Jill Fehrenbacher


by , 07/22/05
filed under: Architecture


One of the first things visitors to Reykjavik notice is the crazy spaceship-looking church dominating the skyline. The Hallgrimskirkja (Hallgrim’s Church) is impossible to miss, as it is by far the tallest building in Reykjavik and it sits on top of a hill. Although most tourists to Reykjavik make a point of going to see this church, 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.) churches tend to be old and built in traditional Gothic and Renaissance styles. In America many churches built in a modern style, but typically their design tends to be uninspired (to say the least).

So why does Iceland have so many sleek, modernist churches? I couldn’t find any good answers, but here are some thoughts:

First of all, unlike most European capitals, Reykjavik doesn?t have a cathedral or large church dating back from 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 of Icelanders for building with wood rather than a more durable material such as 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.

And 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 Icelandic 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, Gu?j?n Sam?elsson, who was commissioned to design Hallgrimskirkja in 1937. He drew on Iceland?s geoactivity for inspiration, with the columns supporting the belltower 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. I would love to hear other people’s theories!

For more on Iceland’s modernist churches, see Explore Iceland

And yet another! (Pic sent to me from a reader) Thanks Scott! This one is near Akureyri and is meant to look like an erupted volcano.

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  1. George Jewitt December 29, 2012 at 9:36 am

    There’s a great modernist church in Riva del Garda in Northern Italy.

  2. Jill July 30, 2005 at 10:02 pm

    Hi Josh-

    Thanks for your interest in my photos. I have some large ones posted online at my photoblog: http://www.internallandscape.com

    and the rest all posted on flickr: http://www.flickr.com/photos/jillfehrenbacher/

  3. Josh July 28, 2005 at 3:17 am

    I would love to see larger versions of these images, for use as wallpaper and such! Are you by any chance putting photos from your trip up on Flickr?

  4. Brennen July 22, 2005 at 11:54 pm

    When I was in Iceland two years ago, I remember there being a resurgence in the ‘sod house’ concept of the Vikings in the more modern suburban developments. It’s more or less the same concept of the green roof, but here it has historical and practical significance. I don’t remember any specific examples that you could check out, but they dot the outskirts of Reykjavik.

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