Thursday, 13 October 2011
Reykjavík: little big city
It could so easily have been an Icelandic anticlimax. After a voyage around the glacier-topped volcano of Snæfellsjökull, one of the most impact-ful things I've ever done, and a glimpse into the interior, at least as far as the Hraunfossar waterfalls, might not the capital - previously only driven around in a nightmarish hire-car starter experience - be a bit of a disappointment?
That it turned out anything but was partly due to insights into musical life and people gleaned from the doyenne of the new Harpa Concert Hall, Steinunn Birna Ragnarsdóttir (that's to say, simply 'Steinunn' to all), and partly because our big full day there saw half the extra-Reykjavik population of Iceland - not large, about 300,000 - flood into the city for the annual giant open house, which included the official inauguration of Harpa (the reason I was invited in the first place). Plus the fact that this really does feel like a friendly small town with domestic architecture to reflect that, but also offering food and museums of world-class city standard.
Why now, by the way? Because a colleague has been writing up Harpa's Björk extravaganza, running at the moment (wouldn't have minded seeing that); and because I hadn't intended to let the Iceland experience - the biggest impression of the year - slip without amplifying what I've already written about the musicfest on The Arts Desk.
I reckon that even if you only had the conventional package weekend, you'd get a sense of this extraordinary country. The very fact that the journey from Keflavik airport lands you straight in one of the various lavafields is a good start. And even the Blue Lagoon, our only obligatory experience of mass tourism on the way back and a monstrously overpriced if well maintained set-up, is still quite something if you haven't experienced better. Though the current Mayor of Reykjavik, comedian Jón Gnarr, promised - and took pleasure in breaking that promise, I heard him laconically say on the World Service - to make all hired towels at thermal baths free of charge, which would save you over £10 for a start (no doubt this wouldn't have applied to tourist traps anyway).
The location itself in 'smoky bay' - like all place names in Iceland, the city's means something - would also give a flitting visitor intimations of what's beyond. We even saw our beloved Snæfellsjökull glowing in the sunset from the swish Harpa restaurant on the first night.
The big day began with the 29th annual Reykjavik marathon, caught as we strolled towards Harpa for a morning meeting with Olafur Eliasson and the acousticians.
All the work-y stuff I'll leave you to read about on The Arts Desk, but we ought to see a few more shots of this incredible building with its basalt-imitating 3D glass front and sweeping staircases
with the windows offsetting a couple of new premieres open to all in the foyer, featuring Iceland's flotilla of harps
a couple of carefully-placed trombonists
and, outside, the campest Chinese acrobats I'm ever likely to see.
The whole arts-centre experience is on the kind of scale any city would be proud of (and indeed a group of Manhattan architects were there to see if they could achieve a similar, viable riverside project). Yet Reykjavik's choicest central living-spaces are intimate indeed, rather like village London (but nowhere near as expensive, relatively speaking, or so I'm imagining). Take the street in which our splendid Hotel Holt was situated, Bergstaðastræti. It really merits a blog entry of its own, but since I can't say more about the little corrugated-iron, wooden and stone houses along it other than to draw your attention to Reykjavikaners' love of little things in the windows - Moomintrolls from Finland seem especially popular - there's nothing to do except to show and contrast.
On open day, the street was out in bring-and-buy sales. In some little pockets you'd find music thrown in too, though perhaps I should use inverted commas since the likes of the incredible amplified screaming and drumming which broke a quick afternoon rest wasn't exactly that. No matter; it was all offered up with love, and the likes of Pollianna ('Let me sing and I'm happy' it says on the front of her card) karaoki-ing 'I am what I am' while pancakes were served had undeniable charm.
Elsewhere games of giant and portable chess were rife
and don't ask me what these mummers intended.
There was, in short, too much to catch on festival day. Would have loved a hug from a policeman in the main drag and a dance to an accordion band, less sure about 'Surface Appearances' in which 'a well-dressed couple panhandles and collects bottles to recycle'. But I did think I ought to see at least one museum in 24 hours - a tour of medieval manuscripts in the Þjóðmenningarhusið had to bite the dust - and so I crossed the fields of cars and negotiated endless barriers to reach the Þjóðminjasafn Íslands - that's National Museum of Iceland to us - which in addition to medieval and Renaissance treasures was hosting an exhibition of carved drinking horns
and then past another residential district with odd taste in door plaques
to the compelling horrors of the Einar Jónsson Museum next to the big church on the hill.
What was going on in the mind of Iceland's best-known sculptor (1874-1954) I know not, and perhaps you don't need to grasp the meaning of his allegories; but 'Rest' this isn't.
Jónsson designed the ugly but striking building to house his giants with Einar Erlendsson. It's a fine situation on the hilltop, with an intriguing, narrow spiral staircase the only link between the different levels, and the sculptures in the garden seem happiest; here a crowd of international students were busy pavement-chalking (again, oh, don't ask why). In the even more imposing white concrete Hallgrimskirkja, congregation and choir were well in to a six-hour marathon of psalms. I do like the building both without and within, which reminds me a bit of Guildford Cathedral, though less hospital-clinical.
The chaos of Icelandic organisation turned our evening somewhat pear-shaped, though we forged our own itinerary by making sure not to spend too long at the reception hosted by comedian-mayor Gnarr in the 1909 Höfði on the harbour, famous for the Reagan-Gorbachev summit of 1986.
Our little function was less ambitious, though there was a rather charming ceremony in which native American Indians from Seattle presented the mayor (pictured below) with something significant in wood.
Whereupon we swiftly retired to eat in Harpa, and watched the sun finally sink below the horizon at about 9.30pm.
Happy memories of a near-Utopian city, or so it seemed on a day everyone seemed to enjoy in late summer. I can't wait to go back and see the volcanoes of the south coast.