From Iceland — Reykjavík Burns

Reykjavík Burns

Published May 4, 2007

Reykjavík Burns

It was just before two p.m. on the last day of winter, Wednesday, April 18. Hressó – a popular bar & bistro located on Austurstræti 20, in an old wooden house from 1852 –was still buzzing from the lunch hour rush with customers occupying most available seats in the area. Like most days, Eyrún Ýr Hildardóttir managed the early shift at Hressó and now she was quickly pacing between tables, serving hungry patrons the daily specials or delivering café lattés to guests who had come in for a hot cup of coffee.

The next several minutes would pass quickly for Hildardóttir. First, a woman she knew to be working in the kiosk Fröken Reykjavík, located next door to Hressó in Austurstræti, approached her hurriedly and asked to borrow a fire extinguisher, explaining that a small fire had broken out next door. Hildardóttir rushed to the back and located the fire extinguisher, notifying a co-worker on her way. Together they half-walked, half-sprinted next door, Hildardóttir carrying the 12-kilogram fire extinguisher and her co-worker trailing closely behind her, leaving a few customers wondering what the emergency was.

Once inside Fröken Reykjavík, they noticed a small fire stemming from a built-in halogen light in the ceiling. As the Fröken Reykjavík employee operated the fire extinguisher, Hildardóttir dialled the emergency hotline 112 and asked for assistance. She also noticed two police officers walking past the kiosk and asked them for help. Confident that the fire was under control, Hildardóttir soon returned to her post at Hressó, where some of the customers had begun to filter out onto the street to satisfy their curiosity.

The word spread quickly through Hressó that there was a fire next door. The staff tried to maintain order by going about their work in the usual manner. In a matter of minutes, the smell of smoke began to penetrate the air in Hressó. A couple with a young child quickly prepared to leave while more and more customers became restless. Soon, the smoke inside became too much and even the most level-headed occupants vacated Hressó, me being one of them.

Outside, I could see smoke filtering out through a chimney on top of Fröken Reykjavík, but also between the corrugated iron plates on the roof of Austurstræti 22, where the nightclub Pravda was located, as well as the adjoining roof on Lækjargata 2, the house on the corner of Austurstræti and Lækjargata. There was no visible fire at the time, but police officers soon came to the area and started to establish a perimeter, directing people away from the fire zone.

The first fire trucks were there in a matter of minutes after the call was placed to 112. By then, the smoke had already become a thick cloud over the city centre. Nearly 100 fire-fighters spent the next four hours wrestling the fire and by the time they managed to get it under control, both the houses on Lækjargata 2 and Austurstræti 22 were in ruins. This event has raised many questions regarding both fire safety in old houses and spawned a heated debate on how and if the houses that burned should be restored.

Club Hopping in Historical Landmarks
The house on Austurstræti 22 was a preserved building, being both a historical site and one of the oldest houses standing in Reykjavík City. Originally built for Ísleifur Einarsson, the first judge of the Court of Iceland, in 1801, the two-storey building was soon sold to Count Trampe, the Danish governor of Iceland. It was quickly dubbed the Governor’s Mansion, and was known by that name to this day.

In 1809, a Danish merchant by the name of Jörgen Jörgensen arrested Count Trampe and declared himself monarch of an independent Iceland. Jörgensen also took up residency in the house during his two months reign over the country – roughly corresponding to the Dog Days of summer, earning him the affectionate nickname, the Dog Days King in Iceland. In that sense, the house on Austurstræti 22 was the closest thing Iceland had to a Royal Palace. It also housed the Court of Iceland for over 50 years and briefly served as a City Hall.

Lækjargata 2 was also a historical site, although it had not made it onto the list of preserved buildings in Reykjavík. Built in 1852, it is believed to be the first house built around a street corner in Reykjavík and as such, it is an architectural landmark. For a long time it was the location of the bookstore Eymundsson, now located in Austurstræti 16, and, for a brief period, the editorial offices of the daily newspaper Morgunblaðið.

Early Reactions, Did the Mayor Jump the Gun?
“This is a sad moment and it is painful to watch this happen,” said Vilhjálmur Vilhjálmsson, Mayor of Reykjavík, at a press meeting later that day. Vilhjálmsson was on location at the fire from the early moments, watching events unfold. It was a heated moment for sure, for a Mayor to watch historical buildings in the city’s centre fall victim to an untame fire.

At the press conference, Vilhjálmsson stated that he considered it important to rebuild the corner in its original state, saying: “I stress that we attempt to protect this historic corner, this street image and these houses. I stress that we move quickly. This is the heart of the city and we need to show it respect.”

Roughly an hour later, he chose his words more carefully while talking to the daily news magazine and TV programme Kastljós, saying: “We need to look into the matter carefully with the owners of these houses. It is my ambition that these historic houses will be maintained. There is a lot that can be done as we have seen in Aðalstræti [where old houses from the same era have been rebuilt]. It is my opinion that we should maintain this historic street image for as long as we can.”

And move fast he did. On Saturday, April 21, Vilhjálmsson announced that the city would enter negotiations with the owners to buy the remains and land they stand on. “The aim is to ensure that the restoration will be done as safely and as quickly as possible and to ensure that the street image will be maintained and rebuilt as closely as possible,” Vilhjálmur explained to the media.

Only a few hours after the fire started, Vilhjálmur Vilhjálmsson had made a political decision that the houses would be restored in their original state, at that time without so much as consulting the owners. One business day later (Thursday, April 19, was the first day of summer, a national holiday), he had announced that the city would enter negotiations with the owners. At no point during that time was there any sort of political, professional, or public discourse on how to proceed. The decision was made in the Mayor’s mind during the emotional period he watched the fire claim historical buildings.

Building Replicas
Despite their recorded past, little respect has been paid to the origin of these houses. For a number of years, they have both served a combination of nightclubs, bars, and restaurants. Several changes have been made to both their external appearance and interior to accommodate those establishments with little or no regard for the origin or cultural heritage of the buildings they were located in. The result is that very little remains of the original houses, except the scale and the shape of buildings.

There is an old Icelandic proverb that states: No one knows what he has had until he has lost it. The fire in Austurstræti seems to be a classic manifestation of this simple truth. Now that the houses are gone, city officials have claimed great interest in preserving the history and heritage of these houses, where there was little or no interest taken in them before.

The public debate that ensued in the first few days after the fire was not nearly as one sided as the Mayor’s decision. A good part of those who expressed their opinion of the matter, either in the media, through blogs or on street corners, believed that the houses should be restored to their original state. But there was also a large part of the population that believed that the houses represented a reminder of a village that became a town that became a city; and that the fire should be regarded as an opportunity to build something in the heart of the city that would better fit a modern Reykjavík.

Architect Gunnlaugur Björn Jónsson holds much interest in old Icelandic houses, and has worked extensively on restoration projects of old buildings. When the Grapevine contacted him for a comment, he expressed views that could be considered to represent the moderate side of this debate. “I can understand and see the arguments from both sides, and I think both sides have a point” Jónsson said. He remains ambivalent about the process that started with the Mayor’s announcement on April 18. “It was a heat of the moment decision I believe, and it is difficult to backtrack from that announcement,” Jónsson said. “I believe a project of this magnitude should have been discussed professionally, and preferably there should have been a contest for how this corner should be rebuilt.”

Jónsson says that the corner on Austurstræti and Lækjargata could be regarded as an opportunity to redesign a vital part of the old city centre to better meet the demands of the modern day. “The restoration of old houses is a good goal in and of itself, and in general I am supportive of all efforts to preserve old buildings. But at this point we are talking about building new houses to replicate the old houses, not preserving the old houses.” Jónsson maintains that replicas of old houses could in fact be placed at another location, where they would be better served. “There is a tradition of moving and rebuilding these old houses at new locations, such as in Aðalstræti,” Jónsson says, although he does not strongly advocate either side of the debate.

No Revision
Pétur Hrafn Ármannsson teaches architecture at the Iceland Academy of the Arts, and is a curator for architecture at the Reykjavík Museum of Art. Ármannsson says that in 1926, Guðjón Samúelsson, the State Architect of Iceland at the time, made the first detailed city plan for Reykjavík. In the plan, Samúelsson – who designed houses such as Hallgrímskirkja, the National Theatre and The University of Iceland among most other grandiose buildings of the time – envisioned that the small wooden houses in Austurstræti, such as Austurstræti 20 and 22, would give way to sixstorey buildings such as Samúelson’s design on the corner of Austurstræti and Pósthússtræti.

“After a fire burned down a large part of the centre in 1915, building wooden houses was banned in the area,” Ármannsson explains. People believed there was no future in wood, and that the concrete age was upon us. For a long time, six-storey buildings have been the benchmark used for planning in the city centre.” In fact, buildings between four and six storeys surround the row of houses, from Austurstræti 20 – 22 and Lækjargata 2.

But Ármannsson remains convinced that there is no question that the Mayor made the right decision. “These houses have stood there for over 200 hundred years. There are many arguments for restoring them to their original state, as close to their original appearance in the 19th century.” He does not support the idea that the houses should be restored at a different location. “The houses are a part of a street image that has been there for a long time. They serve as a setting for the Government Offices [on the opposite corner] at Lækjargata. The site is also on the south side of the street, so building six-storey buildings at that site would block out the sun on Lækjartorg square.”

Plans for rebuilding Lækjartorg, the square in front of Austurstræti 22, are currently on hold, awaiting the building of the new headquarters for the Landsbanki Íslands bank that will be built across the square, opposite Austurstræti 22. Beyond that building site lies the site for the new Icelandic National Concert and Conference Centre in Reykjavík, now under development. The plan is to rebuild the square in unison with the two buildings under development. In some ways, it might be considered natural to look at the rebuilding of Austurstræti 22 as an extension of that project.

Did Icelandic Architecture Peak in the 19th Century?
“I’m not going to hide my opinion that I have often felt that these small houses were like a gap in a row of teeth,” said Gunnlaugur Magnússon, architect, in conversation with the Grapevine.

“The problem is that the city doesn’t have a long history, so there is the tendency to preserve everything that can possibly be preserved, just because it is old and we don’t have anything else to preserve.” In direct opposition to Ármannsson’s views, Magnússon believes that ancient history does not by itself justify that the houses that burned down will be built again at the same location.

“I have heard people talk about the historical significance of the house on Austurstræti 22, but no one talks about the house per se. In this instance, in my opinion, if the house burned down, the history is gone. You can not recreate the history of the historical significance of the house by building a new house,” Magnússon explains. His view is that if we always try to preserve the old houses we will end up with a city centre that can never be completed.

Magnússon believes that with modern technology, we should be able to take a step back and look at our options. “People are afraid of changes. That is perhaps natural, but people are afraid that if changes are made [on that corner] it will be a catastrophe. People regard the preservation path as a safe route. If you are afraid of the future, you always choose the most conservative path. With the 3-dimensional technique we have available today, it would be easy enough to build computer models and look at the options. I cannot believe that somewhere, someone has not made a proposal for something different on that corner. This site needs to be planned in relation to the other developments in the area.”

His opinion is that there should be an open architectural competition for how to rebuild the corner, rather then recreate Austurstræti 22 in its original state. “As long as there is something else possible, I am against building a replica of a house that burned down. We have to face the fact that the times are different. It is nostalgic to think that everything was better two hundred years ago. We become completely stagnant if we believe that the best we can do was done two hundred years ago and we cannot possibly do any better.”

Debating the Future
Looking out the window of my office at the Grapevine World Headquarters, I overlook a planned site of another historical building from the same era, the Zimsen house. Two years ago, the Zimsen house stood by the other end of Lækjartorg, opposite Austurstræti 22. Now, it is standing on a vacant lot by the harbour, waiting for a park in Tryggvagata to be cleared to make room for the house.

The Grapevine World Headquarters are located just off the corner of Vesturgata and Aðalstræti, where old houses have been replicated with great success, creating a continuous 19thcentury street image. The fact is that old houses have been moved to new locations with much success here in Reykjavík. The fire in Austurstræti prompted many questions about how the city of Reykjavík should be developed. We could choose to look at this tragedy as an opportunity to do something else. Or we could choose to look at this as an opportunity to show these old houses some respect and try to restore them to their original state. The problem is that the debate never entered the public or professional realm.

The question that remains is this: In the long run, is the city better served by replicating historical buildings that do not fit the needs of a modern city? There is no simple answer to that question. What I do know is that the decision should not have been the Mayor’s alone. And it probably should not have been taken at an emotional moment while fire laid claim to the buildings.

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