From Iceland — Ask An Expert: Why Are Icelandic Houses So Colourful?

Ask An Expert: Why Are Icelandic Houses So Colourful?

Published September 5, 2022

Ask An Expert: Why Are Icelandic Houses So Colourful?
Photo by
Art Bicnick
Ragnheiður Kolka Sigurjónsdóttir

If you’ve ever walked down Hverfisgata, or any street in Iceland for that matter, you’ve probably noticed a wide range of house colours. Vibrant greens, blues, purples—you name it, there’s a house in that colour. While we appreciate the architectural rainbow, we were curious if there is any scientific reasoning behind these splashes of colour. We went to Sigurjón B Hafsteinsson, a professor in the University of Iceland’s Faculty of Sociology, Anthropology and Folkloristics, for an answer.

“I like to answer the question about the colours within a social-cultural framing,” says Sigurjón. “Icelandic architecture is based on an anarchist tradition that thrived here for 1100 years.”

Houses in Iceland used to look a lot different than they do now and emphasised individuality.

Sigurjón B Hafsteinsson

“From the Settlement period to the 20th century, Icelanders built their houses with turf, timber and stone. Each house was built with anarchist principles and practice along with utilitarian and practical premises according to needs and aesthetic values of individual families,” says Sigurjón. “Consequently, each turf house was unique and the houses were not subject to any regulations.”

“At the turn of the 20th century, building and planning laws and regulations emerged, which meant that Icelanders gradually lost the authority to build as they pleased,” Sigurjón explains. “Now, no one can construct a house in Iceland without being forced into a submissive position towards bureaucratic authorities like the State or municipalities.”

Despite the implementation of rules and regulations that dwindled individual architectural freedom, Icelanders still found ways to make their houses unique and personal.

“However, the Icelandic anarchist tradition of architecture did not completely leave Icelandic architectural practices,” says Sigurjón. “The colouring of houses is one remaining trace of that anarchist culture.”

“Having said that, there are other factors that have been proposed by scholars and others, like psychological responses to weather conditions, traditions from abroad, class distinction etc., but the anarchist theory is the most interesting one [to me]!”

While there might not be a strong consensus in the scientific community about why Icelandic houses are so colourful, at the Reykjavík Grapevine we all agree on one thing: they look great!

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