The history of architecture in Iceland is a relatively short one. Seeing that the island was only inhabited in the 9th Century it doesn’t have the grand architectural past of many European countries. It does have its own unique and interesting story though. In this article we will take a brief look at the history of building and architecture in Iceland. We will then explore some of the most important and impactful creations right around the island. It is true that you really visit Iceland for the natural wonders. But there are still some interesting buildings to discover many of them inspired by the natural beauty of the island.
A Brief History of Architecture in Iceland
For the early settlers in Iceland practicality was key. Here was a wild and windswept land with few natural building materials and some very harsh conditions to endure. These early settlers looked at what they had available to them and they developed turf houses. These small low down abodes hugged the landscape and used packed turf to insulate and protect them. The frames were timber and they were usually built on stone with a slightly elevated wooden frame.
This was the predominant style of architecture until around the middle of the 18th Century. With the advent of industrialisation the first instances of stone buildings began to appear. It was around this time that Reykjavik began to expand as a trading port and an industrial capital. In the 19th Century there was a brief dabble with brick but this flimsy material did not suit the wild weather conditions of Iceland.
With the invention of corrugated iron in the mid 1800s Iceland found a brand new material. This sturdy material was ideal for the island’s harsh conditions way up near the Arctic Circle. It began to pop up all over the place and can still be seen to this day. Houses, shops and churches sport colourfully painted corrugated iron set vertically onto the building facades.
Iceland’s Home-grown Architects
Before the 20th Century Iceland didn’t really have any home-grown architects in the modern sense of the word. Instead a mix of different architectural styles were adopted and the country was heavily influenced by the rule of Denmark. In 1915 the young Icelandic architect Gudjon Samuelsson returned to Reykjavik after studying in Copenhagen. He was to become Iceland’s official state architect. His creations inspired by the natural world are some of the most important buildings in Iceland.
Iceland’s Architectural Stars
The National Theatre of Iceland
The National Theatre in Reykjavik was designed by founding father Gudjon Samuelsson and opened in 1950. The striking basalt columns that can be seen along South Iceland’s coast inspired its dark stone geometry. The materials were chosen in homage to Iceland’s geological make up. Obsidian, Spar and Quartz are all incorporated into the design.
Harpa Concert hall
Iceland’s leading concert hall and conference centre was completed in 2011. Its angles and façade were a joint achievement brought to fruition by Henning Larsen Architects. This striking building is home to Iceland’s symphony orchestra and opera. The centre hosts all kinds of cultural events and is a wonderful addition to the cityscape of Reykjavik. Check out the program of events for when you decide to travel to Iceland. If there is nothing on that you want to see do take a walk around the area anyway to see this impactful building.
Hofsós Swimming Pool
The same people behind the Blue Lagoon designed this beautiful hot spring pool in North Iceland. Sleek and classic the smooth lines blend seamlessly with the surrounding rocky landscape. This is well worth a visit if you are on a road trip in North Iceland. It is also a wonderful spot to watch the Northern Lights from if you get lucky.
The iconic Hallgrímskirkja Church in Reykjavik is by far the most famous of the churches in Iceland. Gudjon Samuelsson also designed this one and again it was inspired by the natural world. Iceland’s monumental basalt column cliffs and waterfalls have clearly piqued the architect’s imagination. At 73 meters high this is one of Reykjavik’s most impactful landmarks. You can’t miss this one if you stay in Reykjavik for a night or two.
The Ásmundarsafn Museum
This museum is one of the three buildings that make up the Reykjavik Art Museum. It is dedicated to the artwork of the famous sculptor Ásmundur Sveinsson. This elaborate building was once his own home and studio. The artist designed it himself during the 1950s and it has both Arabic and Mediterranean influences. Today the gardens are home to a series of his sculptural pieces.
Víðimýrarkirkja Turf Church
Some of the best examples of the traditional Icelandic turf roofed buildings are churches. Many of these lie in North Iceland. Víðimýrarkirkja Church is the earliest of Iceland’s remaining turf churches and dates back to 1834. There has been a church on this site for much longer though. The earliest church was built here in the 12thCentury and the existing church clock tower dates to the 1600s. Víðimýrarkirkja lies on the outskirts of the small town of Varmahlíð just a short detour from the Iceland Ring Road.
Budakirkja the Black Church
Budakirkja lies on the Snæfellsnes Peninsula about a two-hour drive west of Reykjavik. Although it is a small and unassuming wooden church it is one of the most photographed churches in Iceland. Unusually it is painted in black and contrasts beautifully with the stark volcanic coastal landscape. Photographers really can’t get enough of it!
One more church but this time over in West Iceland in the town of Höfn. Icelandic architect Hannes Kr Davidsson designed this unusual church in the 1970s. The design combines a pyramid and a dome and it was inspired by the light and landscapes of Iceland. Höfn lies on the Ring Road very close to the edge of Vatnajökull National Park the largest of the three national parks in Iceland.
There are many more churches of architectural interest that we explore in our article on the Top Ten Churches in Iceland.