One of the first things that visitors to Reykjavik notice is the spaceship-looking church that dominates the skyline. Hallgrimskirkja (Hallgrim's Church) is impossible to miss, as it's by far the tallest building in Reykjavik. Although most tourists make a point of going to see this building, Iceland has a wealth of innovative modernist churches; most of which don't get much mention in guidebooks. The fact that there are so many modernist churches dotting the urban landscape—and so few older churches—was one of the main things that struck me about Iceland, architecturally. In other European countries (France, England, Germany, etc.), there are many old cathedrals built in traditional Gothic and Renaissance styles... so why does Iceland have so many sleek, modernist churches? I couldn't find any good answers, but here are a few thoughts:
First of all, unlike most European capitals, Reykjavik doesn’t have a cathedral or large church dating back from the Medieval or Renaissance eras. This is mainly because the city only emerged as major metropolis a few hundred years ago, but the rest of Iceland is bereft of older churches, primarily, I believe, because of the preference that Icelanders have for building with wood rather than stone.
Under the sovereignty of Norway, and then Denmark for most of its history, Iceland also had little tradition of monumental architecture until after the end of the First World War. It was only as the country began inching towards independence (which was finally achieved in 1944) that Iceland went a building spree—just as Modernism was blossoming. What accounts for the distinctive design of Iceland’s 20th century churches? Above and beyond the general trend towards architectural modernism, Icelandic architects charged with designing these churches turned to motifs and materials found in the regional landscape. Simply echoing architectural styles of earlier eras and foreign lands would likely seem less relevant to an emerging nation trying to craft a contemporary Icelandic identity.
An excellent example of this is the work of official state architect, Guðjón Samuelsson, who was commissioned to design Hallgrimskirkja in 1937. He drew on Iceland’s geoactivity for inspiration, with the columns supporting the bell tower made to resemble basalt formations.
While Hallgrimskirkja is the most famous modernist church in Iceland, Sam’elsson is also responsible for several others throughout the country, including the Akureyri Church (shown above) and the Lauganeskirkja church in Reykjavik (shown below).
Okay, thats my theory, butI would love to hear other people’s ideas!
Images by the author, and via Shutterstock