The Seventh Annual Berkeley Undergraduate Prize for Architectual Design Excellence 2005
Berkeley Prize 2005

Andri Haflidason

Iceland > Reykjavik > Laugavegur: City within a City

Laugavegur, (pronounced Ley-a-vech-ur) or hot spring route is the main artery of Reykjavik, a city of 180,000 inhabitants. This was once the route local washerwomen took to the hot springs of Laugardalur, now a busy street frequented by tourists, shoppers, and residents alike. The street is inherently Icelandic; the quaint corrugated-iron houses intermingle with burnished new shops and brooding concrete-framed galleries. There appears to be no forced look, or aesthetic, as one often finds in contemporary metropolitan architecture. It is a street which rarely closes; bars in Iceland close when they wish, and since drinking is so expensive, people take their time and there is no 3am rush. This is a 24 hour district in the best possible sense, and one which due to its location at the centre of a linear city, remains in use even into the bitter Icelandic winter.

The in-between spaces on and around it are equally definitive, and truly unbuilt. As architect Aldo van Eyck once reminded those in the business of building, provide that space, articulate the in-between(1). Laugavegur has arguably achieved this organic growth without the explicit assistance of architects, in the same manner as many of the celebrated cities of the past. Many spaces on Laugavegur appear to be neither public nor private, and the positive tension between them is palpable; one can walk into, through, and past someones back garden without raising an eyebrow, and then stumble upon a new gallery, shop, or some remnant of the past. The small trees and occasional bench allow people to linger, fundamental to fostering various social interactions.(2)

On this straight street one turns corners, some premises are allowed to butt out into the street whereas others pull back, good cities for staying out in have irregular facades(3) as the respected theorist Jan Gehl has said. Furthermore, the manner in which it opens and closes along its length is an example of compression and decompression within the urban fabric; yet here instead of the narrow avenues and open squares of Venice, one moves through a street of varied depth, thus hiding and revealing the vistas of the incredible landscape around it. The fact that houses sit close to the main street and at various points look directly onto it leads to an improved sense of security, the celebrated writer Jane Jacobs eyes upon the street are present here(4).

What is almost universally recognised is that the loss of the private (as opposed to corporate) ownership of shops and stores has in many cases surgically removed the public from the sphere of the city centre. However, in many shops and galleries along Laugavegur it is still possible to appreciate the overt sense of the individual that owns it, he or she who is almost always there - a character one might get to know; a valuable addition to ones personal image of the city. I myself was fortunate enough to open a small photographic gallery on a side street for a short while. There was nothing so enjoyable and interesting as meeting so many genuine strangers, and discussing and sharing with them my work. They became a universe of people who I would not normally have met, and vice versa, this in a relatively small city. This would have been much harder to achieve in the other cities in which I have lived, in part due to the more powerful market forces at work in their centres, as well as a lack of intimacy. Ironically, it is likely that the presence of two out of town malls have rescued this high street from a comprehensive commercial occupation. With their enterprise suitably quenched elsewhere, the two malls are now engaged in brutal competition, leaving Laugavegur to be developed by individuals and small, personable stores.

Dutch architect F. van Klingeren noted that the mixing of various city functions is necessary to generate a self-reinforcing(5) process of social activities that once one activity begins, many more are initiated as a result; one plus one is three  at least.(6) On and around Laugavegur can be found such a mixture: shops, houses, hotels, restaurants, galleries, hairdressers, a church, and the infamous Icelandic Phallological Museum. Diversity is paramount, and it is not prescribed intention that is at work here, instead accidental and sporadic interaction. On the national holiday, families passing through the town to get from the shops to the shows would sometimes pass my own gallery. Some entered and looked at the pictures, and went down into the basement to watch the video works. On this, and many other occasions on and around Laugavegur, does one plus one truly equal three. That is, instead of spending the day at the overtly singular experience of the mall, here was a trip to the multifaceted town centre, a little window shopping, an ice cream on Laugavegur, and a detour to the lake revealing a gallery of what I believed to be, and many visitors agreed was, a valuable and distinctive depiction of Iceland. This would not, and could not happen in a typical shopping centre.

The somewhat contentious introduction of the car to the city is often debated and is legitimately begrudged by the city dweller (a dying species) and the visiting pedestrian (the irrepressible tourist). Yet, what is a highly unique attribute to Laugavegur is the Runtur (meaning circuit) where the one way car traffic travels slowly along the streets length, the occupants and pedestrians in this instance curiously respectful of one another. This is in part due to the speed-calming, winding road surface, but fundamentally stems from a tradition dating back to the first days of the car, when there was even less to do in this small town. Inhabitants drove in a set circuit through the centre, to see what was happening and to keep warm. So not only do we find here a social act linked directly to the car, but this slow, linear movement creates a fascinating interplay between the pedestrian and the vehicle. Social interactions can only take place at 5 kmph(7) or less, and this is the speed at which both cars and people travel on Laugavegur, and many choose to do so, simply to see whats happening. Some parallels exist elsewhere, such as the low-riders of the U.S., and the passeggiata of Italy, the latter a pedestrian who follows a circuit to be on show and take in the sights.

What is surely the most important realisation, however, is that while the architectural discourse on style, expression, and form continues on relentlessly, what truly makes people happy is social interaction, more than anything else. It was the unintended error of the Modern movement to prescribe a false notion of urban form, a tabula rasa urbanism(8) - one which made the logical attempt to start again with a clean slate, to effectively engineer our way of living. The result was often too surgical, interning either so many to the societal prisons of tower blocks and suburbs, or conversely, the more fortunate to exclusive prisms of form and function, yet equally removed from society. The reaction of the Post-Modern movement was unanimous in its fundamental conclusions; that we must diversify our cities, learn from the past, and create possibilities, not certainties.

In response to this, the need and desire for a common, sensible language emerged from the rhetoric of the past, and while concrete conclusions and solutions continue even now to remain elusive to the theoreticians and practitioners of architecture, a dialogue has commenced that suggests we might better respect the user, engage in participatory design, and while exploring architecture in its fascinating depth, be aware of the nonsensical and the unrealistic. As he so often has done, Aldo van Eyck poetically warns us that: Whoever attempts to meet man in the abstract will speak with his echo and call this dialogue(9)

However the leading figures of this movement often called for differing solutions for the building and fostering of public space. The writer and theoretician Kevin Lynch appealed for a visible, coherent, and clear(10) urban form, i.e. one which could be read and understood clearly by the city user. Architect Robert Venturi responds with a demand for richness of meaning rather than clarity of meaning(11), suggesting that the successes of the old city were due to its very complexity. In contrast, Jane Jacobs declared that there is a basic esthetic limitation on what can be done with cities: A city cannot be a work of art&(12) What all were agreed upon, however, was that something was fundamentally missing from many modern, artificial(13) cities.

To discover what was missing, some argued, one had only to look towards the world of art. Here, they recognised, was a human endeavour that looked to examine and reflect on our world. While art encompasses all aspects of life, architecture must often house these very aspects, and therefore has a definitive role to play. Venturi has said that architecture [should be] based on the richness and ambiguity of modern experience, including experience which is inherent in art.(14) In short, art could help inform and inspire the attempts to instil a little of the sublime and the beautiful into our public spaces. Furthermore, a more visibly humane architecture might result in the repairing of the battered image of architects. This process can now arguably be seen in the rising interest and respect the public appear to have for architecture. Kevin Lynch put it forward simply, that as an artificial world, the city should be so in the best sense: made by art, shaped for human purposes.(15)

It is something of a concern, however, that much of this dialogue appears to have flourished during the 1970s. Arguably though, the result has been on the one hand recognition of the importance of creating places and not spaces; i.e. an architecture that celebrates and cultivates the event, and on the other, the careful steps that can be taken toward reconciling the profession with a sceptical public. Laugavegur is not the absolute paradigm of public space, in part because no such space is surely realizable or diagnosable, however it presents to those who examine it, many ways in which it supports and encourages public interaction.

In Jane Jacobs The Death and Life of Great American Cities she set out 6 refreshingly sensible and straightforward rules that support a healthy and vibrant urban quarter, which in summary are these: That there should be a clear distinction between what is public and private space(16), there must be eyes upon the street of those who live there(17), and that the sidewalk must have users on it fairly continuously(18). Furthermore, the district must serve more than one primary function, preferably more than two(19), blocks must be short; that is, streets and opportunities to turn corners must be frequent(20), and that the district must mingle buildings that vary in age and condition, including a good proportion of old ones(21). Laugavegur does indeed meet all these criteria, and while being careful not to claim that good public space can be prescribed, it must be recognised that these principles work, and should be considered in regard to all new and regenerated public space and urban planning.

To conclude, it is appropriate to attempt a succinct answer towards the question, What makes a place truly public? Using Laugavegur in Reykjavik as a vehicle, it can be seen that it remains a truly public space because it has largely escaped the trend towards supra-private ownership, zoned development and tower blocks, fundamentally retaining a healthy mix of activities. It is almost a city within a city. New Reykjavik sprawls outwards in ever more sober suburbs, an ad hoc solution to a problem recognised far too late - that the urban fabric must remain dense enough, and diverse enough to foster a genuine and healthy public life. What is also present is the opportunity to be surprised and engaged by a variety of activities, urban life is at its most enjoyable when we can share in the experiences of others; the points at which our horizons expand and our perceptions deepen. The author of the groundbreaking film Koyaanisqatsi, Godfrey Reggio, said in the 1980s that the most important yet largely unnoticed event of our entire history was the transiting from old nature, or the natural environment as our host for human habitation, into a technological milieu, into mass technology as the environment of life(22). In a similar manner, humanity moved from a socially tribal and essentially rural existence into one of alienation and effective domination by the built environment. In the process, how it was articulated and the effects it had on us went largely unexamined, and the first efforts to tackle this were often utopian and clumsy. Furthermore, in our desire for our own private space, we unwittingly divorced ourselves from our past and potential communities. Painfully ironic is the fact that the closer we have become in the physical sense, the more distanced we generally are socially. Places which successfully mediate between these issues, i.e. those which allow people to meet or even just catch a glimpse of each others lives are truly public. They allow a process of reconciliation with our relatively new environment. The city can be a wonderful experience, and modern life is to be celebrated, a truly public place is one which supports these ideas in one way, or another.

Bibliography:

Alexander, Christopher, A City is Not a Tree www.rudi.net/bookshelf/classics/city/alexander

Gehl, Jan, Life Between Buildings  Using Public Space, The Danish Architectural Press,Copenhagen,2001

Jacobs, Jane, The Death and Life of Great American Cities,Jonathan Cape,1962

Jencks, Charles, Theories and Manifestoes of Contemporary Architecture,Willey-Academy,1997 Essays: Kevin Lynch, The Image of the City Jane Jacobs, The Death and Life of Great American Cities Aldo Van Eyck, Team 10 Primer Robert Venturi, Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture Giancarlo de Carlo, Architectures Public Rob Krier, Urban Space Colin Rowe and Fred Koetter, Collage City Joseph Rykwert, Ornament is no Crime Leon Krier, Rational Architecture: The Reconstruction of the City Anthony Vidler, The Third Typology Lynch, Kevin, The Image of the City,MIT Press,2000

1-Jencks, Charles, Theories and Manifestoes of Contemporary Architecture, Willey-Academy,1997,p27 2-Gehl, Jan, Life Between Buildings  Using Public Space, The Danish Architectural Press, Copenhagen 2001,p75 3-Ibid p155 4-Jacobs, Jane, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Jonathan Cape, 1962,p35 5-Gehl, Jan, Life Between Buildings  Using Public Space, The Danish Architectural Press, Copenhagen 2001,p75 6-Ibid p75 7-Gehl, Jan, Life Between Buildings  Using Public Space, The Danish Architectural Press, Copenhagen 2001,p65 8-Jencks, Charles, Theories and Manifestoes of Contemporary Architecture, Willey-Academy,1997,p61 9-Ibid,p27 10-Ibid,p20 11-Ibid,p40 12-Jacobs, Jane, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Jonathan Cape, 1962,p372 13-(Alexander, Christopher, A City is Not a Tree www.rudi.net/bookshelf/classics/city/alexander) 14-Jencks, Charles, Theories and Manifestoes of Contemporary Architecture, Willey-Academy,1997,p40 15-Ibid,p20 16-Jacobs, Jane, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Jonathan Cape, 1962,p35 17-Ibid,p35 18-Ibid,p35 19-Ibid,p152 20-Ibid,p178 21-Ibid,p187 22-Koyaanisqatsi Life Out of Balance: 1983 Director Godfrey Reggio


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Andri Haflidason, Strathclyde University, UK
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