Fast Ruins. Nature and Modernity in Iceland.

by Gavin Lucas

A common contemporary perception of Icelandic ruins aligns itself with the familiar trope of European ruin gazing since the 18th century – an aesthetic of beauty and heritage linked firmly to both the rural landscape and the past of the nation. While in part associated with older ruins now visible only as grassy earthworks, the subtlety of these features as ruins often eludes the average person – indeed, ruin finding as part of routine archaeological surveys, often requires a lot of experience and a trained eye.

Perhaps a more common ruin is the 19th and early 20th century farmhouse; often these are built from traditional turf and stone and reference a 1000 year vernacular heritage. The site of Hörgsdalur in the northeast of the country is a typical example, one I visited several years ago now and abandoned in 1957. It displays all the characteristics of an authentic ruin to use Andreas Huyssen‘s terminology – a structure in the full process of decay and collapse, and is in distinct contrast to the stabilized or actively preserved ruins which characterize the dominant theme of European heritage.

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But it is not just such traditional turf and stone buildings which are the subject of modern ruin gazing in Iceland – even more recent, concrete farmsteads have become a focus of interest, as expressed well in the work of the photographer Nökkvi Elíasson who has been around the country visiting many of the hundred of abandoned farms (www.islandia.is/~nokkvi).

Such contemporary fascination with abandoned rural farmsteads from less than a century ago speaks as much to the urban Icelander of their rural roots as it does of any classical ruin aesthetic. Most Icelanders still like to trace their origins to a particular farm, where their parents, grandparents or great grandparents once lived. In part an urban nostalgia for rural roots, it also expresses a more deeper part of personal belonging to a particular place. Many families who have long since moved to the cities or towns may still own these abandoned farms and some will build summerhouses on them.

It is interesting to contrast this urban ruin imaginary with a rural one; a common and recurrent theme among many people who are still living on farms is a contrastingly negative perception of ruins – especially those lying within the homefield. For many, it is seen almost as a duty to level such ruins as it spoils the aesthetic of the natural landscape; although there is clearly also a practical aspect to this (ruins diminished the potential hay yield of a homefield), the notion of ruin razing rather than ruin gazing typifies the rural aesthetic and can be traced back at least to the early 20th century and is still present today. This is well illustrated in an extract from an autobiography of a poor farmer called A Story of a Small Farm (Saga smábýlis 1920-1940, pp.48-9), which describes how he built his property up to become a successful modern farm:

Early next spring we had a long period of good weather when the ground had defrosted. Then my wife and I along with our children always went for a “tear-down”, whenever the weather was suitable and we had any spare time; by that time, the old delapidated buildings had already started to disappear. We did not rip them down so that they left bumps or hills on the ground, but rather cut these carbuncles off the beautiful field and made it completely level, where wretched ruins had stood before. In many places we also needed to fill in the land. Among others the locations where the old cabbage gardens used to be. Outside and above the homefield there was a big hill in a location that would have been ideal for new outhouses. This hill and all the other wavy old turfwalls inside the homefield we quarried little by little like the old outhoses and the ruins and by that means, we got enough material to fill in the depressions. When all this levelling and earthmoving had finished and the homefield was completely levelled, 5-6000 carts had been moved…

Such ruin razing could be arguably linked to a modernist discourse about agricultural productivity and improvement and thus is the ironic counterpoint to the urban aesthetic of ruin gazing which is anxious about a past to which it fears a disconnection. Yet perhaps the true urban counterpart to this ruin razing is the perception of urban ruins by city dwellers, where the abandoned factory, warehouse or residence is perceived in exactly the same way as the farmer towards old ruins in his or her homefield – an eyesore, or blot on the landscape. Ruins as garbage or trash – or ruins as art and heritage? This is the familiar paradox which most contempoary scholars of ruins have, of course, to address.

In this paper, however, I want to look at another aspect of ruins, one which is generally perceived as more exlusive to modern ruins – their untimely nature. In fact, to paraphrase Henry James,  the modern ruin might even be considered an impossibility insofar as modern architecture is not built to last. This was a particularly strong trope in 19th and early 20th c. America as the work of Nick Yablon has shown, where ruins were often perceived as too recent and thus did not fit the classical aesthetic model of the ruin. The very speed of contemporary architectural re-building has also been suggested to play in to this idea of the impossibility of modern ruins; buildings don‘t even get a chance (or are designed) to age or decay, but are pulled down and new ones re-built before they can enter the ruin stage of the life cycle.

This of course fits nicely with the ubiquitous contemporary discourse on speed, modernity and hyper-consumption, which Connerton has recently connected up with modernist forms of forgetting. Such ideas perhaps suggest not so much the impossibility of ruins though as the acceleration of the processes of ruination. Indeed, one of the recurrent characteristics of many modern ruins is that ruination occurs not through nature (after abandonment), but through human acts of violence and destruction – from the bombed out cities of WWII to the World Trade Center. Such accelerated ruination reaches its limit in what Yablon (after Smithson) has called ruins in reverse – i.e. the abandoned building site of a half-finished construction. Such sites are ruins even before they have been finished. There is a nice example of this just round the corner from me, and one of our students Gisli Palsson has looked at similar buildings in the context of the recent financial collapse.

It is this relation of speed and the ruin that I wish to address today and through my case studies on this Ruin Memories Project.  The example I gave at the start of my talk – that slowly decaying farmstead in Hörgsdalur – is thus in some ways the antithesis of the kind of ruins I will focus on here. Not slow ruins but fast ones. My two sites in Iceland are separated only by about 30 years in terms of their ruination, and offer many similarities and contrasts, which helps to complexify the analysis. The first site is on the Vestmann islands off the southcoast of Iceland, where a volcanic eruption buried a third of the town on the main inhabited island of Heimaey under lava and pumice in the 1970s; the second site is on Viðey, a small island in the bay of Reykjavik which housed a small community based on the fishing industry but was gradually abandoned and de-populated in the 1940s. I should state at the outset that I only very much in the early stages of this research so much of what I have to say is sketchy and inevitably preliminary.

Viðey

The island of Viðey lies in the bay of Reykjavík and has a prestigious history: it housed one of the wealthiest monasteries in pre-Reformation Iceland; was home to one of the most eminent members of Icelandic society in the 18th century who built a stone house on the island, one of the few such at the time. It has thus long had a close link with the social and political elite of Iceland and been a place of major historical importance. However, at the eastern end of the island are the remains of an early 20th c. village and fishing station which are rather less well known.

Around 1900, the island was bought by a priest for his son, who was something of an entrepreneur; Eggert Briem etsablished large-scale milk production to supply the expanding town of Reykjavík, but he was also considering the potential of the island as a harbour for fishing and trading vessels as Reykjavík at the time did not have its own harbour. In 1907, joint stock company was formed which allegedly aimed at a capital investment of 1m kr – to put it in some perspective, this was the equivalent of the govt budget for the same year. Eggert Briem leased the island to this company for 99 years, although later the company purchased the island outright. The company however went bankrupt in 1914, but  new owners took over and the activity on the island continued. At its peak, c. 300 ships and 60,000 tons of goods and produce passed through the facilities at Viðey; the settlement essentially comprised of 2 elements: the harbour and station (stöðin) and the associated village for housing the workers and their families (Sundbakki). From a population of just 25 in 1901, a few years before operations started, by 1910 the population had expanded to 108 and peaked at c. 200 by the late 1920s. From the 1930s onwards however, the effects of the global Depression and then WWII led to the gradual demise of the settlement. In 1943, the last remaining 7 families left the island.

This was a short-lived settlement lasting only c. 3 decades but plays a central part in the developing industrialization and urbanization of Iceland; although Reykjavik was founded in the late 18th century, throughout the 19th century it remained really just a small village. The major period of growth only came with the advent of British fishing trawlers in c. 1890 and foreign loan capital in 1904; over the first three decades of the 20th century Icelandic fishing became mechanized leading to massive increases in catch and the need for labour to process this catch – all largely geared towards an export economy. With economic growth, came rising population and settlement nucleation. The establishment of the village and station at Viðey occurs precisely at the beginning of this process; ultimately the services provided there were taken over by Reykjavík as it established its own harbour.

What is left of this village is actually rather little; concrete foundation platforms for the most part, with a school building from the village being the only structure to remain standing and actively maintained. Many of the timber houses were taken down and re-built in Reykjavik or elsewhere while others were recycled as firewood. Walking along the main street of the village of Sundbakki today is almost like walking through a series of vacant housing lots, waiting to be built. Most tourists who visit Viðey primarily go to the historic homestead and many are even unware of the abandoned village that lies on the other end of the island. Nonetheless, the area has been incorporated into heritage management with signs, display boards and a small exhibition housed in the old school building.

There is also a Viðey society that exists largely as a means of keeping people who once lived at the village in touch with each other and keeping its history alive. As far as can be ascertained, it was established in 1974, 30 years after the last families left and is clearly an attempt to keep the memory of the place alive; one of its leading members still takes occasional tours around the village. However, the current attitude towards the ruins is ambivalent; while the members of the society make use of a renovated water tank on the site for their meetings, for many former inhabitants, returning to the site is a disappointment. Let me end with this quote from the unpublished autobiography of a former inhabitant who shall remain anonymous:

In 1990, I went on a group trip to Viðey…. I was of course interested to see the ruins of the settlement that once was, even if one could say that I was a little late for that. In fact I probably would have needed to have got there decades before to catch sight of some proper remains of the people´s settlement in this location. In short I have not seen a more miserable place: half collapsed walls, floorboards without walls, nothing that even slightly recalled the people that were born in this place, lived there and worked there, and yes even died there. There was a dead silence over the whole area, except the screeching of the blackbacked gulls that seem to have taken over the island. The only sign of human activity was the old watertank, that had been changed into the hearquarters of the Viðey society.

Heimaey

The story of Heimaey offers quite a contrast. Heimaey is the main settled island of the Vestmann isles, a group of islands off the south coast of Iceland. The island has been settled since the Viking period but as with the rest of Iceland, it was only with the rise of industrialized fishing that the settlement expanded. The 1950s and 1960s were especially periods of prosperity and growth for the island, with population on the increase, new heighbourhoods built and modern services and public amenities installed. This boom was all based on fishing – in 1971, the islands alone accounted for 12% of the total fish exports of Iceland.

However, around 1 am in the morning on 23rd January 1973, a fissure opened and erupted on the island just 400m east of the town; the eruption continued for nearly half a year only ending in the beginning of July. All of the 5300 population of the town was evacuated on the first night within 6 hours, mostly on fishing boats. About one third of the town was buried under lava or pumice – c. 400 homes and another third damaged or partially covered.

A few people stayed on the island to salvage belongings from threatened houses and also slaughter some of the livestock; . Later a larger rescue team arrived on the island and considerable manpower was dedicated to try and salvage as much as possible from the houses still standing yet under a threat. From available documentation it seems as if the houses were almost completely stripped of all internal furinishings and goods and even some re-moveable architectural parts (doors, windows, radiators), so it is difficult to know what or how much material culture remains buried inside the houses.

There was only one human fatality, a man who died from carbon monoxide poisoning. There were also efforts to slow the prorgress of lava by pumping sea water onto it, with some success. Indeed, the whole rescue and response action taken to the eruption is persistently and explicitly narrated as a battle against the forces of Nature. The fact that the inhabitants later returned and rebuilt and cleared the island is often portrated as their victory over nature which remains the dominant trope in which the eruption is portrayed even today.

One of the consequences of this narrative however has been a recent fear of forgetting the event itself; as part of the battle against Nature and reclaiming the island from the volcano, the people erased mostl traces of the eruption – pumice was cleared away, vegetation was planted to cover the new volcanic surfaces – only a few half-buried or ruined structures remained to remind people of the devastation. This effective erasure of the event combined with the normal generational change as increasing numbers of the younger portion of the population have no personal memory of the event have recently created an anxiety that the event might be forgotten. The fear of forgetting is linked to the fact that today, the population defines itself and its identity through this eruption – to forget the eruption would take away theit strongest sense of self identity.

As a result, in the past few years has there been a more active attempt to memorialize the eruption. Besides a number of individual initiatives, municipal commemoration began in 2003 with a grant to set up an exhibit in the local museum about the eruption; in 2005, the most ambitious project was launched called Pompeii of the North, where a number of houses buried in pumice were proposed for excavation as part of a new museum dedicated to the event. To date, one street has been cleared and the edges of several houses exposed; currently the project seems to have stalled or slowed to a snail pace, possibly due to internal political or financial differences although it is very unclear, but the excavation area itself almost seems to be turning into a ruin now!

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It is not entirely clear how the community feel about the excavation – there does not appear to have been any major outcry and indeed, after the eruption the town council bought up all the properties and land buried in the eruption so former residents legally have no claims on the ruins or their contents. However a story – as yet uncorroborated I should add – about a gold watch may reveal some potential concerns about this; it is reported that an old lady was hoping the people digging up the houses  would find an old watch that had been left in the eruption in her house, which was one of those planned to be unearthed, but when questioned, a member of the town council quipped that the watch now was the property of the municipality and she would have no claim on it. However, the general feeling one has is that on the whole this excavation is seen as a positive move, especially in relation to tourism and in fact on many brochures and literature, tourists are invited to take part in the excavation. On the other hand, there has been a relative lack of interest if not resistance to collaborating with archaeologists on this scheme – for whatever reasons. Right now, it is very difficult to predict what will become of this excavation.

Discussion

As I mentioned at the outset, I have only just begun to look at these two places so the direction I am taking here is rather tentative and still vague, but it revolves around the notion of speed. At first glance, the cases would appear to be contrasting in terms of this issue of speed – Heimaey was buried rapidly under volcanic lava and ash, while Viðey witnessed a gradual process of abandonment. However there are two issues which complicate this view.

The first relates to the very ontology of a ruin itself – when is a ruin a ruin? The question with Heimaey is whether a building buried under lava and ash constitutes a ruin or not, until it has been exposed or excavated. Is it in fact rather not more like conventional buried archaeology? This raises interesting issues about the relation between ruins and buried archaeological remains; some ruins, like the classic case of Pompeii, surely only became ruins through archaeological excavation in an act which almost reverses the normal or conventional arrow of entropy (living building – ruin – archaeological site). But of course such reversed ruins – to use the phrase in a different way than earlier – are also ruins which usually conform to the modern heritage aesthetic where the very process of ruination is arrested. Such ruins are opposed to the authentic ruin in the sense of a ruin which is actively decaying. Only if they cease to be maintained, do they then become real ruins. This is what I have suggested is starting to happen on Heimaey – the houses buried in ash, once excavated become heritage ruins, or arrested ruins, but as the project stalls, they actually become authentic ruins for the first time.

We can now link this theme up to the ruins on Viðey. For the most part, there is very little to see there except concrete foundations except in a few cases, and as a site of ruins, it is actually half sinking into the ground and being covered by vegetation –  halfway to becoming buried archaeology. How does one deal with such liminal ruins – which are not yet buried archaeology but also not the extensive remains one might expect of a recent ruin, still in the sloe process of decay? Indeed, in both cases – Heimaey and Viðey,we are dealing with border ruins, structures which have one foot in buried archaeology and one foot above the ground – but heading in different directions. Viðey sinks deeper towards being a buried site while Heimaey peeks out with the potential of reversed ruins á la Pompeii.

The second issue concerns the speed of ruination; for while Heimaey was in one sense ruined faster than Viðey, in another sense the Viðey ruination was also fairly rapid; even though Viðey witnessed a gradual abandonment over several years, the ruination process involving the dismantling and relocation of buildings was quick – few buildings were simply left to rot or slowly decay. In this sense the ruination of homes on Heimaey and Viðey was extremely fast when compared to a more conventional ruin like the Hörgsdalur example I gave at the start.

These fast ruins on Heimaey and Viðey also belie any easy opposition between human and non-human agencies or Nature and Culture – the typical fast ruin of modernity is due to human violence or the speed of capitalism – while the case of Viðey may relate to the latter, the case of Heimaey demonstrates there is no clear or necessary need to draw on such oppositions in exploring this issue of modern ruins. Furthermore, the ethic of salvage and re-use which accompanied the ruination of houses at both locations also goes against the grain of the dominant ethic of accelarated capitalism, with its focus on the new and discard of the old.

So my project involves some rather problematic examples; perhaps, because I am more of a conventional field archaeologist who likes to dig, I sub-consciously chose ruins of ambiguous status, half-buried. Indeed, part of me even feels a ruin envy for those of you working on more susbtantial remains. But there is more to it than this. The speed of ruination is in many ways vitally important in the context of modernity and one of the key things I would like to explore through this project is how this speed – not of abandonment per se but material ruination – relates to individual and collective memory as well as issues of ruin aesthetics.

With Viðey, such memories are almost dead – few people are alive today who lived and knew the settlement during its occupation; how will such memory metaphorphasize as social or historical memory take over? Indeed, the very unstable and mobile population that made up the community on Viðey, even for its short lifespan, will surely impact on such issyes. On Heimaey in contrast, population continuity – though by no means total – has meant that the identity of the islanders is closely bound up with the eruption. Moreover, the dying out of individual memory is still decades off. Yet already, nearly 40 years on, a fear of forgetting has set in and the community is responding with this attempt to re-excavate lost houses, in order to provide a material witness to the past. On Heimaey in particular, it will be the very creation and maintenance of ruins that may slow the very process down.

These are some of the key themes I will by trying to address in this project, and so my next steps will be focused on exploring in detail the personal, collective and official responses to the ruins in question. Through interviews with people and further study and photography of the ruins themselves, I hope to try and understand something of the nature of such fast ruins in the contemporary world.