From Iceland — Review: 'Scarcity In Excess: The Built Environment And The Economic Crisis In Iceland'

Review: ‘Scarcity In Excess: The Built Environment And The Economic Crisis In Iceland’

Published April 23, 2015

Ever since the year 2008, the word “kreppa” (crisis) has been among the most-used by Icelanders, a part of daily parlance and the subject of many a publication, dissertation and research venture. The little island suddenly had the world’s spotlight, and not necessarily for the right reasons. As an architect and a fairly new resident of Iceland, this has been a topic of personal interest for me.

‘Scarcity In Excess’, a collective effort, moderated by Arna Mathiesen, comes years after the fact: a study in hindsight, a post-mortem of the events leading up to the collapse, and its aftermath, both invaluable mines of information with lessons to be gleaned going forward. The book is distinctively different from other collapse-themed ventures, as it is led by architects, a class of professionals for whom the phrase “seen but not heard” seems tailor-made.

Our cities are a reflection of the aspirations of their inhabitants, one which architects realise, literally. We architects literally shape our environment, yet seldom get involved in public discourse about said environment. It is in this light, that the book’s efforts shine through. Written in a clear, concise, matter-of-fact manner, the collection of essays manages to straddle research and data, facts and figures, speaking in an approachable, balanced, hopeful voice. It is inviting in its simplicity, an insightful read for the layman as well as the professional. Far too often, jargon and circuitous analysis prevents the amateur enthusiast from picking up a book by professionals. ‘Scarcity’ manages to gracefully tie in content with a light hand, guiding readers to draw their own conclusions. You only need to smile, and look beyond the glaring spelling errors and repetitive text that mar an otherwise pleasant read.

Tinna Grétarsdóttir and Bryndís Björnsdóttir’s contribution, “Run For Your Life,” is a personal favourite out of the collection, capturing the angst and anxiety of entrepreneurs, an unforeseen yet unavoidable apect of the collapse. It’s written in a tongue-in-cheek, sarcastic fashion, as the writers’ alter-ego, “i(m)material girl,” understands the importance of staying innovative, flexible, and fit. Working alone and without rest, strikes and worker solidarity are out of reach to the immaterial labourer. While moving from one temporary project to another, i(m)material girl must be willing to work for very little and sometimes for nothing at all. She must also be willing to work on her off-hours to realise her own creative projects and perpetual deadlines. Bryndís and Tinna go on to say: “Neo-liberal enterprise culture tells the self-responsible, self-employed and self-marketed creative workers that they are in control, yet only at the price of insecurity and vulnerable working conditions. It encourages anticipated conformity.”

While the book’s topics don’t make for light reading (nor is it written in a way that would soften the blow), the facts and figures rather present an objective and—thereby—hopeful, promising scenario. Iceland may be a rocky, volcanic, windy little island, but the resources unique to this land—fossil-free energy—are certainly abundant. However, the policies currently in place are exploitative in nature, contrary to what our leaders would have us believe. In a very well-written essay, “Scarce Or Abundant Resources,” Arna Mathiesen captures the essence of the book’s title. According to Arna, Iceland already produces more energy, fish and drinking water than the per-day, per-capita requirements. Adding aluminium smelters in hitherto protected areas of geological and natural importance will not make a dent in what is being touted as a an efficient way to boost the economy. Tempting as it is to solve the world’s energy crisis (by selling power to the UK and the EU) , all this “development” comes at a heavy price. It brings up questions of context, scale and efficiency—along with necessity and ethics (the latest land-use plans concern a transport-energy corridor of sorts through the highlands, which would aid industries and tourism. Ahem).

Scale is a recurring leitmotif. “Big Plans/Small City” is reflective of many a foreigner’s first impression of Reykjavík. On my first visit in 2011, I was fascinated by this capital town (for someone from a metropolitan Indian city, Reykjavík seems rather… tiny). In Reykjavík, you are never far from nature (this still delights me), which is what attracts tourists and adds to Iceland’s mystery. Several competitions since then highlight the ambitions of The City, versus the importance of nature. The recently concluded competition and ongoing housing projects in Úlfarsárdalur are a testimony to this ambiguity. Is the value of land only determined by its real estate price?

The research and findings that books like ‘Scarcity In Excess’ throw up are not essential only in the Icelandic context. Just as the hand-in-glove involvement of the real estate developers and banks became fodder for lessons in governance and transparency for the whole world, questions about Iceland’s built environment now are crucial, given that by the year 2050, more than half the global urban population will be living in cities on the scale of Reykjavík, with less than 500,000 inhabitants (according to projections from Statistics Iceland, Iceland’s population will grow from 313,376 to 408,835 between 2008 and 2050).

Are the mountains and the sea soon going to be the distinct luxury, only available to those with goose felt-lined silk pockets? To whom does the city belong? Where did we go wrong? Where are we? Where do we want to go? What is this Iceland we are building, and for whom are we building it?

These are questions the book attempts to answer. It isn’t an easy read, indeed, it leaves you with a stirring of unease. But, all our actions carry weight. We can all be—we all are—agents of change.


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