Published July 29, 2016
For a bright moment in Icelandic history, late-stage capitalism seemed triumphant, a utopia beyond nature and need. Over just a handful of decades, Iceland moved from being a post-colonial outpost on the fringes of the European empire to a fully modernised nation replete with paved roads, running water and indoor electricity. However, not everyone was allowed to tag along for the ride. Some Icelandic institutions were left behind, dead branches on the evolutionary tree of business.
The Icelandic mini-mall was one such evolutionary dead-end.
For centuries, most retail commerce in Iceland was done at individual stores in town and village centres. Many, if not most, of these stores were family-owned and -operated. But as the economy grew, so too did demand for more ice cream, more florists, more bakeries. The invisible hand of the market began to push these businesses together into clumps that would become the Icelandic mini-mall, concentrated masses of incongruous shops erected at locations that seemed to defy all rhyme or reason; neither visually appealing nor necessarily accessible, offering the promise of easier retail but not entirely delivering. They floundered and struggled for years to compete with more established businesses closer to town centres. But it was not until Kringlan, Iceland’s first “real” mall, was built in 1987 that the Icelandic mini-mall’s fate would be sealed.
Today, these mini-malls still exist, clinging to survival through characteristic Scandinavian tenacity. To visit one is to step into another decade. They are frozen in time, and as such, they can give us a glimpse at what life was like in Iceland, pre-Kringlan. Before the merciless wheels of capitalism would flatten these strange little retail islands into the mud.
First stop: Austurver
My photography crew and I set out one dreary summer afternoon for the first place on our list: an unremarkable mini-mall located in a neighbourhood of Soviet-style block apartment buildings in Reykjavík’s scattershot eastern portion. The flat, gray structure is wedged under the foot of Landsvirkjun, Iceland’s national power company. From the outside, we were underwhelmed. But once we entered, we understood we had found a priceless artifact from 1970s Iceland.
Shoe repair, used women’s clothing, a flower booth, a bakery, a charity shop of the strangest collection of donated bric-a-brac I had ever laid eyes upon—it was as if this mini-mall were deliberately planned to be a time capsule for late-1970s bourgeois sensibility. But that was only the ground floor.
The entrance to the upper level was paved with faux green marble; the same material one might use to make a paperweight, or the base for a bowling trophy. Upon arriving upstairs, we were greeted by thin flat-grey carpet, fake wood panelling on the walls, and, of course, a drop ceiling. This Kubrickesque hallway looped around itself in a perfect square. All of the doors were identical, most of them unlabeled. We determined that this must be the place where time came to a screeching halt in 1978. Even the very air we breathed smelled of feathered hair, burnt orange kitchen appliances, and the Bee Gees.
Next stop: Miðbær
The name is misleading. “Miðbær” means “downtown,” but we are no closer to the heart of Reykjavík than we were at Austurver. Miðbær is a significantly larger structure than Austurver, but with no interior lobby. It feels like approaching a fortress surrounded by a high wall, defying the curious who might want to take a look inside.
We were nonetheless able to find one entrance to the structure. A lonely stairwell leading up to the offices of some lonely healthcare workers. On the very first landing of these stairs, we encountered a pair of plastic bamboo plants, a wicker chair, and an injured painting. There were no magazines, no piped-in elevator music, nothing but this utterly silent and forgotten corner of an utterly silent and forgotten building. I imagined that this is what the waiting room for Hell must look like.
Before the howling winds of what is ultimately the despairing loneliness of existence could overtake us, we decided to head off for our next mission.
Last Stop: Mjódd
If any Icelandic mini-mall could be said to be “successful,” it would be Mjódd. Conveniently located next to a major bus terminal—itself a dying form of transportation in a country that seems to worship the superjeep—in a neighbourhood with few social and commercial centres, Mjódd’s very existence depends on the circumstances into which it was born.
It is for this reason that it was almost refreshing to step inside Mjódd, which apart from being comparatively teeming with life, also bore the distinction of having outdoor pavement indoors. We concluded that this may have been an outdoor market at some point, only for a roof to be built over the structure, perhaps in the hopes of attracting more clientele. Judging by the level of activity we saw, this plan appears to have worked.
Even with the hustle and bustle, and every attempt made to display its relevance in the 21st century, we could still see traces of Mjódd rapidly approaching anachronism. A pair of lonely claw games, half-filled with dusty plush toys of a once-popular children’s show, seemed to moan a silent lament: “The world has left us behind; remember me, remember me.”
We decided that we had had enough. We decided to head back home.
We took this journey hoping to better understand an Iceland in the throes of capitalist ecstasy; an era when everything seemed possible, when everyone seemed to have wallets bursting with 5,000 krónur notes, when the promise of a brighter future seemed guaranteed for this post-colonial outpost on the edge of the European empire. But we had not prepared for the despairing effect this would have. To see these artifacts within the context of the modern nation, they now resemble a cautionary tale: that all of life’s promises are ultimately made to be broken, and Iceland is no exception. The Icelandic mini-mall is a monument to the illusion of capitalism’s Promised Land.
(Article not actually written by Werner Herzog.)