Tuesday, 30 October 2012
The Harpa and John Lennon's Peace Beam.
A day off from teaching and a chance to reconnect with Reykjavik. In many ways the city has changed little over the last decade. The shops on the main street seem as quirky as ever, it's still tough to get a seat in a coffee shop. Some development has taken place downtown however. The lonely statue of two sailors looking out across the sea has been rather swamped by an extended car park built to support the Harpa, a new concert hall built overlooking the bay.
Behind it a new kind of tourism has replaced the bobbing fishing boats. There are cafes, burger bars and whale watching tours. A new hotel filled with tiny, but warm boxed rooms over looks this revamped commercial centre.
The crash affected Iceland very badly. Possibly as much psychologically as financially. In my visits here ten years ago I'd always been aware of a basic level of prosperity, particularly in the city. A snug insular world of warm home comforts designed to provide protection from the huge wilderness of the rest of the island. Now there seems to be a slightly a more outward looking approach. Iceland is less a place for tourists to discover much more a centre catering for their needs and the Harpa itself which sits so prominently on the shore makes a bold statement that Iceland is open for business and keen to attract investors. Beyond the glass fronted exterior are spacious foyers, welcoming cafes, several beautifully proportioned concert halls and an expansive sense of possibility.
Perhaps there are some lessons here. The centre was planned before the slump and the decision to push ahead with it's building even during a time of rising unemployment and a devaluing of the currency - at one point the Krona lost 80% of its value - was controversial to say the least. But as Icelanders were faced with the need to reassess their own values and concerns (a process we in the UK may still have to face) it appears to have been a master stroke. Rich countries always believe that an ability to consume is a mark of prosperity - but Icelanders were forced to re prioritise and increasingly turned to culture and art, to look both for solutions and solace. It might break up the flat horizon of the seeming unlimited shoreline but the Harpa does stand as an optimistic symbol, attracting international musicians and audiences to Reykjavik.
At nightfall the Imagine Peace Beam shoots up vertically from the tiny island of Videy in the bay. Designed by Yoko Ono, it's lit every year on John Lennon's birthday 9th October and shines heavenward until December 8th, the day of his assassination. Lennon never visited Iceland, but Yoko chose to base the installation here because of the countries position on the tectonic fault line between Europe and America. It makes a powerful statement in the unpolluted night sky.