The Central Square where people gather in Reykjavík

In olden times, when Reykjavík was simply a farm, Austurvöllur (the East Field) was its best grassfield, and  much  larger than it is today.

Scottish sheep grazing on Austurvöllur in 1932, photo Magnús Ólafsson

It extended over much of what is now the old centre of Reykjavík: from Aðalstræti to Lækjargata, and from Hafnarstræti to the Lake. When Reykjavík Cathedral was built in 1788-90, rock was quarried nearby and stored on Austurvöllur. By the early 1800s the field was in a poor state due to overuse and turf-cutting (for construction). As a result the town magistrate banned unauthorised turf-cutting. In 1806 he stated that it had once been a fine, useful field, but was now nothing but a neglected peat-bog. At that time,  dumping of ash and refuse on the field was prohibited, but no other measures were taken. The field was marshy and uneven, and unsuitable for building.

The Cathedral in 1949

As the village of Reykjavík grew, it gradually encroached on the field. In the 19th century it served as a campsite for countrymen visiting the town, and also for early tourists. In 1874 the town council of Copenhagen presented a statue to the people of Reykjavík: a self-portrait by Icelandic- Danish sculptor Bertel Thorvaldsen. The town council chose a place for it in the middle of Austurvöllur, and in the  summer of 1875 the field was fenced, levelled and turfed, and paths were made. The sculpture was ceremonially unveiled on 19 November 1875, the artist’s birthday. It was Reykjavík’s first public sculpture. In 1930 the fence was removed, opening the square, and in 1931 the Thorvaldsen statue was moved to the Hljómskálagarður park, to make way for a statue of Jón Sigurðsson (1811-79), leader of Iceland’s 19th-century independence movement, by sculptor Einar Jónsson.

1905, Austurvöllur. Statue of Bertel Thorvaldsen. Photo Magnús Ólafsson.

Womens’s Freedom Day celebrated on Austurvöllur, June 19th 1919. Photo Magnús Ólafsson

In the early 20th century an artificial skating rink was often created in winter on the square, which was popular with the townspeople. Many entertainments and social events have taken place on the square over the years, and the people of Reykjavík have traditionally gathered here, in front of Parliament House, whether to celebrate or to protest. At one of the first protest meetings, in 1905, thousands objected to the laying of an undersea telephone cable to Iceland. On 30 March 1949 a protest against Iceland joining NATO led to violence; police used truncheons and teargas on the crowds. Every year people gather on Austurvöllur to celebrate National Day on 17 June, when a wreath is laid before the statue of Jón Sigurðsson; and in December crowds come to see the lights lit on a Christmas tree, a gift from the people of Oslo. After the Icelandic economy collapsed in the autumn of 2008, Austurvöllur was again the scene of protests. People gathered, listened to speeches, and hammered on pots and pans to express their rage, in what has become known as the Kitchenware Revolution. Austurvöllur, in its present form was designed by Sigurður Albert Jónsson, former chief of The Reykjavík Botanical Gardens, and presented to the city by Hafliði Jónsson, former chief of Reykjavík Parks
Department; in 1999 the plan was simplified and renewed, to designs by landscape architect Þórólfur Jónsson.

Tug-of-War on Austurvöllur in 1912, photo Magnús Ólafsson.

Celebrations on Austurvöllur as women in Iceland gained the right to vote in 1915, photo Magnús Ólafsson

Reykjavík’s Historical Plaques

A drawing of Austurvöllur amd the surrounding area in 1801, by Aage Nielsen-Edwin.

In recent years the City of Reykjavík has been installing plaques at historic sites around the city. The markers display pictures and information about the site’s history, art, literature and social life. This is the information displayed at the Austurvöllur Central Square.

A drawing of Austurvöllur and surrounding area in 1820, by Aage Nielsen-Edwin.

Text and photos: Reykjavík City Museum
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