I heard the rumour about a nuclear bunker underneath Bústaðakirkja some time in the summer of 2017. My friend was going through a Bubbi Morthens phase and mentioned the 1983 song Bústaðir, which includes the lyrics (roughly translated): “Beneath Bústaðakirkja, behind a steel reinforced stone, the bishop and government hide.” They suggest the subject of my friend’s fascination: a bunker beneath Bústaðakirkja. As we later drove down Bústaðavegur we looked at the church, trying to find the clues of Cold War relics.
This rumour spurred a personal obsession of sorts with Iceland’s capacity to counter existential threats. To think that the church in which I’ve watched my mom’s choir perform harbours the interests of national security fascinates me.
That rumour, it turns out, is true.
Of bridges & bunkers
Iceland served as a bridge between the United States and the Soviet Union during the Cold War. It was at Reykjavík’s Höfði House that then U.S. president Ronald Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev met in 1986 to discuss nuclear disarmament. The country’s geographic location served as a strategic asset to the United States, whose army had stuck around in Keflavík long after World War II ended.
I was convening a meeting of dudes who like bunkers.
The topic of Iceland’s civil defence was prevalent during World War II, as both British and American forces had set up shop around the island, and the threat of Nazi forces became ever more tangible. During the war, Icelandic authorities established civil air defence committees with help from the Americans. Their work included preparing for the worst: barricading structures, performing civilian defence exercises, and identifying strategic locations for defensive structures — including civilian bunkers.
When the war ended and most foreign military presence had dissipated, those committees ceased their preparation efforts. However, the U.S. army returned in 1951 as increased global tensions ushered in the start of the Cold War. The air defence committees were reestablished, much to the dismay of Iceland’s budget. Modelled after similar institutions in Western Europe, their main goal was to “implement aerial defences amongst other security measures.”
First Icelandic bunker
Amongst these “aerial defences” were bunkers. In the 1950s and 60s, Icelandic authorities surveyed suitable real estate for civilian shelters, Arnarhóll being one of the more interesting proposals. The Reykjavík Metropolitan Police’s headquarters on Hverfisgata includes a nuclear fallout basement, which once served as the base of operations for the Icelandic Civil Defences, though it doubled as an emergency shelter.
I contacted historian Stefán Pálsson, who also mentioned bunkers in the headquarters of the National Power Company, as well as in Laugardalshöll, although I wasn’t able to corroborate those sources.
Getting back to Bústaðakirkja, it was during the construction of the church in the 1960s that the Department of Civil Protection funded the development of its reinforced steel basement. In the wake of the Cuban Missile Crisis and all throughout the Cold War, Iceland was entirely vulnerable to hostile attacks, as authorities had not implemented a national defence plan to protect its citizens. With the exception of the U.S. Army’s deployment on the Reykjanes peninsula and NATO membership, Iceland was (and perhaps still is) defenceless.
Designed by architect Helgi Hjálmarsson, who also built the headquarters of the Icelandic National Broadcasting Service, Bústaðakirkja peers over Fossvogsdalur, which at the time was in rapid development. The underground bunker can hold up to 150 individuals and was the first structure in Iceland built for the specific purpose of sheltering people against a nuclear strike.
Closed casket service
When I reached out to Bústaðakirkja’s manager, Ásbjörn Björnsson, I didn’t expect a positive reply. I assumed the church’s staff had more pressing matters to attend to than entertaining a twenty-something with an affinity for Cold War history. Ásbjörn surprised me by also contacting the church’s architect. I was convening a meeting of dudes who like bunkers.
Passing the congregation hall in the process of being prepared for a funeral service, I met Ásbjörn in his office and his interest in the subject shone through our conversation. I started to think he was better suited than I to write this article. “Do you feel this is some sort of a hush, hush secret?” he questions me. Now in his 60s, Ásbjörn has managed Bústaðakirkja for 10 years. He said he wasn’t aware of the church’s bunker until after he began working there.
Eventually Helgi showed up, slightly later than anticipated, but he made up for his delayed entrance by going into great detail about the building. An older gentleman, I’d estimate he must have been around 30 years old when the church was built. He had just recently graduated with his architectural degree when he took on the project, encouraged by his mentor and then Chief State Carpenter Hörður Bjarnason, and Ottó A. Michelsen, the chair of the church’s building committee.
A utilitarian construction
The conversation and the subsequent tour that I received emphasised the mundane nature of Iceland I had come to miss after spending the past year abroad. When I asked the man who designed Iceland’s first public nuclear shelter what his feelings towards the project were, he replied: “I can’t remember any specific feelings I had. The building was one of the projects me and my team took on, and we did our job.”
Asked about how the idea of the bunker came to fruition, he attributed the idea to Ottó, whose life and work was presented to me in the pages of a biography Ásbjörn pulled out from one of his shelves. “During the construction, we used explosives to work on the foundation. The subsequent spaces that formed were utilised for the bunker. It was a way to maximise the square metres of the building.”
As for how the idea and funding came to be, it seems that Ottó was the man with the plan.
Having now spent some time chatting, Ásbjörn decided it was time for a proper tour. To descend into the bunker we had to first go outside and around the building, before continuing down into an external vestibule above which a sign read “Bústaðir, youth centre.”
My excitement waned. Is this the infamous bunker about which Bubbi sang?
“This is the safest place in the bunker,” Helgi said, gesturing to a corner furnished with a TV, Nintendo Switch controllers and a frayed sofa.
We entered into a basement adorned with stucco walls and crayoned Pride flags, past a billiards table and multiple IKEA chaise longues. The series of rooms are designed around a hallway, with one larger main area to the side of the corridor, and two or three smaller rooms on the opposite side. Despite the roomy nature of the chambers, all sounds were muted. Nothing reverberated. “This is the safest place in the bunker,” Helgi said, gesturing to a corner furnished with a TV, Nintendo Switch controllers and a frayed sofa.
The church, the men explained, was never intended to be the premises for the bunker. It was much more of an afterthought, constructed from a utilitarian approach to maximising the use of the building lot. The bunker was certainly built in the event of a crisis, but how much of a public policy decision its construction was remains a question mark.
It turns out the interests of national security were never fully vested in the building. The bunker is now a mundane youth centre where teenagers gossip and scroll Tik Tok. Despite my disappointment, the experience was a positive demonstration of Iceland’s acceptance of ordinariness. Maybe things aren’t as secret as I’d imagined.
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