these little houses to create magical worlds for kids. That’s something different! We’re drawn to stuff like that: things that we’ve never heard of before.”
On the flip side, businesses are drawn to the centre, which they can use as a launch pad while they establish themselves. Today they are booked solid with 16 resident members. “People usually only move out when they feel confident about it,” he says. “That’s exactly what this station is for. We want to help people get up to the diving board and take the jump. So we’re not like, aww, you’re going! We’re like, great! Good luck!”
THE CAT IN THE FACTORY
Financially speaking, the centre relies solely on the rent from its members—11,500 ISK per month for an office or slightly more for workshop spaces that are rented by square metre—which goes directly into renovating the building. “If we break even at the end of the year, that’s perfect,” Sæþór says. “It never will be profitable, probably. That’s not really the point. It’s just about maintaining ourselves and helping others to maintain their companies.”
We are suddenly interrupted by a loud miauling, surprisingly close and remarkably lifelike. “Is that a cat?” I ask, turning over my shoulder to face a precious grey-striped tomcat. “This is Bangsi,” Sæþór says between giving the cat a high-pitched greeting. “There’s a lot of mice here so he takes care of that. I went to Katholt, the cat shelter, and I picked him out. He’s certainly been doing his job.” This keeps in line with the innovative spirit of the centre as a frugal and ecological solution to the expensive prospect of professional extermination.
Bangsi is aware of his mascot status as well. When Sæþór begins my tour of the building, he follows us into the lecture hall, where members give talks on topics pertaining to their field. “You can’t really come to a lecture if you don’t like cats because he just jumps from one person to another,” he says. “Sometimes people stop listening to the lectures and just watch him.”
A BIT OF A FIXER-UPPER
The lecture hall in question is located in the plant’s former metering room, still full of the old read-out machines. The operating desk has been replaced by a nice lounge nook with couches and a coffee table. Refurbishing the building is in fact the bulk of the work that happens at Toppstöðin.
“This is a bit of a dangerous place,” Sæþór says. “It’s actually still connected to the grid so there are parts of the building we don’t enter. It constantly needs fixing up.” As he takes me into the turbine-hall to show me how they are preparing for DesignMarch, it is obvious that this is a slightly precarious place. He explains that they have a permit that allows them permanent use of a part of building, temporary use of the turbine hall, but which restricts them entirely from other places.
“We’ve been slowly taking over the building because there were a lot of offices that were completely ruined. They were full of water or the roof was missing,” he continues. After two years of renovations, their plans are far from over, with two rooms with 8-metre ceilings that they plan to turn into two different floors. “But of course, if we want to move into a new part of the building we have to get approval from The City,” Sæþór says. “It’s a lot of red tape.”
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