Iceland is not famous for its architecture in exactly the same way as France is not famous for its volcanoes. But France does have a handful of volcanoes and even suffered an eruption as recently as 4040 BC! Iceland has had architecture for less time than that; but it does indeed have some lovely buildings if you look in the right places.
Someone once said, rather unkindly, in the documentary ‘How do you Like Iceland’, that all Icelandic architects should be shot. We think that’s a little extreme. Yes, sure some of the suburbs look like America threw up all over a Brazilian slum, but even the ugliest of blocks of flats is relatively well built and nice and warm. And one thing must ye know of Icelandic houses, and that is if they look derelict and unloved on the outside, there’s still every chance they are like palaces on the inside. You can tell a lot about whether an Icelander is an optimist or a realist by the appearance of their house: a nicely kept house set in a cared-for garden is the sign of an optimist who celebrates the summer and treats it as winter’s equal – whereas an outwardly unloved house set in a bit of wasteland is the sign of a realist who prioritises the indoor environment where they will spend most of their time for most of the year and treats summer as a sort of passing trend.
Anyway, that was quite a sidetrack there. Apologies. Where were we? Oh yes, architecture.
Most notable architecture in Iceland is relatively new. Before the 20th Century, wood was the main building material of choice and some turf roofed farmhouses and quaint country churches are among some of the only surviving relics of the really olden days.
At least half of the buildings you’re likely to notice and like are all down to the same architect, Guðjón Samúelsson. His amazing repertoire includes Hallgrímskirkja cathedral, the Landspítali hospital, Akureyri church, the University of Iceland main building, the National Theatre of Iceland, Hótel Borg, Reykjavík’s Roman Catholic cathedral, and the Sundhöllin swimming pool. Impressive, eh?
This is all well and good, but our advice when it comes to Icelandic architecture is to appreciate the small. There are thousands of old wooden residential houses around the country – often clad in colourful corrugated iron – and many of them are a real treat for the eye. The centres of several towns remain a tight-knit maze of houses which have stood there for a hundred years, and sometimes two hundred. In Reykjavík you should check out the houses around Fischersund and surrounding streets, it is just near Ingólfstorg square, hidden away behind the hotel and the tourist office. Outside of Reykjavík you could do worse than seeking out the centres of Ísafjörður, Akureyri and Seyðisfjörður.
There’s some nice modern architecture around too. Just take a wander around the suburbs (away from all the tower blocks, of course) to see what middle class North America might look like if it were in Europe…