Expanded Víkurgarður Protection Draws Criticism

The Cultural Heritage Agency’s decision to expand the boundaries of the protected area around Víkurgarður square is now being challenged by the Reykjavík District Attorney, who says that the proposed placement of a new hotel entrance will not disturb any historical artefacts, RÚV reports. Although hotel construction on the site had resumed with the agency’s approval, the organisation made the snap decision in January to expand the previously designated area of protection around the square, citing the location of one of the hotel’s entrances as its motivation for doing so.

The Víkurgarður site – which stands atop an ancient cemetery – has been the cause of heated debate between those who want to see it protected from development and those who say that the hotel that is to be constructed there will not disturb any artefacts of historical import. Current real estate estimates value the plot at close to ISK 775 million ($6.5m/€5.7m), but the site also has a long and storied history: Víkurgarður was the site of one of Iceland’s first Christian cemeteries, which was established in the 11th century, shortly after Iceland adopted Christianity. The cemetery was officially demolished in 1838, but burials continued there until 1883.

Months of debate

Construction on the site was originally halted in November, when a coffin was found during the initial excavation. Construction then resumed almost exactly a month later, when the Cultural Heritage Agency suggested that protection of the area should only cover the part that is classified as an official city square in city plans. This would then leave the area surrounding the concrete square unprotected and would allow hotel construction to continue.

In January, however, the Cultural Heritage Agency made the decision to widen the previous protection boundaries, because one of the new hotel’s entrance is slated to extend out toward the square. This decision came as a surprise to the developers. “We expect this is based on some misunderstanding,” remarked Jóhannes Stefánsson, the managing director of the Lindarvatn Real Estate Developers. “…[T]he area that’s been granted instant protection is just gravel; there are no artefacts there that necessitate [protection].”

Agency “doesn’t have the authority”

Ebba Schram, the City of Reykjavík’s District Attorney echoed Lindarvatn’s assertion during a City Council meeting on Thursday, saying that not only is the sudden protection status not in keeping with established laws on the protection of cultural heritage, but moreover, the proposed entrance will not disturb any artefacts or remains.

During her sharply worded address, Ebba maintained that the agency had not provided any evidence that artefacts would be destroyed or damaged if one of the hotel entrances does eventually face Víkurgarður. Hotel guest foot traffic does not represent any change to how Víkurgarður is currently used, she said, noting that the paved square has been a park since 1883 and open to the public since the end of World War II. The idea that hotel guests will prevent the park from maintaining its protected status is then, she said, baseless, as hotel guest foot traffic will not change anything about the appearance or future use of the square.

The DA continued that the Cultural Heritage Agency had had ample time to come forward with complaints about the design plans, even well before the coffin was discovered on the site in 2018. She also said that the Cultural Heritage Agency did not have the authority to issue instant protection out of hand.

As of this writing, it remains uncertain whether the hotel will be built according to its original specifications.

Cultural Heritage Agency Blocks Hotel Construction Again

Landssímareitur.

The Cultural Heritage Agency of Iceland has temporarily protected the eastern section of the historic Víkurkirkjugarður cemetery, putting a halt to the construction of a much-debated hotel in the heart of downtown Reykjavík. The action prohibits all construction on the site, which overlaps the eastern part of the cemetery, for a period of six weeks. The agency hopes the Minister of Culture will agree to protect the area permanently. Vísir reported first.

In a press release published yesterday, the agency stated they had decided to temporarily protect the eastern part of the former cemetery, located inside the building lot. The reason cited for the decision was that the cemetery is a relic connected to Icelandic tradition and customs.

Víkurkirkjugarður, established in the 11th century, was one of Iceland’s first Christian cemeteries. Though it was officially demolished in 1838, burials continued on the site until 1883. The building lot, which is expected to be the future site of the Iceland Parliament Hotel, overlaps the eastern part of the cemetery. Originally set to open in 2018, the hotel’s construction has previously been delayed by the Cultural Heritage Agency after remains of a coffin were found on the site.

Disagree over hotel entry

According to their press release, the Cultural Heritage Agency asserts they had proposed changes to the design of the hotel entrance, which is to face the cemetery, and believed their proposal had been accepted by Lindarvatn, the property owner. The agency expresses dismay that the hotel’s design includes two entrances from the former cemetery, which they consider unacceptable. Lindarvatn CEO Jóhannes Stefánsson says the agency’s decision comes as a complete surprise. He points out that the area in question is currently open to pedestrians and houses bars, restaurants, and apartments, and the hotel would not change the area’s use.

Propose permanent protection

Minister of Education and Culture Lilja Alfreðsdóttir decided yesterday to accept the Cultural Agency’s proposal to protect the part of Víkurkirkjugarður that lies outside the hotel building lot. The Cultural Heritage Agency hopes to convince the minister to expand the protected area to include the section of the cemetery within the building lot, which they have now temporarily protected.

Hotel Construction Stopped by Cultural Heritage Agency

Excavation by Austurvöll

The Cultural Heritage Agency of Iceland stopped construction of a hotel in downtown Reykjavík after the remains of a coffin were found by the site yesterday, RÚV reports. Kristín Huld Sigurðardóttir, the agency’s director, says it is necessary to investigate the area where the remains were found, which served as a cemetery from the 11th century until 1883.

The lot, located between Iceland’s Parliament and the Settlement Museum, is the former site of Víkurkirkjugarður, one of Iceland’s first Christian cemeteries. Víkurkirkjugarður was established in the 11th century, shortly after Christianity was adopted in Iceland. The cemetery was officially demolished in 1838, but burials continued there until 1883.

The Cultural Heritage Agency would like to make the site a protected area. The City of Reykjavík has previously stated it does not consider there to be grounds for special protection.

The hotel under construction, named the Iceland Parliament Hotel, is to be operated by Icelandair Hotels under the brand Curio by Hilton. Originally set to open this year, the hotel is planned to have 160 rooms.

Challenge the City to Stop Construction in Ancient Cemetery

It’s almost unheard of that the earthly remains of people in hallowed ground are made to give way for a secular building, state three honorary citizens of Reykjavík, who yesterday presented the mayor and chairman of the city council with a challenge to stop the construction of a hotel in the city centre, RÚV reports. The hotel in question is to be built partially over an old cemetery.

Construction has started on tearing down the Landssími building by Austurvöllur square, which is to be replaced by a hotel. The construction has been controversial, not least because the new hotel is to have a cellar, part of which will be built over the ancient Vík cemetery. The cemetery is where the people of Reykjavík were buried for the most part of the last millennium, probably from the 11th century until the 19th.

A challenge to stop the construction was delivered to mayor Dagur B. Eggertsson and city council chairman Þórdís Lóa Þórhallsdóttir today, by honorary citizens of Reykjavík Vigdís Finnbogadóttir, former president of Iceland, Þorgerður Ingólfsdóttir, musician, and Friðrik Ólafsson, chess grandmaster and former office manager of the parliament.

Friðrik read the challenge and reminded everyone present that the earthly remains of those buried in the cemetery had been removed two years ago. “It’s almost unheard of that the earthly remains of people in hallowed ground are made to give way to a secular building. This is blatant disrespect for our history and the memory of our forefathers.”

Buildings in ancient cemeteries are not in compliance with laws about cemeteries.

“We challenge the city of Reykjavík and the builders of the hotel to drop the intended construction that will predictably cause irreparable damage to this fragile and historic place in the heart of the capital,” said Friðrik.

Dagur told Vísir that he”understood their concerns over construction in a key location in the heart of the city. We had the issue looked over carefully. The cemetery hasn’t been used since 1837 and that’s something that the city considered when making its decisions. We will go over the challenge and present it to the city council.” Þórdís Lóa claimed to be happy that citizens care about the city’s issues. but that the construction was so far along that it would be difficult to stop.