Reykjavik’s Architectural Landmarks
Architecture may not be the first thing that comes to mind when planning your days in Reykjavik but the following landmarks could make you reconsider.
It’s hard to put a finger on 'Icelandic' architecture. Icelandic architects often went abroad to study which caused them to bring back an assortment of styles and traditions to make their mark on the landscape. Reykjavík is a collage of styles.
Guðjón Samúelsson (1887-1950)
Many important buildings were designed by the country’s first state architect, Guðjón Samúelsson (1887-1950). Guðjón studied housing design in Copenhagen before returning to Iceland in 1915. That same year, a fire took place in Reykjavík, destroying many buildings in the city center. Guðjón was subsequently hired to design many of the city's most important buildings. After the fire, it was clear that the Norwegian-style timber houses were too much of a fire hazard, so cement prevailed as the preferred material for many of these buildings.
Hallgrímskirkja, named after the Icelandic poet and clergyman Hallgrímur Pétursson (1614-1674), is a Lutheran church standing 74.5 meters high, the largest church in Iceland. Guðjón Samúelsson designed the church, commissioned in 1937, with inspiration from the surrounding landscape in an Expressionist style popular in Denmark at the time. It can easily be seen from anywhere in Reykjavik, proving to be a very helpful landmark for navigating the small capital.
Another church designed by Guðjón that is a prominent landmark is Landakotskirkja. Formally known as Basilika Krists konungs (The Basilica of Christ the King), Landakoótskirkja is the cathedral of the Catholic Church in Iceland which was finally sanctified in 1929 after years of construction. Its Neo-Gothic design is unforgettable.
The National Theatre of Iceland was designed by Gudjón Samúelsson in 1950. The gothic, ominous architecture combines inspiration from Iceland’s basalt columns as well as Art Deco elements that can be seen in the window parapets.
Stjórnarráðið, the Prime Minister’s office, is located near the harbor, just across from Harpa. The building was first constructed as a prison in 1759 by command of King Friedrich V. of Denmark. After Iceland gained independency from Denmark, the house hosted all ministries in the country at once! Since 1996, the building has been exclusively the Prime Minister office.
The Icelandic Parliament Building, Alþingishúsið, is located by Austurvöllur square with 63 lawmakers inside. The 1881 building was designed by Danish architect Ferdinand Meldahl and is composed of hewn basalt. Alþingishúsið has housed different institutions for Iceland at different times, such as the National Library, the National Gallery, as well as the University of Iceland from 1911 to 1940. The new glass extension is from 2002.
Art and Culture Establishments
The Nordic House, located in front of the University of Iceland, organizes cultural events and exhibitions related to the Scandinavian countries. The house is designed by Finnish celebrity modernist Alvar Aalto (1898-1976) and features most of Aalto’s signature traits with all furnishings inside the building also being by his design. The house is one of his later works, completed in 1968, and features an ultramarine blue ceramic rooftop that takes its organic shape from the mountain row in the background. The extensive use of tile, wood and white plaster throughout the building are also part of his signature design.
The sculptor Ásmundur Sveinsson (1893–1982) designed Ásmundarsafn, where he also lived and worked, throughout three building stages that took place in 1942, 1946, and 1955-59.The museum is now part of Reykjavík Art Museum. The structure is surrounded by Sveinsson’s sculptures in the garden, both his earlier figures and his later abstract compositions. Sveinsson’s work is exhibited inside the museum, along with the works of other contemporary artists.
The Einar Jónsson Museum was built according to plans by the Icelandic sculptor, Einar Jónsson (1874-1954). Thus, the building can be considered his biggest sculpture, which also served as his studio, his gallery, as well as his home. In 1909, Einar offered all of his works as a gift to the Icelandic people on the condition that a museum be built to house them. The architect, Einar Erlendsson, officially signed the plans for the museum in 1916. The museum officially opened in 1923 and was the country’s first art museum.
Newer Architectural Designs
Harpa Concert Hall is the home of the Icelandic Symphony Orchestra and Opera with an array of cultural events and concerts throughout the year. Constructed between 2007-2011 during the notorious banking crash, the building was designed by the Danish Henning Larsen Architects in collaboration with Icelandic Batteriid Architects. The façade is by the Icelandic-Danish artist Ólafur Eliasson, inspired by the natural Basalt columns found in the Icelandic landscape. Harpa has gathered numerous awards for its design and architecture. Visitors are welcomed inside.
Perlan ('The Pearl') is a museum with a rotating glass dome on top of Öskjuhlíð Hill overlooking Reykjavík. The building is made up of six water tanks that store 24 million litres of Reykjavík's hot water. The architect Ingimundur Sveinsson designed the building in 1991, updating the hot water storage tanks that had stood on top of Öskjuhlíð since the mid-20th-century with its trademark glass dome. It now houses cafés, restaurants and the Wonders of Iceland nature exhibition.
The Reykjavík City Hall was a controversial construction in the late 1990s. Built on the northern end of the city pond, critics said the tall, concrete structure was at odds with the small wooden houses nearby. Once the building was complete in 1994, the location became accepted as welcoming with the right amount of authority. The first floor is open to the public and hosts an enormous 3D map of Iceland.