Published September 23, 2014
Iceland became the focus of world attention when US President Ronald Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev met in Reykjavík in October 1986 to discuss nuclear disarmament.
The powerful couple met at Höfði, a small villa on Borgartún, the street where the ghosts of the fallen Icelandic banking system roam today. Many of the banks had headquarters and offices on this street, which lies only a kilometre or so away from the city centre. Before the international financial crisis obliterated the overweight Icelandic finance industry, the bankers wanted to build huge towers and other mega structures in the area, which would have made the historic Höfði-house look like a neatly kept doghouse. Well, maybe it already does as the glass tower of the nearby Höfðatorg-project dominates the landscape.
Big in Japan
Fans of Höfði, the white-painted house which featured so prominently on TV screens across the globe in 1986 while the world awaited the outcome of the Reagan-Gorbachev meeting, are probably happy that it didn’t get completely drowned in that curiously out-of-place corporate necropolis.
The biggest fan of the house is without a doubt Japanese shrimp salesman Sakuhana. In 1989, Sakuhana made a perfect replica of Höfði in his hometown in Japan. He had taken many business trips to Iceland and brokered numerous shrimp deals so it seemed only normal to build a copy of Höfði.
In 1990, Morgunblaðið newspaper printed a photo of the house, taken by Kristinn Pálsson, who visited Sakuhana on a business trip. “We knew that he had built that house but it was of course bizarre to see an exact replica of Höfði in Japan,” Kristinn told the paper.
This was an impressive feat but Sakuhana was obviously no pioneer in architectural mimicry. The Eiffel Tower has been the inspiration for the creation of over 30 duplicates all around the world, notably in Tokyo where a very similar tower can be found.
China is certainly the world champion nowadays in copying buildings. A highly recommended book, ‘Original Copies: Architectural Mimicry in Contemporary China,’ by Bianca Bosker, describes this phenomena: “A 108-meter high Eiffel Tower rises above Champs Elysées Square in Hangzhou. A Chengdu residential complex for 200,000 recreates Dorchester, England. An ersatz Queen’s Guard patrols Shanghai’s Thames Town, where pubs and statues of Winston Churchill abound. Gleaming replicas of the White House dot Chinese cities from Fuyang to Shenzhen. These examples are but a sampling of China’s most popular and startling architectural movement: the construction of monumental themed communities that replicate towns and cities in the West.”
Bosko warns readers not to mock the idea of an Eiffel Tower in Hangzhou. She quotes Howard French, former New York Times Shanghai Bureau Chief: “There is a very important symbolic value to this architectural movement. It is a statement of having arrived, of being rich and successful. It says ‘We can pick and choose whatever we want, including owning a piece of the West. In fact, we’re so rich we can own the West without even having to go there.'”
It is at least a testimony to globalisation to find in Japan the replica of a house built in Reykjavík in 1909.
What is remarkable is that Höfði itself is a replica in a way. “It was built for the Consul Brillouin who was appointed to safeguard the interests of the French sailors fishing at the shores of Iceland,” according to the City Council’s website. “In 1909 he and his Norwegian wife ordered a Norwegian catalogue house that arrived ready to be assembled into their new home. The house was, and remains to this day, a blend of French and Norwegian design with doors and interior fittings influenced by the Louis XVI style and the medieval inspired ornate wood carvings of the lobby which reflected the Norwegian `dragon’ style.”
The house of the spirits
Höfði has been known as “the haunted house” for a long time. Ever since the house was built there have been rumours of ghosts. The most famous legend tells that a ghost of a young white-clad woman, who used to live in Höfði and committed suicide, haunts the house.
In 1938, Höfði became a British consulate and was visited by both Winston Churchill and Marlene Dietrich. The British consul reportedly felt uncomfortable in the house. After a series of letters, in which he complained of the presence of “a white lady” and “bumps in the night,” Höfði was sold.
The house was abandoned for some years in the 1950s and the ghosts were entertained by hobos who found shelter in the historic villa. Since 1967 Höfði has served as the official reception venue to the City Council of Reykjavik.
An upcoming film?
For some years a film based on the Reykjavík Summit has been in development, with Michael Douglas to star as Reagan and Christoph Waltz as Gorbachev. Mike Newell was slated to direct the film but Variety reported in May that Baltasar Kormákur was in the running for the director’s chair. Ridley Scott will produce.
Lemúrinn is an Icelandic web magazine (Icelandic for the native primate of Madagascar). A winner of the 2012 Web Awards, Lemúrinn.is covers all things strange and interesting. Go check it out at their website.