One thing you immediately notice when you arrive in an Icelandic village or town is the small, colorful houses clad in corrugated iron.
You find a red house with a black roof and white window frames next to a bright green house with a dark green roof next to a chocolate brown house next to a baby blue house and so on. The color scheme is bedazzling and really charming.
My Icelandic boyfriend’s grandmother grew up in a turf house in the remote Icelandic country side—less than 90 years ago. Wait, people still used turf houses in the 20th century? I know, quite amazing. But also a bit confusing.
Just in case you aren’t a history nerd like me, I will explain a few things briefly:
Iceland was settled towards the end of the 9th century, in the middle of the great Viking Age. The settlers were mostly from Norway and brought their local building traditions with them. In this case we are talking about the typical Viking longhouses (langhús) or Viking Age farm house. These longhouses were quite simple, they had one large space know as hall or main room (skáli) with a central fireplace. The walls were curved and made of pieces of turf (strengur). The turf roof rested on two beams supported by two rows of posts which divided the hall into different areas for different purposes. The side areas, for example, had a slightly raised timber platform which was used as sleeping area. In another compartment people were stalling farm animals.
Later on, the design of the longhouse changed and elements were added, such as a living room (stofa), smaller outhouses and latrines.
Today we can only look at the remains of such Viking age turf houses and leave it up to the archaeologists to make sense of it.
A wonderful and highly interesting example of such a Viking longhouse can be found in the oldest district of Reykjavík, at Aðalstræti 16 to be precise. By chance, the remains of a 10th century Viking farm house were discovered and turned into a great exhibition, the Settlement Exhibition 871±2. This show is one of my absolute favorites.
Another Viking farm house that can be visited as part of the National Museum of Iceland’s building collection is the Keldur farm in Rangávellir.
Turf houses evolved more and more according to the social changes and a new type of building emerged. The classic Viking Age turf house was replaced by the so called passage farmhouse (gangabær) which had the entrance between the living room and the main room, and several smaller buildings joined by one passageway.
The museum of Glaumbær farm in Skagafjörður is a perfect example for such a passage farmhouse.
By the 16th century, housing in Iceland was in severe decline due to the lack of timber for heating and as building material. Living in such a house may seem wildly romantic, but we shouldn’t forget that those turf houses were cold, damp and dark.
No, thank you!
Anyhow, the Icelandic turf houses are a great example of the interaction between building and nature, being the ideal shelter from the rough Icelandic climate. The people of Iceland used to call those turf heaps their homes for over 1100 years.
With the beginning of urbanization in the 18th century, timber buildings emerged in Iceland. It was the Danish merchants living in Iceland who started importing more and more timber to build themselves nice houses. Those early timber houses made by the Danes had tall, steeply pitched roofs and low walls and had a dark appearance due to the tarring of the outer walls.
Around 1870 a timber-building style surfaced that was called Icelandic classicism. This period was followed by the neo-Romantic Swiss-chalet style at the end of the 19th century, brought into the country by Norwegians. These houses stood out because of their ornamental friezes above doors and windows and projecting eaves with decorated end beams. These features were adopted by the Icelandic carpenters but used said corrugated iron instead of timber imported from England to clad the houses.
This style became distinctively Icelandic. Many houses of this beautiful style can be seen all over the country, such as the Ministerial Residence (Raðherrabústaðurinn) on Tjarnargata, Reykjavik.
As of today, corrugated iron is still the most popular roofing material.
Naturally, this is just a small but interesting glimpse into the history of Icelandic architecture.
Here is a list of historic buildings in Iceland that can be visited. For more information I also recommend the book A Guide to Icelandic Architecture by the Association of Icelandic Architects.
Katharina Hauptmann – email@example.com