Take bus #19 out of the centre of Reykjavík and you’ll soon reach what can only be described as an anomaly, Elliðarárdalur is a city park. Nothing spectacular about that, the rather strange thing is the only sustainable and uncontaminated salmon stream in a European capital (maybe the world). But, this is not what we are here for nor the strange fact that every new mayor of Reykjavík has to go through the ritual of catching first one of the fishing season. We are heading to a monstrosity of a building, a former power-station and now home to Toppstöðin, a creative ensemble of designers, artists, photographers and electric car makers. Its main purpose in its later years was filling in on peak times, or the tops of electric use such as Christmas.
Inside we manage to track down Vala Helga Schopka, the project manager of Toppstöðin and I begin by asking her a bit about what her role is?
As a Project manager I am tasked with the day to day running of the place, above me I have a board which I work very closely with, in setting out the path the Station is taking in the long run, as well as at any given time. We have around 22 entrepreneurs and startups working in the building at the moment, so there is a state of flux most of the time and my aim is to try and keep to the plan that has been laid out.
That leads me on to the purpose of the building? Since there is a high turnover, can there be a overriding aim, a grand goal and if so, do people adhere to it?
In 2008 not long after the Bank crisis started two of our board got together and started talking about ways it could be combated, the creative fields having suffered really bad. Architects being the best example.
There were these two, architect and a master builder from the council that knew about this building (scheduled for demolition in 2008 but postponed due to lack of funds) and set about working towards getting permission to move into and start using the building, built in 1948 and not used since 1985.
At its heart, is the idea of this building as a community of creative people, is sustainability, recycling and holding on and strengthening creative industries. The Topstation was formed as an organisation later that year but it took nearly a year of relentless volunteer work on the part of the board and other people that had rallied around the cause to gain accesses and start the necessary repair work in late June of 2009.
This seems like a lot of work on their part?
Yes, and all of it was as I said voluntary. For instance fafu (to be found on www.fafutoys.com) and the other people that were here from the start were building a kitchen and putting up walls for the first two months, neglecting their own work in the meantime. All of the furniture was either present or gifted to the Station by well-wishers, as of December 2009 we have been running in an official capacity and are pretty much into a second generation of inhabitants, something that never could have been realised if the furnishings and or any of the work would have had to been bought in.
Would you say that the second generation is spoilt in some way?
Yes a bit, but you’ve got to keep in mind that a part of the original scheme was to connect designers with the industry and vice versa, so the workshop out back was up and running nearly as soon as we moved into the Station, so these groups have been working together from the start. And there are simply other challenges at hand.
Has there been a Darwinian evolution of the ideas that were in the foundations?
Exactly. There are ideas at the core that have risen to the top and are very prominent in our ethos, new ideas come in with new people. Now we intend to be more extraverted, putting all our events onto the web and as we try more to engage the general public to come to our lecture series and events. Another is that we do need to become almost fully self sustaining, having great benefactors in the council and the power company, that goes a long way in doing that but there is so much more that can be done.
Six thousand square meters of building of which you have put but a small part into use, what is next on the agenda?
We are well aware of the space on the other side of the machine hall, as well as other spaces, like the coal storage downstairs. There’s just the problem with health and safety, which cannot be ignored in a building like this, so we’ll take it slow for now. You can just imagine how quickly things would get really bad if someone was to get hurt in there. Its all been drawn up by an architect, the plans are in place. Really its a case of logistics.
Was and is there a plan for world domination, or something a bit more pragmatic?
Centre for innovation in design and industry, a bit of a melting pot for cross fertilisation between different creative and academic disciplines. This would also include being a think tank and working with similar projects in the other nordic countries first and then further afield.
There is a clear, sky is the limit attitude within the building, maintaining it in the micro through personnel change and in the day to day workings that is tricky, it is so for most NGO’s. On final note I would just like to add my sentiment that I believe the building as a evolving entity will go into quarters unforeseen by anyone, it is my hope at least.
Its the end of March, the last snow of a exasperatingly long winter is being rained away, we button up our winter clothing hopefully for the last time for some while. It just might be to easy a device to use the coming of spring as metaphor for a bright future for the Topstation and Iceland’s creative industries. I will say that in my time there I’ve felt something special in this queer block of a building.
Interview: Guðni Rúnar
Photographs: Nanna Dís