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Architecture and Landscapes of Iceland

Iceland is Europe’s most sparsely populated country with only 355,000 inhabitants. It’s also Europe’s second largest island behind Great Britain. Iceland lies on the Mid-Atlantic ridge where the Eurasian and North American tectonic plates meet and is the only place you can stand between the plates on dry land.

An island created from volcanic activity that has persisted through the ages. In the last 10,000 years, over a third of the magma erupted on Earth has been in Iceland. As you’d expect, much of the landscape is lava fields, mountains, glaciers and glacier rivers.

Considering how far north Iceland sits, it’s surprisingly temperate due to the Gulf Stream that we also benefit from here in the UK. Although, it’s much colder on average than over here. Due to the low temperature and short growing seasons most of the archipelago has a tundra climate so you won’t see many trees. These factors all come together to create some of the most beautiful landscapes.

Exploring the architecture of Iceland was great fun and something very different for me. With such a sparse population, even the capital Reykjavik was small with a population similar to that of Exeter. The original settlers of the 9th century came from Norway and brought the Viking Longhouse style of building with them. This developed into the Icelandic Turf House. Not many of these around today but you can still see some that have been preserved. And I did note some more modern buildings having a turf roof. I also found many farm buildings integrating themselves into the landscape the same way turf houses did, either by building up the terrain around the structure or by excavating the terrain to make room for the building.

Christianity came to Iceland around 1000. Churches were constructed from turf and some with timber frames. Although not many of the original churches survive, there are still many churches around the island. Most famously the Hallgrímskirkja. This is one of the tallest buildings in Iceland and visible from most of Reykjavik. Designed by Guðjón Samúelsson, his final and most recognised work. Guðjón Samúelsson also designed the National Theatre.

Like most places, today Iceland’s architecture is made up from a mix of the old and the new. 18th century brought many timber framed houses to urban areas. Featuring high pitched roofs and often tarring the outside. 20th Century brought Swiss Chalet style architecture, and also the use of corrugated iron. The use of corrugated material for not only roofing but external cladding is widespread to this day and I’d say one the most notable and distinct differences between Iceland and other countries. Large scale contemporary projects include Harpa in Reykjavik. Used as a concert hall and conference centre, home to the nation opera and orchestra. Designed by the Danish firm Henning Larsen Architects. The design beautifully reflects the Icelandic scenery in many ways.

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