Dotted throughout Iceland’s rocky, otherworldly terrain are structures that seem to have been formed from the earth by a numinous hand. These geometric, often asymmetrical buildings look like the dwellings of the ‘hidden folk’ of Icelandic mythology, perhaps the last refuges of the ice giants Odin was unable to exterminate. But in fact, they are simply Icelandic interpretations of communal staples found in most cities and towns throughout the world: churches.
These buildings are examples of Iceland’s unique take on modernist architecture. While modernist churches are certainly not unique to Iceland, its approach to the movement is singular in that it is deeply informed by its cultural history and landscape.
Icelandic Modernism was born of a 20th-Century push to create a distinctive architectural style after centuries of Norwegian — followed by Danish — rule. The brightly coloured timber houses that line the streets of Icelandic towns were often wholly imported from Norway, and 19th-Century stone houses were mostly designed by the Danish government. It was not until cement — a material that could endure the harsh climate and that did not have to be imported — was introduced, that a uniquely Icelandic style could be created.
Iceland’s relatively late development of a national architectural style was also due to its harsh, sparsely-vegetated terrain. While mainland European nations had a wealth of resources to use for construction, Icelandic settlers were forced to get creative, leading to the development of the iconic turf house in the 9th Century, which remained the dominant form of housing until the early 20th Century.
Using timber only for a structural base, turf houses consisted primarily of layers of rock with compressed soil. An outer layer, made of turf cut into strips, diamonds or squares, was then pressed on top, creating the iconic look of Icelandic homes.
Some could even be mistaken for Neolithic pagan shrines were if not for the prominent crosses
Many modernist churches in Iceland are futuristic odes to this original architectural model. For example, the churches that celebrated Icelandic architect Ragnar Emilsson designed — Mosfellskirkja, Stóra Dalskirkja,and Kópavogskirkja — are all revisitations of the signature triangular structure of the turf house.
Seltjarnarneskirkja, designed by Harðar Björnssonar and consecrated in 1989, follows a similar style, with the addition of multi-layered triangular rooftops.
But the undisputed leader of the Icelandic architectural revolution was Guðjón Samuelsson who was commissioned to design new buildings in Reykjavik after a devastating fire in 1915 destroyed the majority of the Norwegian timber houses. Samuelsson wanted to contribute visually to the revival of the independent Icelandic Commonwealth, a movement that poetically was on the cusp of realisation at the time of the fire. When Denmark granted Iceland sovereignty in 1918, Samuelsson’s unique vision was ready quite literally to rise from the ashes of foreign rule.
Samuelsson drew inspiration from early European Modernism and Iceland’s breathtaking landscape. Not only did his buildings take on the shape of Icelandic natural monuments, but often were infused with local types of rock like obsidian, quartz and Icelandic spar.
Iceland’s largest building, Hallgrimskirkja, is a church designed by Samuelsson and is a testament to his style. Commissioned in 1937 and consecrated in 1986, Hallgrimskirja’s imposing shape was designed to resemble Icelandic trap rocks, mountains, and glaciers.
Many Icelandic churches follow Samuelsson’s naturalistic approach to Modernism. For example, Stykkishólmskirkja, designed by Jon Haraldsson and consecrated in 1990, consists of dramatic curved white slopes and jagged edges reminiscent of a glacier. In the winter months, when the surrounding landscape is covered in snow, Stykkishólmskirkja appears to grow seamlessly from the frozen ground.
In profile, the jagged rooftop and skeletal spire of Hákon Hertervig’s Ólafsvíkurkirkja, look like the mountains that loom on the Icelandic horizon.
They seem to erupt from the rocky earth, their concrete structures taking on the appearance of once-sacred natural formations
Blönduóskirkja, the brainchild of Dr Maggi Jónsson, is a Brutalist take on the volcanoes scattered throughout the country. Consecrated in 1993, its stark obsidian black frame is nearly as ominous as the volatile natural formations it was inspired by.
Churches that follow Samuelsson’s model of natural Modernism are emblematic of the country’s animistic history, standing more as monuments to nature than Christ. They seem to erupt from the rocky earth, their concrete structures taking on the appearance of once-sacred natural formations. Some could even be mistaken for Neolithic pagan shrines were if not for the prominent crosses.
Iceland’s relationship with Christianity is ancient and complex. In fact, the first people to inhabit the island were Irish monks who came for six months to live as hermits in around 795 AD. When Scandinavian settlers arrived in the mid-9th Century, Norse paganism then became the dominant religion. After several attempts by the King of Norway to convert Iceland, Christianity was peacefully adopted as the state religion in 1000 AD. Some scholars believe that Althingi’s (or Iceland’s quasi-parliamentary medieval government) were motivated by political and economic reasons to convert, rather than actual religious fervour.
Unlike in European countries where Pagan conversion was born of bloody subjugation, Iceland’s relatively peaceful Christianisation allowed for its Norse roots to remain a part of the country’s cultural identity. Whereas most newly-converted countries quickly adopted a staunch anti-Pagan stance, Icelandic Christianity built upon its Pagan roots, weaving a deep affection for the old ways into the new. This process of combining sacred with sacred can be seen in the figure of Thorlakur Thorahallsson, who in spite of having a first and surname that directly referenced the Norse god Thor, went on to become the patron saint of Iceland.
Contemporary church attendance in Iceland is very low, with only 10 per cent of the population reporting that they go to church once a month or more and 50 per cent saying they never go at all. Paganism however, has enjoyed a recent 50 per cent spike in adherents in 2017 alone. With such low attendance numbers, one must question what purpose these modernist churches serve for the Icelandic people. Given their obvious nods to the country’s landscape and its architectural and religious past, these paragons of modern design seem like odes to Iceland’s ancient history, and a promise to remember it in the future.
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