Gallery: Iceland’s Magnificent Modernist Churches

Hallgrimskirkja has some incredible texture and light-play as it sweeps upwards.
Hallgrimskirkja has some incredible texture and light-play as it sweeps upwards.

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.

Related: Marcos Zotes Unveils Spectacular Video Project on the Facade of Reykjavik’s Iconic Hallgrímskirkja Church

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


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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:

    and the rest all posted on flickr:

  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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