Iceland adventures part 4: architecture


There is some interesting architecture in Iceland. What is striking is that there is a real mixture of styles.

Reykjavik has a bit of everything. I found myself walking down streets thinking, “that looks like it was built in the 1960s… that was probably the 1990s… there’s an art deco building.”

In the UK, when a style goes out of fashion a couple of decades down the line, the temptation is to gratuitously demolish, rebuild, rinse, repeat. I might be wrong, but I got the feeling that they just don’t do that in Iceland. When a building is up, it’s up.

On a practical point, I was also very impressed at how warm all the buildings were. You would think that Icelanders would know a thing or two about building for the harsh climate, and I was not disappointed. In fact, every room I stayed in during the holiday was if anything too warm.

Modernist buildings in Reykjavik

Here are a few modernist and art deco buildings that caught my eye in the capital.

National Theatre of Iceland

National Theatre of Iceland

Hlemmur Square

Hlemmur Square

Einars Jónssonar Museum

Listasafn Einars Jónssonar



Probably the coolest building in Iceland is Harpa, a concert hall and conference venue that was completed in 2011. The 2008 financial crisis put the construction of this building in jeopardy.

It was originally supposed to be a part of a much larger development, which explains why Harpa feels slightly out of the way. The Icelandic government opted to fund the completion of the concert hall, but the rest of the development was abandoned.

The design of Harpa is supposed to echo the basalt columns that are often found in Iceland. The way the light reflects off the glass facade is quite mesmerising.

But in the evening, the entire building becomes a light show, which I guess can be said to reflect the northern lights. I took this video, which doesn’t demonstrate the show at its most exciting, but it will give you an idea of what it’s like.

Last year Harpa won the Mies van der Rohe Award for contemporary architecture. Inside Harpa was an exhibition about previous winners of the award, which was an interesting way to spend an hour or so.


What was most surprising to me was the fact that many of Iceland’s churches are very bold looking, with modernist designs seemingly the norm. It’s so different to the architecture of most churches in the UK.

I didn’t get the chance to photograph many. I saw many interesting churches only in passing while I was in a bus.

Breiðholtskirkja, Mjódd, Reykjavik

I got this snap of Breiðholtskirkja near Mjódd in Reykjavik. Unfortunately it was quite dark, so it’s not the greatest quality photograph, but you get the idea. It looks like a giant teepee.

I am not too sure why there are so many modernist churches in Iceland. Perhaps it is simply because most old churches were built with wood and therefore haven’t lasted, and many churches in Reykjavik were built from the mid-20th century onwards. Check out this interesting article about Iceland’s modernist churches, with more theories.

Church at Selfoss

This is a church in Selfoss. But what interested us about the church was not so much the architecture, but the graveyard.

It was all lit up. I am not sure if this was because it was winter, because it was Christmas, or just because it’s like that all the time. Whatever, it is unlike anything you would see in the UK. It is an impressive amount of effort to go to, and I think it shows a lot of respect for dead people — and a celebration of life.

Click below to see a full 360° photosphere.


Hallgrímskirkja and Leifur Eiríksson


But the best church of all is the majestic Hallgrímskirkja. This spectacular church sits on a hilltop, and is visible from many parts of Reykjavik. It is the sixth tallest building in Iceland. (Four of the five structures that are taller than Hallgrímskirkja are in fact transmitters.)

Outside stands a statue of the proud figure of Leif Ericson, the explorer who is regarded to have been the first European to visit North America, and thought to have been born in Iceland. The statue was a gift from the USA.

The building was designed in 1937. Construction started in 1945, and wasn’t completed until 1986. Like Harpa, its design is inspired by basalt columns.

It is possible to buy a ticket to the top of the tower. The price is very reasonable, at 750 krónur (less than £4). The views from the top are quite impressive, and you can probably see almost all of Reykjavik. It was rather chilly up there though!

View from Hallgrímskirkja

Hallgrímskirkja was also the scene of one of the other highlights of my holiday. But I will cover that in a separate article.


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