Three Social Visions in Icelandic Architecture Iceland, formed by volcanoes, carved by glaciers, and battered by the sea, is a dramatic
theater of the geological and hydrological forces that shape our planet. Straddling the rift between the North American and Eurasian continental plates, and just kissing the Arctic Circle, the island is well known for its stunningly beautiful yet harsh landscape. While life in this unyielding territory presents numerous challenges, early Viking settlers learned its rhythms and discovered its secret bounty, enduring by fishing, shepherding, forestry, farming, and eased by abundant hot springs. Thus it is a land not only of fire and ice, but of birch, wool, salt cod, grain, and geothermal energy. Today Iceland is fully modern western nation, enjoying a high standard of living. One third of its population of 300,000 is concentrated in the city of Reykjavik, the economic and political center of the country. Small but proud, arts and culture thrive here, and naturally the Icelandic have expressed themselves through architecture. The city now features three truly notable monuments embodying radically different social visions, which offers insight not only into the shifting sense of Icelandic identity, but its evolution in relation to global politics. The oldest and most unmistakable monument is the expressionist Hallgrímskirkja, designed by state architect Guöjón Samúelsson in 1937. The church is monolithic and imposing, heroically towering over Reykjavik from the high point in the middle of the city. The hexagonal columns that form its stark façade are a romantic allusion to the volcanic basalt the composes the landmass, exposed for instance at the famous Svaritvoss Falls. In front of this church stands a triumphant statue of Leif Ericsson, original settler of Iceland, with his battle axe in one hand and bible in the other. The interior height and vaulting is typical of Gothic basilicas, yet with the dearth of ornament and austerity typical of Northern Calvinist doctrine. Through sheer scale and symbolic reference, the imposing church expresses nationalist pride and notions of fixed identity, bound irrevocably to landscape and religion. The war years following would show how this sentiment was not a far cry from Fascism. In 1963 Finnish architect Alvar Aalto designed the realist Nordic House, a community center for Reykjavik whose mission is to foster cultural connections between Nordic communities. The center sits on a series of short terraces atop a manmade island fauna adjacent to civic center of the city, and overlooks a tundra marsh rich in flora. Footpaths meander through this marsh leading to the covered porch entry of the Nordic house. Alternatively there is the formal entrance off the road lined by heraldic flags from of all the Nordic countries. The style of the building is Aalto’s own brand of internationalism, pure white boxes articulated by wooden details and subtle biomorphic accents. Setback from this crisp base is a jagged, sloping double-height tier clad in deep indigo tile work and crowned by a crystalline skylight. This is perhaps an abstraction of the glaciers that shaped this land, or a reference to the misty shadows of mountain ranges that frame the city.
Landsbanki. akin perhaps to the Paris Opera. Thus the facility is a testament to the desire for strong social cohesion among the nation. perpetually changing. ultimately voted not to use public funds to bail out private financial
. the bank became insolvent and construction was halted on the four-story shell. a hotel. Eventually the government decided to fund the completion of the structure.” Inside Harpa an architectural promenade switchbacks through a cavernous atrium. The Icelanders. unique regional identity. and today it sits next to a vacant lot the rest of the uncompleted development was slated for. Throughout the building are Aaltos signature details. The latest bold architectectural statement from Iceland is the Harpa. vague. But in the market crash of 2009. and the crystalline skylight illuminate the library. lending it almost religious significance. a sort of crystalline baroque or elaborate funhouse. The meeting hall has a slatted wooden acoustical ceiling fostering a sense of intimacy. a shop for Nordic design. leading visitors upward along the façade. The program for the Nordic House features a library with books in seven Nordic languages and a children’s center. The views out to the approaching patrons on the plaza and down through the atrium make for a grand human spectacle. and baffling. disrupting the unstable mass with colorful flashes. The ceiling above is clad in a matrix of golden-mirrored panels. focused on passive entertainment and consumption. and absolutely out of scale. To quote Marshall Berman.This specific siting and symbolism highlights the vital interdependency between the ecology of the territory and its inhabitants. yet broad international connections. Initially the Harpa development was intended to include luxury apartments. and dazzling. and a meeting hall/theater with regular cultural programming. inconsistent. At night multi colored lights flicker within the hollow matrix of the curtain wall. Harpa is a performing arts center. The fragmented angles of the frames combined with the iridescent coating on the glass planes reflect the ethereal Icelandic light in myriad ways. as it is capable of entertaining 1% of Reykjaviks population on any given evening. Ultimately the Harpa is an ephemeral structure. bent wood furniture. a restaurant serving traditional and new Nordic cuisine. and ornate door handles. which seem to hover precariously over the water on their clear glass base. designed by Henning Larsen Architects in partnership with Olafur Eliasson in 2006. The lobby is non-axial and thus non-hierarchical. Spectacular. representative of life in late capital. Clerestory windows. reflecting the frenzy below in innumerable directions. ambitious in scale to say the least. “All that is solid melts into air. Harpa is the quintessential expression of Iceland’s Neoliberal fantasies. and a new corporate headquarters for the private bank of Iceland. with elements of program organically clustered around it. reminiscent of a cathedral. Formally the center is composed of two aggressive intersecting rhomboids clad in a dazzling geometric curtain wall. unlike the US. disjointed. pendant lamps. seductive.
and the bank defaulted on its debts and its corrupt bankers imprisoned.institutions. Where to now Iceland? And how will new social arrangements be expressed architecturally?
. The boom and bust is now passed and life has achieved temporary equilibrium.