One of the most distinct and controversial buildings in Iceland, the Reykjavík City Hall surprised a nation when it was erected in the early 1990s. Sindri Eldon met with Steve Christer of Studio Granda to discuss the impact of one of the city’s architectural hallmarks.
/// In creating the City Hall, what was given priority, function or design?
– When we took part in the design competition, we were very aware of how city halls usually are. They’re very often imposing buildings, with a big portico, and steps up to the front of them. It’s usually a bit difficult to get into them, and when you get to the front door you feel very small, and that’s exactly what we didn’t want to show here.
We wanted to show that Iceland is a very open, a very democratic society, that anyone can go in and get close to the politicians and get close to the people that are ruling the city, so that’s why you can enter the city hall from three different directions on the street. You can do that on the level, so you can be in a wheelchair, or be physically handicapped in any other way. It’s very easy to get in.
You can drive your car underneath it and pop up into the building, so it’s actually accessible from within, too, and you can see into the building everywhere, so the people working in there, they are very visible, and they can see you, and especially the city council chamber that’s displayed to the corner pond. That is actually in a way thought that it doesn’t have a wall on that side. The wall is the town itself, the back wall of the chamber is the town itself, so when you stand on the pavement outside of there, you’re in the room. In that way, we really wanted to build a part of the city. Not any physical part, but part of the way that…everybody in the city is the city. The society of the city is enabled in the city hall…did you get that?
/// Yes…yes…it made a surprising amount of sense to me, actually. So…when city hall was finished, what was the initial reaction to how the building looked, and do you think the attitude toward the building has changed over the years?
– Well, I think we should go back a little bit, and think about when we won the competition, which is in ’87. We were very happy, we were two very young architects in London, we were only 27 years old. We had no experience, we’d done a one-car garage before. We came here, and everyone clapped and gave us a bunch of flowers and we got the commission. Three months later, we were having death threats, bomb threats, we had articles in the newspaper saying how this was a disastrous project, and that continued for over a year, in fact. All through the four-and-a-half years that we built the project, there was a lot of public opposition to that building. In fact, I think it was probably more public opposition, and certainly the most fierce public opposition that there has been against any building in this country.
After that, the building opened, and in three days we had 45,000 people through that building. 45,000 people is at that time half the population of Reykjavík. One-fifth of the population of the country visited the building in three days. They destroyed all the floors, we had to polish them again, and what happened after that, we didn’t hear again negative voices about the city hall. People said ‘I was never happy with the location, but it’s a beautiful building.’ A few people say they don’t like it, I think they should, not everyone should say it’s a nice building. On the whole, people come to us and say that they’re happy about it.
/// The way I see it, I think you have failed if you make something everyone likes.
– Absolutely. In fact, we’re worried how many people like it…and of course you don’t believe them when they say they like it. People are polite. They want to be nice to you, and so on. And I know myself, that there’s loads of…failures in that building. When you’re as young as we were when we designed it, you have far, far too many ideas, so the building has five to six hundred more ideas than it needs, and you can see in the later work we do that it’s gotten much simpler, much cleaner.
/// OK. If you could guide visitors through the city hall yourself, what would you point out to them, about the architecture? Maybe these “failures”?
– Well, I think that what’s probably most important about it, is that even though it occupies a lakeside site, we have actually given the lake back to the city by putting a pond on the other side of it, on the town side, so it has water on both sides so you still walk around the pond, with the effect of viewing the building in it. I think you should point people out that it’s got a very good café that sells great cakes, and they do a great macchiato.
I think most people notice the moss wall, and that sort of changes depending on the seasons, and I think that’s just great to see, and so if you came at wintertime, you’d get a very different experience than if you came in the spring, and that’s in a way nature inhabiting the building like people inhabit it, inside of it.
I think you should see the materiality of the building, and see how even though it’s fourteen years old it actually looks as though it was built two or three years ago, and that’s because it’s been made with really, really good materials, and fantastic craftsmen that we have here. We have them to thank. The concrete work is extraordinary, you have to go to Japan to get as good concrete work as that.
/// The City Hall was your first large project. After everything was finished and the 45,000 people had come and gone, was there a sense of ‘what now’?
– Well, we were very lucky that my partner was pregnant with our first child, so we had something great to look forward to. The thing that actually happened after we handed over the key at the opening, and all those people started coming in, is that we went to bed. We were in bed for a week, we were ill. We had actually worked for about ten hours a day, seven days a week, for four-and-a-half years. We were just…completely on our knees. Actually, it was really good that we had this child, because we took a year off and just dealt with him, and talked about what we were going to do next.
We’d just done a really big building, by our standards. Everyone else was doing bathroom interiors, and we do 10,000 square metres. We build it, it gets done, every light switch does what it’s supposed to do, and then you have to think very carefully, where do you go? You’re not going to do another city hall. Do we give up architecture and run a video store? What are you going to do? So, yeah, it was quite a challenge.
/// You seem to gotten on the right track. You’re very busy these days with several buildings around here that are being built around here by the firm.
– We’ve got a lot on our order books at the moment. Unfortunately, because we’re so small, we don’t do very much, and people have to wait, but our clients have been very patient with us. We’re very happy.