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Man Builds Palace of Recycled Things in an Icelandic Junkyard

We spoke to film director Hrafn Gunnlaugsson about his hand-built home, gypsy witchcraft, and stewardesses.
August 9, 2015, 12:20pm
Images credits to Jesse Norton under Creative Commons License. 

On Reykjavík’s edge, overlooking the icy waters of the North Atlantic, is a curious dwelling surrounded by a junkyard. Time-worn sculptures made from old ship parts, satellite dishes and driftwood are strewn across the landscape. Other salvaged objects and piles of concrete, glass, and stone have found a place to call home in a city filled with clean-cut, Scandinavian-style architecture.

A rusty Viking warrior at the property’s edge acts as a greeting, and an all-seeing eye glares from the end of the driveway. Set on a rooftop, a raven fashioned from a wire coathanger surveys the area. Small temples scatter the grounds, paying homage to Norse gods, Christian deities, and Buddhist icons. It’s a startling fusion of ideas with no consistent theme; a living display, a space always changing and always incomplete.


Close by is a stone chimney resting on some rocks, a set of old bicycle wheels abandoned in snow-covered bushes, and crescent moons that form part of a giant makeshift solar system. Everything has been purposefully arranged, yet seems to be in total disarray. It would be easy to call this sight a clumsy creation, but there’s more to it than that.

In the centre of the plot is a low-lying house, its outer walls covered in tribal masks and religious talismans. It’s a fiery, provocative structure of metal and old wood, its exterior painted in reds, yellows, oranges, and blues. At the back of it, built just a few feet from a stretch of private shoreline, is an enormous iron patio—heavy metal that has stood the test of time.

This experiment in recycled architecture is the home of Hrafn Gunnlaugsson, a 66-year-old film director whose acclaimed work played an important role in the creation of this exhibition. “I was looking for a place to build the decorations for my movies,” he explains. “This was an old house, falling apart, and they were planning to tear it down. So I bought it.”

Bumbling and eccentric, Gunnlaugsson navigates the terrain without hesitation, keen to explain the purpose and meaning of each part. Everything is a work in progress, awaiting further development on his whim. “There was a gypsy woman living here and practicing witchcraft. This part of the house is for any witchcraft,” he says, stepping inside a shack below the metal decking of the ground floor. “She left last week. You can still see the chicken’s feet.”

This collection of rescued and reused items offers a visual journey through Gunnlaugsson’s passions. It may be known as the city’s recycled house, but this dwelling pays homage to its owner’s love of objects more than his concern for environmental issues. “I find the materials and I become friends with them. I build everything here myself, sometimes with help from others,” he explains.

The central building consists of three haphazardly-constructed levels, each protruding out in a different direction. There’s no obligation to tradition in terms of design; the house is in a constant state of growth, brimming with ideas that can’t be contained. “I was given the name Hrafn. That means raven,” he says with a chuckle. “I think it goes with the name: Ravens like to collect things. Maybe I can blame the habit on my name.”

The dimly-lit, cavernous interior is open-plan—everything visible at once after entering. A conservatory-style living room is furnished with ageing redwood pieces made by a Viennese missile expert. Everything is bespoke, handmade, hand-gathered; there’s attention to detail in the objects selected, visceral even if their placement seems peculiar. The oak kitchen counters hold drinking glasses, stuffed animals, and piles of paperwork. Shelves are weighed down with family photographs, kitschy collectibles, and jars filled with dubious substances. One is filled with pickled snakes, another holds a Cuban viagra potion.

Upstairs, cozied into an attic space, are two bedrooms and a bathroom. It’s the simplest floor, and the only conventional part of the house. Underground, the basement features a Roman bath, a wooden gym, and an ever-deepening hole that Gunnlaugsson digs when he’s depressed. “Iceland is very small. There are not many people to talk to. To keep myself from dying of boredom, I keep on doing something with the house. Like digging.”

Gunnlaugsson’s home has appeared on tourist maps and in guidebooks over recent years, and unexpected guests have become the norm: “Tourists, people from other countries. A lot of Icelanders too. They sometimes come in groups from holiday companies.” Though he’s not spurred on by the fame or gratification, Gunnlaugsson’s happy to share his ramshackle home with visitors. “I enjoy people coming here. Often I meet a lot of beautiful ladies here,” he grins. “Once, there were maybe 50 of them, a union of stewardesses. They stayed here for two hours. Very beautiful ladies.”

During his career in the film industry, Gunnlaugsson was known for his provocative offerings; full of sex and violence, his art garnered little in the way of moral approval. Since then, he has maintained his role as a troublemaker through this architectural project. “This house has been a headache for the Council of Reykjavik. It used to be much bigger. It went all the way up to the road there,” he says, seemingly unfazed. “It had two little ponds with lots of birds and things. And there were many sculptures and other objects. Five years ago, they came with bulldozers and flattened it all out.”

The future of the plot isn’t something that worries Gunnlaugsson, but a project so connected to its creator begs the question of what happens beyond his time here. “I don't believe that anything should be preserved. The Roman Empire fell and nothing happened,” he says. “It doesn't matter. I’m here, and when I'm gone, they can bulldoze the whole house down.”

But in many ways, Gunnlaugsson’s home is an act of preservation. Evolution, rather than completion, is the intention throughout, and a central part of his design project is finding new uses for old materials. “I enjoy seeing how things are changing, how they are rotating in the world. I like to have these old things around me. These objects have a story to tell and I am their storyteller.”

Hrafn Gunnlaugsson’s home is situated at Laugarnestangi 65, next to the Sigurjón Ólafsson Museum in Reykjavík.


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