Iceland’s Urban Art and Design Details

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Public art interventions are not new to urban planning, particularly in European cities that have been curating public art collections for centuries. Iceland’s display of public art, while it includes many older sculptures, has taken a unique approach to displaying Icelandic works throughout their public spaces.  While walking around Reykjavik and Akureyri in Iceland this summer, I came to appreciate many surprising pieces of small and large urban art and design. In my previous post I examined how these cities embraced their environment through creative urban forms, architecture, and native flora, on a smaller scale, these cities also use art to enliven their spaces throughout the year.

Large scale murals, covering entire facades of buildings, could be found throughout Reykjavik’s downtown area. Some added bright scenes on an otherwise gray street.  Other’s served to promote Icelandic art or design, such as a mural on the Iceland Design Center.  My favorite though is a large face of an elderly man painted by Guido van Helten in 2013.  According to another blogger, the mural depicts the face of the homeowner’s father and was painted by Guido while he was doing an artist in residency program in Iceland.  The project started with a simple knock on the homeowners door asking if Guido could paint the blank facade of their home, which led to the homeowner sharing a photo of her father that Guido proceeded to paint.  Later in 2014 this same artist was commissioned to paint another series of murals, in the same large-scale style.  These pieces were placed in a run down portion of West Old Town Reykjavik depicting scenes from an Icelandic play from the 1950’s.

Screen Shot 2015-09-01 at 9.33.14 AMIMG_1556 A mural in Reykjavik, a mural by Guido van Helten, and the Icelandic Design Center, photos by the author

Aside from massive, curated mural projects that take much planning and approval from land owners, Reykjavik also had many small-scale artistic interventions focusing your attention to the space often overlooked in a city.  Unique paintings and objects on display particularly brightened up Reykjavik’s Laugavegur shopping street.  These pieces included painting on alleyway walls and the ground, as well as the main street.  Another ad hoc piece that could be considered an art installation was a displayed series of found single gloves on a gateway with a hand written sign searching for their owners. Overall these pieces contributed to the general quirkiness of this neighborhood which allowed it to stand out from its surroundings as a sought after destination in the city.
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Various works on Laugavegur Street in Reykjavik, photos by the author

The city of Akureyri also had many examples of bold and bright street art, however it was a very small intervention of urban design which caught my attention.  The humble stop light was converted to a symbol of optimism, a heart, throughout the city in 2008. Local officials approved the project in 2008 hoping it would bring more light and love to their city despite the world’s gloomy economic atmosphere.  Since then the project has stuck and now hearts can be seen hanging in the windows of many shops and homes throughout the city following this simple movement that began by recreating an everyday urban object to send a message of hope.

Heart Shaped Stop Lights

A heart stop light in Akureyri, photo from 150 Days in Iceland

Iceland’s urban areas had many more urban art projects on display including sculptures such as the Sun Voyager and areas of street art.  While many pieces were not necessarily revolutionary art forms that stood out from other cities, I could tell that Iceland’s urban art scene is trying to find a way to uniquely express local artistic ideas on a larger public scale. By using full facade style murals, on relatively small urban buildings, painters were able to help celebrate Icelandic art and design forms on a broader public scale than simply displaying the original objects and photos inside a museum. Although many tourist, including myself, enjoyed seeing each of these pieces, the true measure of their success to me is how well they were received by the Icelandic public; the residents that happily allowed their homes to be a canvasses, the residents which remembered the play depicted my Guido’s murals and the community on Laugavegur Street that display all the lost gloves artfully for passerby’s.

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Sun Voyager Scuplture in Reykjavik, photo by the author

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