Vatnsmýri – An Introduction
Vatnsmýri is a 150 hectare area which is currently occupied by the Reykjavík domestic Airport. Located a few minutes walk from the commotion of the city centre, the airport was initially built as a military air base by British occupying forces during WWII. It has been a fact of life in Reykjavík ever since. Although the airport was considered to be a fair way out of town in the 1940s, Reykjavik’s expansion from a village of 45,000 at the time, to a modern urban city with nearly 200,000 inhabitants in the Greater Reykjavík Area, has radically altered that reality.
Urban sprawl has troubled Reykjavík planning authorities for a long time. As the population increases, the city’s periphery extends further away from the city centre. With an emphasis on sustainable development and more ecologically responsible city planning, problems created by sprawling cities – such as traffic congestion, waste from excessive commuting and expensive public transit – have become particularly relevant.
For more than 20 years, people have discussed and debated the question of whether the airport should be relocated in order to make room for urban development, and the question was one of the central topics of the last two city elections. In 2002, a new detailed land use plan for Reykjavík was approved, which called for a substantial reduction of the airport by 2016, and a full departure by 2024, with the aim of using the land for development. In order to begin preparations for the gradual phase-out of the airport, the City of Reykjavík agreed to organise a two-stage international planning competition, which called for new ideas for the future of Vatnsmýri, in 2005. After some initial resistance and litigation, the competition was finally launched in March 2007.
Looking For That Special Something
“We were looking for a vision for the city,” says Steve Christer, architect and member of the jury, when I ask him about the goal of the competition. “We were looking for ideas on how an area like this should develop, looking for things to make Vatnsmýri special. There really was no vision for Vatnsmýri. People have been debating this for nearly 25 years, but there has never been any vision for what the area might look like. Now, we finally have something to develop critically.”
Christer is no stranger to dealing with politically charged planning controversies after his firm won the competition to design the Reykjavík City Hall in 1987. He maintains that although planning the area is quite complicated, it still requires answers to specific, simple questions like how people should get in and out of there and what sort of lifestyle people should lead there. “People tried very hard to understand the place, but very few managed to come to grips with it. It is a very complex place,” he adds.
A total of 136 entries were submitted for the competition and, after careful delegation, the jury declared Graeme Massie, Stuart Dickson, Alan Keane and Tim Ingleby from Graeme Massie Architects in Edinburgh, Scotland, as the winners. The jury’s remarks stated that the scheme had the qualities required as a starting point for the future development of Vatnsmýri and offers a clear and convincing response to the requirements of the competition brief. More importantly, it also says that while transport has not been fully resolved in the proposal, it appears to be robust enough to accommodate further developments and address external realities.
Massie is no stranger to Icelandic planning competitions. He was awarded first prize in a planning competition for a new vision for Downtown Akureyri in 2004. When I ask him if he holds the key to the nation’s heart when it comes to planning, he answers, “I think there are similarities between Iceland and Scotland. Perhaps most importantly with regards to the competition successes is the idea of landscape. Both countries have renowned natural landscapes, which can be inspiring, and as such we find the relationship between landscape and building to be fundamental to much of our work. In our proposals for Reykjavik, a landscape infrastructure connects all areas from 101, through Vatnsmyri to the coast. This landscape is continually changing and ranges from a large central park with new lakes, to formal gardens and coastal paths. These areas are important in providing an escape from what will be a dense neighbourhood.”
The Missing Puzzle
When I ask Christer what it was that attracted him to this proposal, he explains that many of the entries were fragile because of their complexity. If one aspect does not work, the whole scheme falls apart. Massie approached things differently. “He dared to be simple. He dared to be clear. It is a strong skeleton that you can mess about with, but it will still keep its shape. You can change it here, or you can change it there, but the plan will still hold,” he says, pointing to a poster of the proposal.
Other members of the jury echo Christer’s words. City Council member and head of the jury, Dagur B. Eggertsson, says the strength of the proposal is how simple and effortless it is, drawing on time-proven, classic schemes in Reykjavík planning. Hanna Birna Kristjánsdóttir, another member of the jury and City Council, says the proposal’s basis on classic forms that still allow for flexibility was appealing. “To me it felt like the missing puzzle, and I thought it would fit our city and its future especially well.”
Put simply, the proposal takes an area that is roughly outlined by the University to the west, Öskjuhlíð to the east, the Lake to the north and the ocean to the south, and replicates certain elements in the surroundings to create an almostfamiliar feel to the plan. The public park, Hjómskálagarðurinn, is extended southwards and a new pond established as the focus of Vatnsmýri surrounded by new buildings, arranged in a grid that duplicates street plans for the old Þingholt neighbourhood. The principal development area is in a strip between the extended parallels of Baronstígur and Snorrabraut from Þingholt to Fossvogur. A diagonal axis cuts this strip and connects it directly to the city centre. Additional housing is on the flanks of Öskjuhlið and north of Skerjafjörður and extends the University of Iceland campus to the new pond, while the main transport line from east to west in the city is lead through a tunnel beneath the area. It is genius in its simplicity.
The simplicity of the plan allows for a gradual approach and future revisions as need dictates. “The proposal could be described as a framework,” says Graeme Massie. “For the master plan to be successful it must be robust and should be able to accommodate change over time. We will need to consult with all the stakeholders in the area to ensure that their needs are fully addressed in the plan.” He adds, “The Vatnsmýri area is of huge importance to the ongoing development of Reykjavik. Cities now compete globally for business and of course tourism, and it is rare for such global cities to have such an area of land right in the city centre. The development of Vatnsmyri should provide Reykjavik with an alternative to 101 as a desirable location to live, work and play.”
The Future of the Airport
Following the results of the competition, Stuart Massie has been appointed as a consultant for the development of Vatnsmýri and the city has established a steering group that will oversee the future of the area. As of now, no decision has been made on when or how the airport will be relocated, and the City Council majority has stated that no decision will be made this term, as necessary research of available options has still not been concluded. However, work will begin as early as this year on peripheral locations that will not affect the airport in its current form.
According to Hanna Birna Kristjánsdóttir, the winning proposal is not binding for the future development of Vatnsmýri, but she states that .the proposal must nevertheless be the baseline for future plans, as there was wide and important agreement on it.” Dagur B. Eggertsson agrees, stating that the proposal serves as a good foundation to work from. “I believe that we should use the momentum right now to support the development of the overall vision as well as looking at the detailed implementation of specific areas,” he adds.
While Christer acknowledges that we might still have to wait a few years before developments really begin, time is on our side. “I think it is positive that we can use this time to make sure that we do things correctly. There are still problems that need to be solved. We have ten years to make it better.”