The Historic Corner
Reykjavík was a farm before being established as a trading place in the late 18th century. In 1786 a trading monopoly was abolished creating 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. The first house, constructed of massive timber logs with moss wadding, was built in 1801. The corner house, a small single story timber house with an attic, was constructed in 1852.
The third house, a cinema known as Nýja Bíó, was built on the site in 1918. It was designed in a more worldly fashion with a curved facade in a style reminiscent of Jugendstil using reinforced concrete, a new material for Iceland. The house was demolished in 1998 after being badly damaged in a fire.
In 2007 the two timber houses on the site were totally destroyed in a fire leaving an open wound in this historically important place.
Architects from three firms Argos, Gullinsnið and Studio Granda won the open competition for a new plan of the area. The city council was unanimous in its approval of the plan and the proposal to rebuild the historic houses on the corner site. The individual offices then undertook the detailed design of the individual buildings. 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 burned 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 a common basement was 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 stories 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 neighbors 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 facade 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.
The spiral is the one on the west side and the more rectangular the main stair between the two buildings. The motif on the balustrade is derived from the gold theater masks on the ground floor of the 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, fueled with methane gas culled from refuse will warm the historic heart of the city.
The project received the Honorary Award, Prix European d’architecture Philippe Rotthier http://www.fondationpourlarchitecture.be/fr/event/prix-europeen-darchitecture-philippe-rotthier-2011, at the time of renovation in 2011.