Reykjavík was established as a trading place in the late 18th century. Until then it was a farm.
In 1786 a trading monopoly was abolished and that created conditions for the village of Reykjavík to grow. Some of the first buildings were situated at what was to become the corner of Austurstræti and Lækjargata.
In 1801 the first house was built on the site facing Austurstræti. It was made of massive timber logs with moss wadding. For two decades it was home to some of the highest officials of the Danish government and was the site of the coup orchestrated by Jørgen Jørgensen, aka Jörundur the dog-day king, in 1809. It was then converted into a high court house, a police station, a prison, an apartment and subsequently used as a synod. Much later it housed a fashion boutique, a record shop, a restaurant and finally a nightclub.
In 1852 the corner house was erected, a small single storey timber house with an attic. The first owner was a local merchant and then the parish vicar took possession of the house, extending it several times. The property changed hands again and the growth of the house became still more vigorous under the stewardship of an energetic owner who was simultaneously a photographer, a travel agent for émigrés to America and a bookstore proprietor.
In 1918 a third house was built on the site, a cinema known as Nýja Bíó, made of, new material in Iceland, reinforced concrete. It was designed in a more worldly fashion with a curved façade in a style reminiscent of Jugendstil. Later the building was used as a nightclub but was badly damaged in a fire in 1998 and demolished.
In 2007 the two timber houses on the site were totally destroyed in a fire leaving an open wound in this historically important place. The city mayor vowed that the corner would be rebuilt and instigated an open competition for a new plan of the downtown area. The winning scheme was by a team of architects from three firms Argos, Gullinsnið and Studio Granda. They proposed that the entire quarter should be designated as a special development area due to its historical importance as a built time-line of the development of the city and a foil to the massive new developments that were starting in the harbour area.
The competition result initiated the commission for the detail plan of the area and Argos, Gullinsnið and Studio Granda were commissioned for the task. The city council was unanimous in its approval of the plan that they developed collectively and the proposal to rebuild the historic houses on the corner site. The individual offices then undertook the detail design of the individual buildings, Austurstræti 22, Lækjargata 2 and Nýja Bíó. This distribution of tasks simplified the design process and ensured a richer mix of interpretation and resolution reflecting the different ages and histories of the former buildings.
Before demolition of the burnt buildings commenced a full archeological survey was made of the entire site.
All three of the original buildings had basements of various sizes and depths. As the reconstruction was to be undertaken as a single project the city directed that a common basement should be constructed to connect and serve all three buildings.
Following the fire the charred remnants and brick fireplace of Austurstræti 22 were salvaged and measured. The house was then rebuilt in precisely the same manner as the original, using the same materials, techniques and tools. During its lifetime the external appearance of the house was modified many times and the reconstruction has been meticulously researched to capture the moment when the house was in its prime.
Lækjargata 2 was not as badly damaged by fire as Austurstræti 22 and more original timber was measured in-situ, salvaged and reused in the construction. The original building had been modified many times and if it had not been destroyed would most probably have been raised a second time from three to four storeys like many other timber buildings in the town. The reconstruction has a basalt-clad ground floor upon which the original house has been rebuilt. The roof of the building was of timber, corrugated iron and Norwegian slate but for the reconstruction columnar basalt was sourced locally and cut into tiles.
The cinema, Nyja Bíó, was completely razed and only drawings and photographic documentation remained. Furthermore a new building had been built on much of the old lot so the reconstruction has been made on a location slightly shifted from the original. The tighter constraints of the new plot and the increased height of its new and reconstructed neighbours influenced the decision to decrease the plan depth and increase the height by one floor. The questionable historical truthfulness of this building is not denied but expressed in the use of system shuttering for the in-situ concrete and raw finishing of the north façade in a play between notions of memory and the preoccupations of the present.
A new stair tower separates Lækjargata 2 and Nyja Bíó. It is a clearly modern intervention but with its massive columnar basalt cladding has a geological history. A smaller stone tower holds the west side of Nyja Bíó.
Between the buildings there is a new public court that is laid with local grey basalt in accordance with the detailed plan for the historical center. In the future the court will open to the rejuvenated Hressó garden on the adjacent plot. It was the first public garden in Iceland. In summer the plants will flourish in the long bright days, whereas in winter mellow street lighting, fuelled with methane gas culled from refuse will warm the historic heart of the city.
Reykjavík was established in the late 18th century. In 1801 the first house was built on the lot facing what was to become Austurstræti. It was home to some of the highest officials of the Danish government and was the site of the coup orchestrated by Jørgen Jørgensen in 1809. A small single storey timber house with an attic was erected on the corner in 1852 and was significantly extended and modified many times. In 1918 a cinema, Nýja Bíó, was built of reinforced concrete on an adjacent site but was badly damaged in a fire in 1998 and demolished. In 2007 the remaining timber houses were destroyed by fire and a competition for the future of the site was held by the city. The winning scheme was by a team of three architectural firms. They proposed that the entire quarter should be designated a site of historic importance to counter the pressure of commercial development that was particularly prevalent in the period before the crash of 2008.
The team prepared a detailed plan for the area and following a full archeological survey work started on the common basement for the three houses. The reconstruction of the individual buidings Austurstræti 22, Lækjargata 2 and Nýja Bíó was undertaken by the respective offices It was clear from the outset that the reconstruction of Nýja Bíó was not to be a carbon copy of the original. A new building had been built on the site of the former cinema and the new neighbours where higher than before. Working from drawings and photographic archives a new interpretation of the building was made, not unlike a remake of a movie. Materiality and building technology play a leading role, celebrating the questionable historical truthfulness of the building, in a delicate play between notions of memory and the preoccupations of the present. This is perhaps most clearly apparent in the columnar basalt cladding of the stair towers where the only contemporary part of the building complex is wrapped in a geological past.
Awards Icelandic Concrete Award 2013 Nominated for the European Union Prize for Contemporary Architecture - Mies van der Rohe Award 2013