From Iceland — The Real Pit Problem

The Real Pit Problem

Published August 24, 2015

The Real Pit Problem

As many of you may have noticed, we have a Pit Problem. This is quickly becoming an Icelandic tradition: get an idea, get some fancypants investors, dig a hole, lose funding, abandon the hole, move on to the next project. The best and most famous example of this, of course, is the MASSIVE pit next to Harpa. It is impossible to miss. Rumour has it that the latest and greatest plans for that pit are a new Landsbankinn, a hotel, and some swanky apartments. It is currently the “it pit,” while the admittedly smaller pit next to the National Library is getting less recognition… which is insane!

Okay, okay, I’m a little bit biased, as that pit was supposed to be the new home of the Árni Magnússon Institute, in a building that will hopefully still, one day, be called the House of Icelandic Studies. This, people, is THE pit we should be focusing on! Let’s face it—hotels are quickly becoming a dime a dozen, especially downtown. We get it. We’re over the hotel construction. More apartments would of course be nice, but something tells me these will be out of the price range of the majority of people already having trouble securing housing downtown. And—I love my bank, I really do—but a gigantic new building to combine bank branches is so unnecessary, especially in comparison to the smaller pit that would house the Árni Magnússon Institute.

The institute is a pretty big deal—it houses many of the existing sagas, manuscripts, books, texts and public records collected by the Icelandic scholar Árni Magnússon. The Institute is also responsible for preserving these manuscripts, allowing access to them for research, and placing some of them on display. Seriously, this shit is irreplaceable! You cannot put a price on it! (Well, I’m sure that you COULD, but that’s not the point.) The materials are considered by many to be national treasures of Iceland, and the tourist shops and bookstores here (lookin’ at you, Eymundsson) are certainly capitalizing on their popularity.

Right now the Institute is located inside Árnagarður, a building on the campus of the University of Iceland. It feels, in my humble opinion, a little cramped. If you aren’t familiar with the institute, it can be tricky to access, and some of the best-known manuscripts are currently no longer on display. As the Grapevine reported back in 2013, the Institute took back several manuscripts that were on loan to the Culture House when the guarantee of 24-hour surveillance was lost. The director of the institute, Guðrún Nordal, told RÚV that these manuscripts would not be on display again until the House of Icelandic Studies had officially opened. Even if you aren’t familiar with the sagas and manuscripts, it’s still a pretty fascinating story.

Our good friend Árni lived during the 17th and 18th centuries, and spent much of his life collecting an impressive number of manuscripts and other documents of Scandinavian and specifically Icelandic origin. Árni studied and was later a professor at the University of Copenhagen in Denmark, which was the only university in the Danish kingdom at the time. Because it was also the only suitable location to keep the works, he willed the entire collection to them. It was not until 1961 that Denmark agreed to return many of the works, and even then they didn’t begin actually returning them until 1971.

When the transfer was finished in 1997, over 7,000 documents were returned, including famous texts like “Codex Regius” from the Poetic Edda, Flateyjarbók, Skarðsbók and segments from Brennu-Njal, often referred to as Njáls Saga. The manuscripts here today have survived ageing, transportation, and most notably the great fire of 1728 in Copenhagen, which destroyed part of the collection. If there are still any Debbie Downers reading this who don’t care about the Institute or how crazy important and cool the manuscripts are, this new building isn’t just for them!!

I love my bank, I really do—but a gigantic new building to combine bank branches is so unnecessary, especially in comparison to the smaller pit that would house the Árni Magnússon Institute.

The House of Icelandic Studies would provide a parking garage, which would be fantastic. Anyone who has tried to find a last-minute parking space for a 9:30am class will agree with me. There will also be a cafeteria, which means more coffee and more food—excellent. Additional study spaces and a library continue to sweeten the deal, as my preferred study locations at the University are almost always crowded. There will be display areas for manuscripts, more storage spaces, and, certainly, an improvement in aesthetics. The Institute will share the building with the faculty of Icelandic and Comparative Culture Studies, and both departments will have offices there. Maybe Chris Pratt can use the pit as a home away from home while we wait for construction to begin again.

Anyone who has passed by the National Library has certainly noticed that the construction site is at best still only a deep hole reminiscent of The above-alluded-to Pit from ‘Parks and Recreation’ (though to our best knowledge no one has fallen in or cultivated illegal plants in the muddy depths of said pit, thanks to the surrounding fence). Preliminary construction began in March of 2013, when workers began to dig the hole for the foundation. Issues with an estimated budget of 3 billion ISK then put the project on what was supposed to be temporary hold. The project was initially scheduled to be completed in the spring of 2016, but that will (obviously) not be happening.

There is currently no new completion date, and construction (another pit) has begun on a new project… on the lot next door. This new pit will house the Vigdís Finnbogadóttir Institute of Foreign Languages. Historical documents and their preservation may not be as sexy or lucrative as hotel development, or as appealing as an institute for foreign languages, but this is important and exciting for many reasons. Hopefully sooner rather than later the construction will begin again, and the institute will have a new home.


Chris Pratt, serious invitation, bring Mouse Rat and sing “The Pit,” IN THE PIT!

Support The Reykjavík Grapevine!
Buy subscriptions, t-shirts and more from our shop right here!

Enough. Stop. Now.

Enough. Stop. Now.


Show Me More!