First-time visitors to Iceland’s capital are often struck by the city planning patchwork that Reykjavík is. Soviet-style apartment buildings, modernist structures and old-timey 19th century timber houses seem to be scattered amongst one another without rhyme or reason. As you might imagine, this was far from intentional. But as you look around the city, what you are witnessing is the city’s growth in four dimensions, as the city made its way through struggles economic, social and political, all of which shaped the urban landscape of today.
Trausti Valsson is probably Iceland’s most eminent planner. His new book, ‘Shaping the Future’, tackles the issues of planning and design. He took the time to share with us how we got the Reykjavík that we know and love today, for better or worse.
“We started with this European style,” he tells us, referring to the Danish timber houses you find downtown. “But we soon discovered that we needed more space, such as for the university and other institutions. After World War II, the expansion of Reykjavík really took off. There was a plan made in 1948 that was too grand in scale.”
Out with the old, in with the new
By this, Trausti means the concept of zoning: attempting to fully separate residential, commercial and industrial areas. However, the zeitgeist soon shifted away from the old style and into a more modernist approach.
“During this period people lost interest in the old types of buildings,” Trausti explains. “Even as I was growing up, and I was born in 1946, there was hostility towards the old buildings. With the arrival of the Americans, and our strong ties with them, came these modernistic ideas about buildings and architecture. So the planners at that time suggested we demolish more or less all of downtown, and some lots were developed with new buildings.”
However, not all of these modernist buildings fit into the landscape, and some of them were decidedly unpopular. By the 1960s, the pendulum began to swing in the other direction.
And in with the old again
“Along came the hippie movement, and people started to say, ‘Wait a minute, these old buildings are so beautiful. We shouldn’t demolish them,’” Trausti says. “There were huge protests against some of the planning projects for more modern buildings, and some of these projects were stopped. Basically, architects didn’t consider trying to find a way to make the new buildings fit in with the old ones. They just assumed the entirety of downtown would be new and modern buildings.”
Some ideas, such as to build massive highways through and sometimes even over the city (you can see the remnants of one such highway on the roof of Kolaportið), never got past the planning stages. And naturally, politics also played its part.
Politics ruins everything
“The House of Icelandic Studies, for example, was started by [former Prime Minister] Jóhanna Sigurðardóttir’s government,” he says, referring to the giant open pit in front of the National and University Library. “They had gotten as far as the foundation being dug out when new elections came, and a right wing government came to power. Now it’s been included in the five-year planning outline, but there’s a delay in this because of these political tug-of-wars. When the leftist government came to power in Reykjavík in 1978, they threw all the plans of the conservative government into the waste basket, and when the conservatives came to power in 1982, they did the same thing [to the leftists]. It’s childish, and it’s been very sad for the city.”
Trausti is not terribly positive when it comes to the state of city planning today, as he sees tourism having a disproportionate impact on the landscape of the city.
Tourism is killing downtown
“Things have already gone too far, and we can’t stop it,” he tells us. “Rent is increasing, and not just for apartments; tourist shops make so much money that they can just buy out the old stores. It’s not interesting anymore to go downtown. Not least of all for tourists. I am very fearful that many of these young people will say, ‘We can’t afford to live in the only urban area in Iceland; I’ll just move abroad to some nice city somewhere else.’”
Trausti believes one way to remedy this problem would be to move the domestic airport out of the city, thereby freeing up land to build affordable housing that’s close to downtown. Ultimately, though, the city’s very boundaries are going to have to change with the times.
“The idea that we can contain Reykjavík within the old boundaries is not going to work,” he says. “We’re going to need to expand them.”
How and where these boundaries will expand is an unknown to be answered by future generations.