Astrid & Birgir
They had been looking for the right house for a couple of years when they found this old beaten-down wooden house and decided to take on the challenge of restoring it to its former glory, so to speak. They are not new to the idea of renovating houses; as an architect Birgir has had many projects involving the restoration of historic buildings in Belgium, the city they used to live in before moving to Reykjavík.
Astrid, a historian born in Brussels of Portuguese & French parents, and now a Phd student at the University of Iceland, understands her husband’s vision and interest when it comes to the houses they have bought and restored, so in a way she is Birgir’s partner-in-crime in this project, as she has been in others. Seeing photos of their house in Brussels makes you realise that her support is based, without a doubt, on the fact that she knows that the end result will be more than acceptable.
When moving back to Iceland, they first decided on the neighbourhood they wanted to live in, and then waited for two years for the right house to appear. It turned out to be one of Reykjavík’s oldest houses, built in the year 1882 right at the time Reykjavik was growing rapidly bigger causing lack of homes. The city grew from having approximately 2500 habitats when the house was built and went up to 6500 in only 20 years. So at that time because of the shortage their use to leave 25 people in this small home, putting every square meter to good use.
This petite house has a cabin like feeling that embraces you with a warm hug when you enter. The ground floor is a 50 fm2 open space, due to the fact that all the inside walls were removed, allowing the eye to follow the windows that run along the facades. The ceiling, being a little lower than what is normal, gives the space a kind of a cave-like feeling – it kind of hugs you, as only a small wooden house can. They managed to have up to 26 people living on the ground floor and the top floor, something that sounds almost unreal when you look around, but at the time that the house was built there was a severe housing shortage in Reykjavík, so people just made it work. The acoustics in the house are soft and nostalgic, the old wooden floors have been restored after removing layers and layers of carpet, and the walls also had to be discovered beneath layers of paint, wallpaper and plastic panels. The inside of the house smells of tar, since Birgir is restoring the outside using the traditional method of making the house impermeable, covering it with that black, strong-smelling substance.
We ask them if they miss their big house in Brussels, if they miss the excess of space, and they almost simultaneously answer not at all, they like the small scale of the house, its history and the material it is made of. They know almost every wooden beam, after scraping back all the decades of past decoration trends, to leave it stripped of everything. They even have a small plate full of nails that they intend to keep, all of which they personally removed from the ceiling with their bare hands – hundreds of them, and there are still some left. As with anyone that falls in love with their home after having made a huge effort to make it their own, Astrid tells us what she likes most about the house. She says it is never the same, you always see a different perspective, so she can just sit in the living room and let the eye wander around the house while the cat goes and has its usual sip of water from the fish tank. Their two sons run freely to and from school, another thing she likes, as well as the fact that the neighbourhood is like a small village and is close to the sea.
The house has a basement, the future purpose of which Birgir and Astrid have not yet decided: “maybe a wine cellar”, says Birgir giving a small grin that is easy to read into. Wine culture in Iceland still has a long way to go compared to most countries in Europe and a wine cellar is only a distant dream for most Icelanders. But by the time the wine cellar is in place they will probably also have finished opening the house on to the small garden, through a new and bigger staircase, and the garden itself will have turned into something more peculiar and beautiful than it already is if Astrid keeps on designing it. It will be interesting to see the final result and to hear if there is already another project in their heads – they look like people who enjoy the idea of collecting houses. We will keep you informed either way.
Text: Auður Gná // Photography: Íris Ann