Published May 30, 2011
The idea of building a church on the hill called Skólavörðuholt was first broached as early as 1916. Architect Guðjón Samúelsson started making sketches for the church in 1937. He was intent on finding an Icelandic style of architecture, truly a hard task in a country where the building style consisted of turf huts and, later, timber houses from Norway and Denmark—many of them prefabricated. So Guðjón Samúelsson looked to nature for inspiration. Hallgrímskirkja is supposedly influenced by mountains and glaciers, but first and foremost by basalt lava formations common in Icelandic nature. These can also be seen both on the interior and the exterior of another Guðjón Samúelsson building, the National Theatre on Hverfisgata.
LONG CONSTRUCTION TIME
It took a long time to build houses in Reykjavík in those days. The National Theatre was started in 1932 and not opened until 1950. It was used as a depot for the British and American forces during the war. It was then finished during a burst of energy that so drained the architect’s powers that he was actually on his deathbed during the theatre’s inauguration. The building time of Hallgrímskirkja was 38 years. It rose very slowly out of the ground, sometimes no work was done during long periods.
The building was also the butt of many a joke. Iceland´s most famous 20th century poet, Steinn Steinarr, a drinker and a cynic, wrote a famous poem about the church where Hallgrímur Pétursson—the priest and poet to whom the church is dedicated—comes to the architect and asks him to please stop:
The Master Builder of the state
took a handful of clay
the late Hallgrímur Pétursson came to him
and said: No more, no more!
There was also the question of building materials. Iceland had no trees to build from—up until the mid 20th century there were almost no trees in the country—and there was little tradition of stone masonry. So Icelanders warmly embraced reinforced concrete, so much so that it became the favoured building material. However, the quality of the concrete wasn’t good, and there was too much salt in the sand used to mix with the cement. The National Theatre has been crumbling for a long time and the tower of Hallgrímskirkja has been extensively renovated two times.
A BEAUTIFUL BUILDING?
It is only in latter years that Icelanders themselves have come to realise that Hallgrímskirkja is actually quite a beautiful building. Its fame has come from abroad; it is mentioned in most guidebooks and Skólavörðuholt is a favourite with tourists who come to see the church and the statue of Leifur Eiríksson. Skólavörðustígur, the street which lies up to the church, is one of the most pleasant streets in Reykjavík with its small houses of corrugated iron, a building material considered ugly by many but greatly appreciated in a land of wind and rain.
In the old days, the hill was very rocky, as were the eastern slopes around Tjörnin, the pond in the centre of Reykjavík. On the top there was a small tower where the young men of the Reykjavík Latin School, then the highest institution of learning, came to discuss their private matters. There was a small road up the hill. Beside it there was an unmarked grave containing the bones of murderess Steinunn Sveinsdóttir, who died in prison in 1805. It was a tradition to throw a stone towards the grave when passing it. Later, when rocks were being taken from the hill to build the harbour of Reykjavík, a small casket with old bones was found and finally buried in the old cemetery on the western side of the lake.
THE AUTHORITIES’ FAVOURITE
The architect Guðjón Samúelsson was a remarkable man. His buildings are numerous and many of them are quite monumental—no builder in Icelandic history has been so favoured by local authorities.
Guðjón’s main spokesman was Jónas Jónsson from Hrifla, Iceland’s most controversial 20th century politician. Jónas was by all means a remarkable man. He was a farm boy from the north, and he always held the conviction that real culture was to be found on farms and in the countryside. In 1916 and 1917 he was the founder of two of Iceland’s main political parties, Framsóknarflokkurinn, the Farmers’ Party, and Alþýðuflokkurinn, the Social Democratic party. Jónas believed it was the destiny of these parties to work together against the corrupting influences of the merchant class, and later against communism.
THE LITTLE MUSSOLINI
In 1927 Jónas entered government, as Minister of Education and Justice, and soon became the most powerful man in the country. He was hated by his enemies, who actually got the director of Reykjavík’s mental asylum, Kleppur, to declare that Jónas was mad and should be hospitalised. Jónas fought back, the affair is commonly referred to as ‘The Big Bomb’. But certainly he had megalomaniacal tendencies—the then-king of Denmark and Iceland, Christian X, is rumoured to have asked him: “Are you still playing at being the little Mussolini?”
True to his ideals, Jónas built schools around the country—higher education was no more to be a domain of the upper class. Many of these large houses, some of them designed by Guðjón Samúelsson, now stand empty around the countryside. Jónas was also interested in cultural matters, founding a state publishing house to counter the influence of communists in literature, and even holding an exhibition of degenerate modern art—taking the cue from German Nazis.
CITY OF CULTURE
The architect also had huge plans for Skólavörðuholt. Hallgrímskirkja is but a faint shadow of these plans. Originally it was going to be a cathedral in the centre of a big plaza. Around it were to be the university of Iceland, student buildings, the National Gallery as well as the museum of Einar Jónsson. This was going to be the high seat of Icelandic culture—”Háborg” is the Icelandic word, signifying a glorious city upon a hill.
These plans have faded into history. But we have the church and the sculpture museum. The hilltop looks better than it has for many years—to tell the truth it used to be a bit shabby. If you look down the hill towards the east and the south you might catch a glimpse of two other large buildings by Guðjón Samúelsson, Sundhöll Reykjavíkur and the National Hospital, both built in the thirties. Another feature of the hill is of course the statue of Leifur Eiríksson who, as Oscar Wilde noted, “[…]found America, but had the good sense to lose it again.” But then, if he had stayed, New York might have been called New Reykjavík and all those Americans might be speaking Icelandic!