|Bringing Down the House|
|Written by Iceland Review|
|Wednesday, 11 January 2012 11:09|
From the outside, it is most unassuming. This quaint old timber house, pastel green in color, quietly standing in a corner of Reykjavík’s principal square Austurvöllur, is utterly overshadowed by the majestic and historic buildings that border the square, including the Alþingi parliament building, Reykjavík Cathedral and Hotel Borg.
But once you enter it, you know you’re about to experience something very special. Since 2001, this age-old house referred to as NASA (don’t ask me why), has been the beating heart of Reykjavík’s music scene.
Photo by Páll Kjartansson.
Here, musicians whether international or local, world-famous or unknown, continue to conjure up an atmosphere so palpable and exciting that it all but seeps down the walls.
What makes you fall in love with the place the moment you enter is the venue’s design. Oozing old-school charm, it really is an architectural gem among the city’s modernist minimalist concrete jungle.
Dating back to 1946, the design of the dance hall on the ground floor is classic: a large floor flanked on three sides by a slightly elevated carpeted seating area decked out with tables, chairs, couches—and bars, of course.
The balustrade, among many original elements that still remain, is decorated with beautiful glass carvings from the animal kingdom.
The house itself was built as early as 1878 to accommodate a girls’ school, making it a vital part of Iceland’s history of the fight for gender equality.
It operated as such until 1943, when the Independence Party purchased it and made its upper floor its headquarters.
From then on, it became known as Sjálfstæðishúsið (the House of the Independence Party). The dance hall they installed in 1946 was initially intended as a venue for the party’s meetings.
Soon, however, it became a popular meeting place. For example, regular afternoon get-togethers were frequented by many of the city’s most prominent inhabitants, including Nobel Prize in Literature-winning author Halldór Laxness.
Today, the intimacy of the venue causes the crowd to tightly squeeze together and sway in unity on the dance floor in front of the stage, often standing on tables and perching on the balustrade as the night wears on. No fancy, full-fledged music hall could ever compare to the atmosphere of such a cozy setting.
Only if these walls could speak. Actually, on second thought… better if they didn’t.
I have endless memories of fantastic concerts at NASA. I have been lucky enough to enjoy performances there by international acts such as Belle & Sebastian, Franz Ferdinand, Antony and the Johnsons and Damien Rice (twice!).
Of course, at NASA, I have also witnessed lots and lots of great acts by Icelandic musicians, many of whom were taking their first steps into the musical scene.
Mugison’s debut performance back in 2004 comes to mind.
In case you didn’t know it, he's Iceland’s sweetheart. His new album, Haglél, has sold more than 29,000 copies for which he thanked his fans by giving a series of free concerts at Eldborg, Harpa’s main hall.
Haglél was not just the highest selling album in Iceland last year, it was also voted best album by critics.
At Rás 2 (“Radio 2”), a state-run radio station, Mugison was voted Man of the Year. He is even regarded to be among the contenders in the upcoming presidential race.
Back in 2004, an absolute beginner, Mugison made a lasting mark on everyone present with his rugged charm and crazy riffs on his guitar.
That night at NASA, he was there as a participant of the music festival Iceland Airwaves, performing alongside many other fine acts.
In fact, NASA has always been among the festival’s most important venues. Earlier this week, the festival’s organizer Grímur Atlason went as far as calling the house’s impending demolition a catastrophe.
Yes, you read this correctly. On June 1st, the house is scheduled for demolition. It must make room for yet another hotel at the adjacent Ingólfstorg Square.
What a shame!
And not just because it is among Iceland’s most important concert venues.
This is the only proper community center that Reykjavík can call its own. In Iceland, every single town and village has one. It hosts more than concerts: at NASA I’ve attended birthday parties, election rallies and even fashion shows.
Moreover, its rich and long history makes it a priceless gem in Iceland’s architectural crown.
It’s not just a pillar of the women’s rights movement, but this house plays a key role in Icelandic theatrical history. For instance, it hosted the hugely successful Blue Star, Reykjavík’s very first revue theater operated by the Independence Party’s junior league.
In the latter half of the twentieth century it hosted a string of performances by the city’s colleges, especially by Menntaskólinn í Reykjavík, which is located nearby.
Oh, and from 1963 the house was leased for many years as a nightclub called Sigtún. And that is why I can proudly say that I owe my very existence to this house.
In late July 1968, this is where my father asked my mother to dance for the first time. And, as they say, the rest is history.
|Last Updated on Thursday, 12 January 2012 01:32|