Art and Urban Planning
Reykjavík had, until quite recently, the air of a frontier town: groupings of more or less shoddy houses and shacks, built without plans and with no apparent intention of permanence, around a few sturdier stone buildings of Danish design. There was the cathedral, built to wrest ecclesiastical power from its old seats in the country. The house that is now the seat of the prime minister and his cabinet was built as a jail by the Danes, a solidly hewn reminder of the government’s power over the locals. Even as Danish influence began to wane, the same tendency continued with the old courthouse, now a jail, the house of parliament and the new Bank of Iceland which, built of stone, was the only structure left standing when the great fire of 1915 consumed most of the city center. In the early decades of the twentieth century, well-to-do merchants, sea captains and officials—many, but far from all, being of Danish descent—built their houses away from the center, which gradually deteriorated.
To an outside observer, and to an increasing number of Icelanders, the city seems to be still caught in that same cycle of outward expansion, with suburbs mushrooming in the surrounding countryside while the downtown is a chaotic jumble of rusting corrugated iron and incongruous new steel-and-glass structures. As in most frontier towns, city planning has never quite caught up with the steady influx of people, and an almost permanent housing shortage has left little time to think about aesthetic aspects of the city. Public art is one of those aspects. Recent years have seen a steady growth in cultural spending, and the space devoted to museums and theatres is now many times what it was just a two decades ago, but there is still a hint here of the same frontier mentality that favors rapid expansion over thoughtful planning.
As in any city, public art in Reykjavík is a hodgepodge of styles with sculptures and ornaments in often surprising locations: memorials to statesmen, poets and prominent citizens, imposing statues of medieval heroes and abstract constructions that may or may not have some direct connection to the city’s history and culture. Many were donations from foreign nations, whose ambassadors presumably found the town lacking in ornaments, or from citizen groups, companies or even the artists themselves. Relatively few were commissioned by the city authorities themselves and even fewer—until recent years—were seen as part of an overall plan or vision of the city and its future development. Many of these artworks have been moved as the city changed around them or at the whim of the city fathers.
In the next issue of LIST we will explore the history of the earliest public artworks in Reykjavík and the gradual transformation that took place in the 1950s and 1960s as artists started to seek more active participation in the placing of artwork on the streets and open spaces of the city.
List: Icelandic Art News is published by the Center for Icelandic Art, a cooperative project of Iceland's museums and artists' organisations. List is edited by Christian Schoen and Jón Proppé. If you wish not to receive announcements of our new issues - or you want to contact us for any other reason - please send a mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.