dancing with architecture: iceland

O my, we love the Land of Ice! This was our fourth trip, the second one over New Years. The spark for this trip was to get together an old crew that included folks from Austin, France, and Ireland and spend some quality time together. Yes, it was cold--and Iceland is having a colder-than-normal winter this year, but this was a good thing. On our previous trip, two to three inches of shiny ice graced 95 percent of the sidewalks in Reykjavik (it was a miracle neither of us fell down, although there were random bouts of accidental breakdancing). For this trip, 95 percent of the sidewalks were blissfully clear (travel tip: if you visit during the winter months, get a room downtown or along one of the main shopping streets where geothermal pipes keep sidewalks ice-free). The colder-than-normal winter has kept the precipitation snowy, which blows off the sidewalks rather than collecting on them through freeze and thaw.

We flew WOW this time instead of Iceland Air, and they were fine. The bride was able to score exit row seats, so we had lots of legroom (as long as no one was standing there, which many took to be public space). I can't sleep on planes, so when we landed at 6am, I had been up nearly 24 hours (and still had a day of stuff to do!).



Because this was a shorter trip and we had "guests" to attend to, the visit was more about people than photography (and architecture), but we had our moments (and a rip-roaring good time!) enjoying the Blue Lagoon, seeing gusgus at Harpa, visiting the Church of Columnar Jointing, attempting to gawk the auroras, circling the Golden Circle, experiencing the penis museum, listening to trumpets and organs, ducking fireworks, and enjoying local bites.

First stop, after the arrival of our guests, was the Blue Lagoon. We learned our lesson from our previous trip and reserved our spot early (the bride splurged here as well, getting us a more deluxe package). We heard on a later tour that five years ago, Iceland was receiving about 600,000 tourists a year and now it was receiving 2 million, so book your desirables early! I was concerned that getting into a large hot tub after being up more than 24 hours would be the death of me as I slowly sank into warm, milky-water-outfall from a geothermal plant, but it was invigorating. And being able to take a (rather impressive) shower after all that travel was worth the price of admission on its own. I recommend hitting the lagoon right at opening so you can enjoy it before the drunken hordes arrive. We were also able to enjoy the 11:22 am sunrise with silica and ground moss caked on our faces!

Iceland is progressive on architecture, not surprising given that it's spiritually part of Scandinavia. Old skool Viking vernacular is half buried houses covered in sod. More recent vernacular is colorful cottages clad in corrugated iron panels. But contemporary architecture is decidedly modern and ambitious. The Blue Lagoon is a case in point, designed by Sigrídur Sigthórsdóttir of BASALT and continuously undergoing expansions and improvements:

"I attempted to capture the mystery of the location with the ever-changing play of light and shadow across the lava, the steam from the lagoon and the special light that characterizes the northern part of the world...Icelandic materials from moss and stones characterize the design. We wanted to emphasize the relationship between nature and the man-made."

The on-site restaurant, Lava, is fantastic (although expensive [but not for what you get]).

On the bus into Reykjavik. The moons were enormous during this trip.

After a nap, we set out for Harpa, the performance art center, to see our favorite band, gusgus. Long after booking our trip, Sigur Ros announced that they were organizing a festival for the holidays. How fortunate for us that gusgus played a night we were there! Harpa was designed by the Danish firm Henning Larsen Architects in co-operation with Danish-Icelandic artist Olafur Eliasson. The building evokes basalt, auroras, and the Mid-Atlantic Ridge and received the 2013 Mies van der Rohe award.

photo of Harpa from a previous trip

Our accommodations were in Reykjavik center at Hotel Galtafell, the former Maltese Consulate. The castle-ish building was constructed in 1916 based on plans by Iceland's state architect at the time, Einar Erlendsson. Based on the crenulations on other buildings in the hood, Erlendsson designed a number of buildings in the area. 

After a night of dead-like sleep, we caff'd-up and hit the town.

After wandering around shopping, we stopped at our favorite restaurant in town, Snaps, for a late lunch/early dinner. Even saw Hogni, a former lead singer of gusgus, at the bar!

gina wiener coffee. hmmm...

We then visited Hallgrímskirkja, the main church in town, a stunning expressionistic building designed by Guðjón Samúelsson in 1937. The state architect of Iceland at the time, Samúelsson aimed to create a unique Icelandic architecture. Hallgrímskirkja evokes the columnar jointing of basalt on the island and is amazingly simple, lacking ornamentation. Inside, the interior is clean and unadorned; even the windows are clear, except for one hidden off the altar-- important during the winter months when daylight is at a premium. Our friend pointed out the series of low-set windows behind the altar--unusual for a cathedral--that capture the sun that barely peeks over the horizon in winter. Truly a phenomenal building.

Leif Erikson

A gift from the US in 1930 commemorating the 1,000 year anniversary of Iceland's parliament, the Althingi

the interior is unadorned except for the pipe organ, which itself is somewhat muted (for a pipe organ)

of course, we had to go to the top of the bell tower...

And marching around town...

a banana waiting for banana bread...

After a short nap, we headed out to see the auroras. Seeing the auroras is like fishing: sometimes you don't catch anything, sometimes you catch a small fish, and sometimes you catch a big fish. Unfortunately, the stars were not aligned our way: the night sky sported a full moon, it was partly cloudy, and the electromagnetics were low. We did, ultimately, see a whisper of the aurora, but nothing like our previous trip. Nonetheless, although the tour was way too long for such low potential, we did get to see some gorgeous landscapes in moonlight.

That green wisp in the distance center (and a little to the left) is all that we saw...

From our previous trip:

After a much-too-short night, we toured the Golden Circle. This being my third trip around the circle, I can say that I'm done with the circle, but this trip was worthwhile due to the smaller bus and, especially, the excellent guide we had, Magnus. Magnus is proudly from the Westman Islands, was full of great stories and information, introduced us to a local holiday specialty (shit-smoked lamb on flat bread [his words]), and stealthily played Led Zeppelin's "The Immigrant Song" without comment. Brilliant. 

lava bread! darker than death (and just as delicious...)

last night's party got a little wild...


For dinner, we had Icelandic pizza, which crosses into the bizarre!

The next morning, one of the famous Reykjavikian cats greeted us as we trekked to the Icelandic Phallological Museum (aka "The Junk Shop"  ;-) ).


still waiting for a human specimen...

lamb testical lamp fixture

the Olympic silver medalist Icelandic handball team cast quite an impression at the museum...

the queue for an Icelandic hot dog...


On New Year's Eve, we were back at the church to hear trumpets and timpani accompany the pipe organ for a magical performance. 

Across the street is the Einar Jonsson sculpture museum in an art deco building with a bizarre rear facadeEinar Erlendsson of our guesthouse is the architect of record, but folks speculate that Jonsson had a hand in the design, particularly in the back.

We then made dinner back at the guesthouse (including our own shit-smoked lamb on flat bread!) while Iceland had dinner and watched their year-end summaries on television.

And finally, fireworks back at the--where else?--church!

this damn thing tipped over and started shooting people!

until next time, Iceland: stay cool!


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