Thvottalaugar (Washing pools): a historical “hot spot” of Reykjavik

 (source: Torfbæjum inn i Taækniöld, Annð Bindi)

Even before Iceland’s geothermal waters were harnessed to produce energy, geothermal water was recognized for its important contribution to a community. Iceland’s Ancient records indicate that geothermal springs were used for washing and bathing. Cleanliness was considered an important factor in Nordic life. Carrying baskets of laundry was not a light task. If the distance to hot water was far from the homestead it was a great burden. Women gathered at nearby hot springs or hot streams to use the already heated water for washing. Laundering was hard, steamy, work, but it also served as time for ladies to socialize.

Norse poetic literature emphasized the importance of grooming and cleanliness. This example is from Reginsmal (The Ballad of Regin):

“Combed and washed | shall the wise man go, And a meal at mom shall take;

For unknown it is | where at eve he may be; It is ill thy luck to lose.”

(source: Torfbæjum inn i Taækniöld, Annð Bindi)

In towns with larger populations, laundering was an even larger communal event for the ladies and their children. Because there were many homesteads in these areas, washing often required walking a further distance.Thvottalaugar (washing pools) was a busy locale set to the east in Reykjavik. The road which led from the heart of the city to Thvottalaugar was named Laugavegur (washing road). This road was well worn by women carrying baskets and workers carting loads of wash.

Contemporary Laugavegur is the “major shopping” road of downtown Reykjavik. Traveling east along this road, travelers will find Laugardalur Park where Thvottalaugar remains today (although dry). Along with the gorgeous old infrastructure a structure and signage exist to describe the history of this site.

Thvottalaugar in its Laugardalur Park environs (photographs in October 2011)One of the first trial wells for geothermal water was sunk at Thvottalaugar between 1755, and 1756 by Eggert Olafsson and Bjarni Palsson. Between 1928 and 1930, more wells were sunk in the Thvottalaugar vicinity in pursuit of hot water for space heating. In 1930 enough geothermal water was recovered from these wells to heat Austurbackjarskili, a school in Reykjavik. The school was the first building in the city to be heated by geothermal water. Shortly after the school, the hospital, public pool and approximately 60 residential houses were connected to and utilized hot water from the geothermal pipeline originating at Thvottalaugar.

Vatnavinir Friends of Water recognize the importance of Thvottalaugar and have created a very interesting proposal for the area.


“The washing springs in Laugardalur lie at the centre of the history and development of the City of Reykjavík. Here, maids washed heavy loads of clothes, people and animals bathed, boys and girls learnt their first swimming strokes, experiements were made with cheesemaking and drilling for hot water for heating and electricity.

But steam no longer soars towards the skies and there is little to remind of old times other than stone walls by the dried up stream and grass covered washing tubs now long disconnected.

Vatnavinir propose the creation of a Geothermal Centre to honour the important history of water use in a vibrant way, e.g. by bringing to life the spirit of the old springs – the white linen blowing in the wind, the outlines of people in the steam, the smell of hot water and coffee.

Hot water may again be supplied to the springs and the stream (Laugalækur), now contained within an underground pipe, allowed to flow again along a part of its old channel linking the Botanical Garden and the old washing springs.

   (source: Vatnavinir)

The baths themselves are an education centre around hot water in a historical and geological context and are underground. Guests relax in hot pools while they learn about utilisation and origin of the hot water and geothermal heat through multimedia. In the evenings silence reigns – all screens are turned off and the bath house only used for bathing – but there could be occasional events in the evenings – story and poetry evenings, film screenings, concerts or even naming of children.

A public laundromat is also to be found here where guests and passers-by can wash their clothes. The laundromat is a historical museum on washing utensils and appliances but open to public use. Guests could choose between washing clothes on a washboard in a tub or in a washing machine from 1950. Simple refreshments, reminescent of the food washing women and travellers ate in times past, will be on sale – hot spring coffee and baked bread, fish, potatoes and meat. Paddling pools for children are in old washing tubs. The largest pool is open to the sky but beneath the present surface and white linen blows in the wind on lines above it creating a play of light and shadow in the pool.

   (source: Vatnavinir)

It is also proposed that a small steam power station be erected, which would supply the area with electricity. Thus the project – once upon a time began but never finished – would be brought full circle to its conclusion and the area thereby also made self-sustainable in terms of electricity.” (source: Vatnavinir)

Daylighting the stream and allowing geothermal heat/energy to stimulate this area, as it did in the past, is an extremely exciting prospect. I also see another important aspect to this historical rejuvenation as linking this steamy location back to Laugavegur, the main shopping street. Not only is this path a historical reference, but it would draw people from the center of the city to this lesser known area. I believe Thvottalaugar has huge potential!

Geothermal: piped infrastructure in the town of Hveragerði

These images are solely from the geothermally active town of Hveragerði.

Pipes. Technology. Power. Metallic Infrastructure. Otherworldly. Iceland.

Community Forming. Place Making. Sensory Imbued. Evocatively. Iceland.

“Water is everything”

Water. In Iceland, there is no shortage of water. The effects of this powerful element are highly visible, known and respected. When the words, “Water is everything in Iceland”, parted the lips of a professor from the Icelandic Academy of the Arts, the larger context for this project began to fall into place. WATER. Water makes energy, be it geothermal or hydroelectric, and provides the mainstay for the community. Since the beginning of settlement, communities have formed along the coastline for fishing or adjacent to hot water sources for energy. Water is the critical element in powering the nation, forming its dramatic landscape, initiating communities, and providing a source from which to harvest fish, the nations leading export. (This beautiful graphic is just the tip of the iceberg for the inspiring group Vatnavinir, Friends of Water)(source: Vatnavinir, Friends of Water)

Solid water. Glaciers are prevalent and pronounced in Iceland. Statistics Iceland provides a wealth of data on the country that is used in the following calculations: glaciers occupy 11.57% of the country’s surface area and lakes cover 2.67%. This water coverage (excluding rivers) accounts for 14.24% of Iceland’s surface area. Not only do glaciers cover 11,922 km², but the visual impact of this iced area is stunningly impressive and awe-inspiring. Vatnajökull, an enormous iced landscape, is the largest glacier in Europe. It is 8,100 km². This single ice cap is responsible for almost 70% of the entire glacial coverage in Iceland. Glaciers have also provided inspiration and topics for Icelandic literature. In World Light by Nobel Prize winner, Halldór Laxness, the main character, poet Olafur Karason, finds peace and beauty in the glacier. At the end of the book Olfaur replaces a broken mirror for an invalid child so that she may, once again, see the glacier. He does this act and states, “In this mirror dwells One and All,” before walking to his death on the glacier. Standing near a glacier, it is impossible not to observe the power, process, and beauty of water.

Water makes a splash! The waterfall below, Seljalandsfoss, cascades 200 feet over the cliffs of the former coastline. Walking behind this torrent of water, in the space carved out by the ceaseless backsplash, the auditory turbulence sounded like a jet plane ascending within my brain. The force of water falling excited my body, attuned my senses, and left my mind in whirling wonder…water? On our trip around the country we saw more waterfalls (each uniquely inspiring) than I managed to keep track of. Waterfalls across the country exhibit an enormous amount of power. The political debate concerning hydroelectricity is currently a major issue in Iceland. Andri Snaer Magnason’s book, Dreamland: A Manual for a Frightened Nation is an imaginative and revealing novel on this confrontational issue.

Rivers, streams, rivulets. Even when water isn’t flamboyantly “falling” over the landscape, its visual tracks are left upon the earth. The flow of water is especially detectable on the steep mountainsides. These traces are a constant visual reminder of this dynamic force.

Seeping down to one of Iceland’s many rivers, these veins of water convey both ground and water, as they eroding and water the landscape in one swift motion. The river Thjorsalt is 139 miles long, the longest in Iceland. It is estimated that in one year this single river transports 4.5 million tons of gravel and silt from the central highlands (where it commences). Thjorsa has also been harnessed by power companies for it’s energy. This river and its tributaries alone represent 27% of the hydropower of the country. These flowing veins of water, small and large, are transforming the nation.

I’m not going to make you scroll through all of the drump truck pages…but to give you an idea this next page is 10,000 truckloads (so imagine 16 pages of this being carried from the highlands in one year, from the river Thjorsa).

Water’s eternal cycle:

Geothermal causes ‘quakes’ in Hveragerði

Hellisheiði Power Station is experimenting with methods to inject by-product fluids from the geothermal process, cool water and CO2 (separator water), back into the ground by means of boreholes. This closed loop system would ensure that contaminants do not escape into the atmosphere and habitable landscape. This idea sounds incredible; ZERO carbon emissions in the harnessing of geothermal energy!

(Source for flow diagram: Geothermal Utilisation in Iceland, Orkuveita Reyjavikur)

At the Hellisheiði Power Station all of the quirks have yet to be worked out in this ideal cyclical process. Initially, the plan put forth by the power station was to drain the by-product water ¼ of a mile underground into the water table and let “the powerful ground water current” carry it out to sea. The municipality was not keen on this idea as “the people consider the groundwater a natural resource for future use”. The decision was then made to inject the by-product water back down into the geothermal boreholes.

As the book, Geothermal Utilisation in Iceland, published by the Reykjavík Energy Authority states, “Draining geothermal water is quite complicated. The largest problem is the risk of silica deposits clogging both pipes and boreholes.” It was also explained to me that once boreholes have been dug, fissures and cracks emanate from the hole. The pressure of water being inserted back into this hole can exacerbate these cracks and fissures and potentially cause earthquakes. Experimentation with reinserting the geothermal by-product into the depths of the earth, where it initially came from, is still underway. Unfortunately, this experimentation has resulted in EARTHQUAKES in the neighboring town of Hveragerði.

A major problem with not speaking or reading Icelandic is the difficultly in staying up to date on current issues. This is a current issue! While I am unable to read the newspaper articles, I heard from two sources (one academic, one in the field of landscape architecture) that Hveragerði has recently endured earthquakes as a result of experimentation at the Hellisheiði Power Station, and community members are upset and beginning to lose patience.

To cause earthquakes that affect a town of 2,300 people is no small matter.

Oddur Hermannsson from Landform

Hveragerði comparison of town structure diagram || aerial photos courtesy of Landform

While the Varma River (Thermal River) has shifted over time, as all rivers do, it was this winding vein of water that provided the baseline for this comparison. In just over 50 years, the geothermal infrastructure, size of the community and town form have changed dramatically. The 1974 aerial shows a system dominated by above ground pipes. The 1998 photograph demonstrates a much larger and technologically advanced system, mostly subterranean. Today, “Hot areas” and pipelines are thoughtfully considered in the larger context of the town and its future growth. Each organizing method paints an entirely different bird’s eye view.

The town building and planning officer in Hveragerði put me in contact with Oddur Hermannsoson, whose team prepared the 2006 master plan for the town. Oddur turned out to be an incredibly generous and knowledgeable resource. He is the owner of Landform, a consulting firm in landscape architecture and planning based in Selfoss, Iceland. Today, October 12th, I had the opportunity to meet him and his colleagues.

Oddur shared with me a wealth of knowledge about Hveragerði. He touched on issues from historic conditions, to geologic considerations, to political implications, to the current master plan (which is on the internet, but in Icelandic). He took the time to explain the electrical circuit of the entire country (providing me with a awesome, quick and simple diagram) and then also explained how the ground temperature readings and mappings of a particular community are carried out.National electricity distribution diagram || simplified

This diagram reveals the main idea behind the electricity distribution in Iceland. Most power stations in Iceland that provide electricity are tied into one main national circuit. This distribution network is operated by the energy company, Landsvirkjun, which is owned by the Icelandic State. In this system the circuit is always primed and pumping with electricity. Power stations continually supply the circuit with energy and consumers tap into this larger collective.This means that when I turn a light on in Reykjavík, the electricity used to illuminate the light could be from any one of the power stations tied into this larger network. I could be harnessing energy from a hydro-power plant in northwest Iceland or I could be channeling electricity from the geothermal plant in Krafla.ground temperature diagram || geological heat reading

This diagram shows how ground temperature readings are taken on a matrix at a consistent depth, (in this case 60 cm/aprox. 2 feet). This consistent temperature reading provides scientists with data from which they may deduce what is happening at greater depths. These heat readings are entered into computer systems with gps coordinates that derive a heat distribution map. In the case of Hveragerði the National Energy Authority carried out this study for Landform. This data was critical in determining safe building guidelines and zoning ideology.

Oddur covered many scales, and many topics, with enthusiasm and colorful stories. When speaking about the ground condition in Hveragerði, Oddur eloquently explained,

“The entire area is living, and moving, it’s like the ground is resting upon someone’s shoulders.”

While this community originated around and because of its heitur vatn (hot water) the city is known throughout the country as “The City of Health”. Since its founding in 1955, the NLFÍ Health and Rehabilitation Clinic has played a critical role in the town. As they describe themselves on their internet page, “The clinic combines the benefits of modern medical science with health care traditions of the Nature Health Association of Iceland.” Less than 30 miles from Reykjavík, Hveragerði provides a convenient and peaceful setting for recovery and rehabilitation.

Oddur also emphasized that, “Hveragerði is a special community with the visual elements of agriculture and glass houses.” Traveling back to Reykjavík on bus, the day outside turned dark and stormy. The glowing glass houses, located directly adjacent to the main road,were a gorgeous illuminated showcase of this community.

My favorite quote of the day: “Everything is connected.”

Thank you Oddur Hermannsson and Landform for a wonderfully productive and informative day!

Daily reminders of geothermal energy

Before coming to Iceland, I had not used geothermal energy. How different could it be? It illuminates lights, heats up stoves, provides hot water to wash dishes…it’s energy, right?

After two months in this country, I find myself being reminded daily of where the energy I use comes from. I have not experience this at home.

Daily reminders (before leaving my apartment):

 Stepping into the steaming hot shower, my olfactory sense is quickly awakened. The sulfurous smell, emitted during the use of hot water, is poignant. Recollections of this smell are stimulated in my mind: suddenly I am exploring dynamic geothermal fields with spouting geysers, boiling mudpots, and venting fumaroles; OR I am relaxing in a “hot pot”/geothermal pool, my body completely at ease, soaking up minerals and heat in an other-worldly environment; OR… the distinct memories of places connected with this smell go on and on. This “rotten egg” smell has become utterly delightful (I’m serious). Each time I indulge in geothermally heated water, I am momentarily brought back to the powerful and dynamic ground that creates this possibility. Instead of stepping into my black tile shower, I am transported to fascinating places. Sometimes I am left wondering about the root source of this energy; and sometimes I am musing over the current political “green energy” debate.  Is it the uniqueness of geothermal environments that make such a strong impact? Is it the potency of this particular smell? Is the connection between smell and memory stronger than other senses? Does all energy have a smell? Does this connectivity between memory of a place and geothermal energy fade with time? If this was the only energy that you had ever used, would there still be a connection between geothermal environments and daily use?

WASHING THE DISHES: The first warning that I was given upon arrival to my apartment, “Be careful, the water gets really hot!” Even with this advice, I have burnt my hands on numerous occasions. Hot water has infused the tops of my hands and evokes a constant sensitivity. Water heats up fast and gets extremely HOT. I used an infrared thermometer to do a few quick tests on the water temperature at my apartment sink. How hot was this water? Despite the steam and strong sulfur smell, the water temperature can jolt you back into reality quickly if you aren’t careful. After 90 seconds of running the faucet on high, 172 0F water erupted from the tap!

TRACES FROM THE SHOWER + SINK: I used to take fast showers. Here, I find myself relishing in the extreme hot water. I become entrapped in the warm world of steam and thought. After enveloping me, the steam is drawn to my windows, making them watery and opaque. Even with the windows open, the steamy traces of my shower will linger for the next hour.

Another trace I constantly find is a white residue on the counters. No matter how hard I work to keep the sink and counters clean, it is impossible. After I wipe down the counter, or the sink, or the shower and the water has dried, white traces (minerals) cloud whatever surface I have scrubbed.

FIDGETING WITH MY RING: I am constantly spinning, moving, and playing with the ring on my finger. The sensation of this act has not changed, but when I look down at my silver, seaglass ring, I pause. Is that my ring? What happened? A black patina has transformed my ring. Iceland’s geothermal waters have left a dark trace.

I was told at thermal baths to take off my jewlrey as the water would tarnish it. After almost losing my ring, I decided to keep to my normal routine and never take it off. I shower, wash dishes, go swimming, all with my ring on. For now, this dark patina serves as a reminder (similar to the sting I sometimes get in my eyes after showering), of this geothermal water. When I get home, I’ll get out the polish.

NIGHT SOUNDS: I woke up in the night to the sound of water percolating. Was my neighbor making coffee at 2 a.m.? Then again at 4 a.m.? It wasn’t as though this hot water initially woke me up, but I found the sound intriguing. Now when I wake up in the night, I listen for it. At times the stillness of the night allows me to hear this hot rumble. The apartment is being heated by hot water. My neighbors can’t drink that much coffee!

I am going to try to capture this sound on video.