— Ask An Architect: Why Are There No Ancient Buildings In Iceland?

Ask An Architect: Why Are There No Ancient Buildings In Iceland?

Ask An Architect: Why Are There No Ancient Buildings In Iceland?

Published March 10, 2020

Sam O'Donnell

The observant sightseer may notice when travelling the country that there are no ancient buildings to be found. Iceland was founded in 874, so it won’t have as storied an architectural history as, say, Rome, but we can’t help but wonder why there isn’t some sort of large structure that predates 1700. To get to the bottom of this important issue, we asked Architect Hrólfur Karl Cela.

The dearth of ancient structures stems from our building heritage. What settlers used as building materials was pretty much what was already available when they got here. I’m sure you know about our history of turf houses. They are essentially made from a stone foundation, turf walls, and driftwood for the roof and frame. Over time, these buildings simply decomposed into themselves and there’s really nothing left except the stone barrier that drew the blueprint of the house. So over the centuries from settlement until the 1700s, most of the buildings that Icelanders built decomposed because they’re made of the earth itself. It’s sort of cool, and they’ve been romanticised quite a bit. Some say: Wouldn’t it be great to live in a turf house? They’re beautiful to look at and it’s nice to visit the ones that are still standing or have been rebuilt. But I think it’s a bit of an over-romanticisation of that kind of structure. I think life in those buildings was really quite tough.

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