Natural by Design
Words by Jóhann Páll Ástvaldsson
Photography by Golli
You may not know it but when visiting Iceland, you’re likely to encounter the work of Basalt Architects. The company’s team is behind the Blue Lagoon’s Retreat hotel, the GeoSea Geothermal Sea Baths in Húsavík, and the LAVA Centre volcano museum in Hvolsvöllur, to name a few projects. Basalt Architects have flipped the script in architecture, letting nature lead the way in construction. Established in 2009, the company has revamped Icelandic bathing culture, focusing on putting people into touch with nature.
Led by trio Hrólfur Karl Cela, Sigríður Sigþórsdóttir, and Marcos Zotes, Basalt’s vision is to work with nature instead of building on top of it. “We work with the lay of the land each time and try to draw out the enjoyable and distinguishing features of each place. Essentially, our work aims for people to enjoy the things that were already there,” Hrólfur explains. The GeoSea Geothermal Sea Baths in Húsavík, cleverly built into a hill on a cliffside, is a great example of this. The baths seem to appear out of nowhere, situated right on the edge of a cliff, overlooking the wide Skjálfandi bay and the Kinnarfjöll mountain range on the other side. “When entering a building, it’s so important that we allow the nature to capture you right away. Being in touch with nature allows you to relax. You’re not navigating something that’s purely man-made, which hides the horizon, mountains, and the view,” Sigríður adds.
One of the most important working rules at Basalt is that the team has no predetermined vision when working on a project. “It’s the work process that creates our method, rather than the other way around. That’s what is so enjoyable, to enter a project with a completely clean slate. The concept and ideas come during the process, essentially,” says Marcos. Hrólfur explains further, “We find our spark of creativity at different points in each project. Sometimes, we arrive at a location and immediately find our direction, but at other times, it takes us longer to find it.”
Basalt take great care to work with the local materials already in place. Yet, many of their buildings feature concrete. “Of course, we try to ensure that we use ecological material. But we have to look at all aspects, especially when we’re working in Iceland,” Hrólfur explains. “Concrete isn’t a very ecological material. But in many cases, it’s the only realistic option in our environment.” The material is nevertheless artfully fused with the surrounding nature. In between the cement at the Blue Lagoon, you will find naturally growing moss and floors mixed with lava grains, along with unique lava formations. According to the trio, construction in nature is always a disturbance, no matter how you frame it. “We have a lot of freedom, but we must remember that we’re essentially colonising nature. Normally in our projects, we don’t enter an area with a particular style, with buildings of a certain height, placement, or look. Therefore, we try to use what is beautiful and unique in each area,” Sigríður states.
Basalt always try to work with the material presented to them in the surrounding landscape. The buildings at the Highland Baths in Þjórsárdalur valley, currently in the design phase, will be carved into the mountain, but great care will be taken to leave nature as undisturbed as possible. The mountainside is covered with pumice, light solidified lava, and rhyolite from volcanic eruptions, which will be dug up and replaced at the top of the buildings. The Retreat at the Blue Lagoon follows the same philosophy. The hotel and spa flow in between natural lava formations that form walls and rooms. Local conditions also have to be taken into account, as the low-hanging summer sun can be quite intrusive. Special sun screens were put in place, each one of them with a unique design based on actual lava formations. Vök in Egilsstaðir, another bathing project in the works, will incorporate elements of a larch forest situated in the area.
Iceland has a long-standing bathing tradition, and many Icelanders visit swimming pools regularly to soak in geothermal hot tubs. Basalt has worked on a number of large bathing projects in recent years. According to their architects, the culture is going through subtle changes. “The bathing culture is moving towards a spa experience,” Sigríður says. “It is spreading into the traditional swimming pools. What’s happening if we look at Vesturbæjarlaug, Akraneslaug, and Laugardalslaug pools?” In recent years, many swimming pools have expanded their relaxation areas, adding hot tubs and steam baths, and incorporated luxurious design elements into the everyday bathing experience. Sigríður continues, “If I’m not mistaken, our pools are very well-attended by foreign travellers. The bathing culture is expanding.”
The town of Akranes, a short drive from Reykjavík, has gotten the Basalt treatment recently. The newly-opened Guðlaug geothermal tub offers daring sea swimmers a chance to warm up after a cold dip into the North Atlantic Ocean. Situated right at the tidemark on Langisandur beach, it’s designed so that seawater flows into the lower pool. This allows the naturally hot geothermal water to mix with the cold North Atlantic seawater. Akranes also hired Basalt to overhaul the municipal pool at Jaðarsbakkar. The team opened the design up so that visitors can enjoy an uninterrupted view of Faxaflói bay.
Basalt have received their fair share of accolades on their journey. They’ve been nominated for the sought-after Mies van der Rohe award multiple times, the European Union Prize for Contemporary Architecture. In 2018, the team won the Icelandic Design Awards for their contribution to bathing culture. The trio are grateful for the awards, but their feet remain firmly planted on the ground. “We never go into a project with the goal of winning an award. The accolades are a consequence of hard work and ambition,” Hrólfur states. But which of their projects stands out for them? Unsurprisingly, the trio couldn’t choose one. Marcos took the lead, “There’s always something in each project which we are very proud of and is a favourite of ours.” This fits right in with their philosophy – each project is handled separately, according to the unique demands of each location. The nature surrounding the area shapes the vision for the project.
The mind inevitably wanders when it thinks of the future for Basalt. Is an expansion outside of Iceland part of the plan? “You never know,” Sigríður states matter-of-factly. Don’t be surprised if you find yourself relaxing in a Basalt-designed building in the near future, whether in Iceland or abroad.
This article is an excerpt. Read the full article in the latest issue of Iceland Review Magazine. Subscribe here to get the magazine delivered to your door.
Iceland Review is the longest-running English-language magazine presenting Iceland’s community, culture, and nature – since 1963.