Icelandic architecture stands in a class of its own. Even to the most seasoned traveller, its hodge-podge array of architectural influences and styles appears to be somewhat of an anomaly, particularly in the Nordic nation’s capital city of Reykjavík.
Far from a metropolis by North American standards, Reykjavík boasts a relatively modest population of only 122,853 residents. It is one of Europe’s smallest capitals. Nevertheless, Reykjavík, and indeed most of Iceland, is known for its striking blend of contemporary and classic architecture: some beautiful, others downright bizarre.
Why Iceland has struggled to establish its distinct design style over the centuries is a question many have attempted to answer, including German academic Edwin Sacher, who in the late 1930s wrote his PhD dissertation on the history and tradition of Icelandic architectural design.
In the past decades, even as the world has started to take considerable notice of Iceland as a regular exporter of artistic talent, no one has been able to answer the question posed by Sacher. Iceland’s helter-skelter architectural tradition remains a bit of a mystery.
After all, despite their small population and frigid temperatures, the Icelandic are proud of their roots, celebrating the international successes of musicians like Björk and Ólafur Arnalds. What’s more, the Nordic nations routinely rank highest in the world for residents’ overall happiness.
By all accounts, Iceland, which is surprisingly noteworthy on the global stage when it comes to many other forms of art and media, should have developed its own truly unique and characteristic architecture style.
Yet its constructed landscape remains uncertain of itself, giving the city of Reykjavík the appearance of a metropolis not quite sure what it stands for. Tourists are often bemused by the absurdity of the built structures they find waiting for them in Reykjavík.
There’s the dizzying interior and sloped walls of the National Theatre of Iceland, which opened in 1950. There’s the city’s most famous religious landmark, Hallgrímskirkja, a semi-brutalist church with a sun-dappled interior. Its shape and size, which was intended to reflect the local basalt cliff formations, is disorienting; it stands at such a tremendous height as to induce vertigo.
Actually, a lot of Iceland’s most famous landmarks were designed with a nod to the basalt cliffs. But beyond that, there is little to distinguish Icelandic architecture from any other Nordic design. Why?
It could simply be that a relatively young nation like Iceland, only settled in the ninth century, is still struggling to grow into itself.
A minuscule island situated at the intersection of the Labrador and Norwegian Seas in the Northern Atlantic Ocean, it is geographically if not culturally detached from the closest mainland: Greenland. It is even further from Norway, Sweden, and Finland, the slightly more populous Nordic nations.
This is certainly not to say that Icelandics remain ignorant of broader cultural trends. Far from it. If anything, it appears likely that Iceland’s tendency to look abroad for inspiration—and invite foreigners to its shores—contributed to its confusing patchwork of architectural styles. Recall that even Sacher, whose dissertation explored trends in Icelandic architecture, was a German expat himself.
A willingness to look abroad almost certainly brought new ideas and inspiration to Iceland’s frozen shores. It may be difficult for North Americans to imagine a culture that incorporates foreign trends with respectful rather than colonialist intent. Still, it appears that that is exactly what has occurred in Iceland.
Economic and cultural connections with foreign nations enabled native architects to use new materials, styles, and trends that may have remained inaccessible otherwise.
However, mimicry is not the only thing Iceland has going for it by any means. As it is known due to its paradoxically cold and volcanic landscape, the land of ice and fire had developed their own modest architectural style long before the interference of other cultures.
In the Settlement Era and Viking Age, residents lived on largely scattered homesteads and earned income through farming, a precarious livelihood in a so brutally frigid and unforgiving landscape.
The hardy Vikings built humble yet resilient “turf houses” made from timber and aesthetically reminiscent of the longhouses commonly seen on the shores of Norway, Denmark, and the Scottish Isles. Iceland’s particularly brutal weather conditions demanded sturdier construction, with a foundation of rock and a wooden base.
The longevity of these iconic shelters is truly remarkable. Tourists wishing to see one up close can easily do so, both in the rural Icelandic wilderness and within city limits. A particularly famous farmstead known as Árbær remained in operation into the twentieth century. Today it is an open-air museum available for the public to walk through.
The experience is captivating, offering a glimpse back in time to the conditions, hardships, and way of life experienced by the Vikings in ancient times.