Architecture in Iceland

By | May 22, 2020

The basis for the traditional Icelandic settlement is the Norse building custom that the Norwegians brought with them at the landmark in the 8th century. The houses have been country houses with an internal wooden structure with earthen posts which were surrounded by protective walls of stone and peat. Later, they were replaced by stave houses, where all constructive joints are raised above the ground.

The first churches in Iceland have been built on the same principle as the profane buildings. The small Icelandic stave churches seem to have had many features in common with the simple Norwegian stave churches. However, around the church, in many cases, protective walls were erected in peat and stone. An example is the recently excavated site after the church in Stöng from the 1100s.

Throughout the Middle Ages, the Icelandic stave churches were developed in a separate direction. Larger churches were often built as three-tiered long churches with raised midships. The largest were the cross-built stave churches in the diocese of Hólar and Skálholt. In the 15th century it stood an approx. 50 m long stave church in Hólar, which is the largest stave church known.

In the Middle Ages it was approx. 330 parish churches in Iceland. All churches have been stake builders. No masonry church was ever built in Iceland, but it is known that in a few cases the construction of churches of masonry stone was begun. After the Reformation, the number was greatly reduced, and the churches were consistently smaller in size. As late as 1567, however, an almost 50-meter-long stave church was built in Skálholt. Later, the stave was replaced by timber-like techniques. Smaller churches were surrounded by stone and earth walls. Where also the roof is covered with peat, the term peat church is often used. Around 1700 it was still standing approx. 30 larger stave churches from the Middle Ages in Iceland. The latter were demolished in the 19th century.

Architecturally designed houses were pure exceptions to Iceland in the 19th century. The typical corrugated wooden houses, often with Norwegian models, were usually designed by the craftsmen themselves.


The very first Icelandic architect is said to have been Rögnvaldur Ólafsson, who at the beginning of the 20th century designed houses that are among the best in Icelandic wave gaze architecture.

In 1911, the first house with concrete floors was built, and when the country was given new building regulations after a major fire in Reykjavík in 1915, construction with concrete became almost unanimous. At the same time, the country’s settlements had reached a level where growth could no longer be controlled. In 1921, therefore, a law was passed which said that places with more than 500 inhabitants should be planned. A government planning council was set up, and in this council we find Gudjón Samúelsson, the first Icelander to complete an academic architectural education abroad. Samúelsson was initially influenced by both national romantic trends and the Art Nouveau style, as can be traced in the commercial and office building of the firm Nathan & Olsen in Reykjavík from 1916, but over the years he moved over neoclassicism towards a more modern design language,

There is no architectural education in Iceland, and most Icelandic architects are educated at educational institutions in the other Nordic countries. Sigurður Gudmundsson was, like most others at this time, educated in Copenhagen and in 1925 established his own practice in Reykjavík. His most important works from the early years, the Austubæjar primary school (1930), show clear influence from Nordic neoclassicists such as the Swedish Gunnar Asplund and the Danish Hack Kampmann. But as early as 1929 he, together with the Danish architect Johannes Kolborg, designed a functionalist villa.

When, around 1930, a new generation of architects returned from Copenhagen with impetus from recent European architecture, functionalism was consolidated as a leading architectural direction in Iceland as well. Among these was Gunnlaugur Halldórsson. In the late 1930s, he designed a number of working homes in an area on the outskirts of Reykjavík city center that was also planned according to the urban planning principles of functionalism, and in 1945 the Búnadarbankinn in Reykjavík was completed. With its load-bearing concrete columns and exposed plastered facade with large glass fields and its flat roof, it has all the hallmarks of functionalism, and the expedition hall is considered the earliest example of a purely modernist-designed space in Icelandic architecture.

In parallel with the breakthrough of international modernism, Gudjón Samúelsson worked on a design language with clearer references to Icelandic peculiarities. The best example is the national theater, Þjóðleikhúsið, which was completed in 1950. The form-building itself has role models in Icelandic nature, and the facade is tested for the first time the technique of using Icelandic soil material as a plaster on concrete, a technique that gradually became common as an application of the international impulses to the country’s own conditions.

In the years following the Second World War, new architects came home from studies abroad, not just in the Nordic countries, and Icelandic architecture is undergoing the same rapid changes as the rest of architecture. But at the same time, work is also underway to reinterpret Icelandic tradition in interaction with the newer form impulses. This is particularly evident in the small-house construction, where the older Icelandic building types are used as examples, both in terms of volume construction and use of formal elements and in the use of materials. In the mid-1950s, Skarphédinn Jóhansson designed houses with slate roofs with a slight slope, and preferably used wood and natural stone.

The same urge to find the basic elements of the Icelandic building tradition and combine them with constructive honesty is found by Manfred Vilhjámsson, who at the same time with Jóhansson particularly strived for ease of expression, construction and material use and gave the houses flat roofs supported on concrete walls in combination with columns of three. Högna Sigurdardóttir showed a distinctive new interpretation in four detached houses from the 1960s. The trend also appeared in larger buildings and facilities, such as in Skálholt folk high school from 1972, also the one designed by Manfred Vilhjálmsson, together with Thorvaldur Thórvaldsson.

In recent decades, Icelandic architecture has continued to show us mirror images of international trends, and constantly in what can be called a collective attempt to justify architecture and buildings in local and regional conditions. It has probably been of some significance in this sense that the Nordic House, designed by Alvar Aalto, was completed in 1968. As elsewhere in Europe, this, on the one hand, results in a nostalgic return to old and familiar motifs from older traditional way of construction. But at the same time, younger architects work on reading the place and the buildings as character and history, not as inherited form. Gudmundur Jónsson’s townhouse at the exhibition Nordforum 90 in Malmö is an attempt to interpret the old Icelandic longhouse in a new form of unmistakably modern character.

Also, the new Reykjavík City Hall, designed by the architectural office Stúdió Grandas and completed in 1992, is a special interpretation of an official building on the site, on the banks of Tjörnin right in the center of the city, not a mere reinterpretation of formal models. The same architects are behind the new Supreme Court building (1996), which with its sculptural mass effect and its cladding in copper has connections both to the Icelandic landscape and to the tradition of dressing the houses with corrugated iron.

Architecture in Iceland