The Nordic House: Reminding Us Of What We Aren’t - The Reykjavik Grapevine

The Nordic House: Reminding Us Of What We Aren’t

Published August 18, 2017

Photos by
Art Bicnick

The Nordic House was built in Reykjavík in 1968 to prove that Iceland is indeed one of the Nordic Countries. In a way, it almost proves the opposite.

Pan-Scandinavianism was a movement that briefly flourished in the mid-19th century. The idea was to create one nation-state out of all the Nordic countries. And it wasn’t so fanciful. Arguably, there are closer similarities, culturally and even linguistically, between Norway, Sweden and Denmark, than there were between different parts of Italy or Germany. And yet those countries became nation-states while the Nordics remained divided.

United Scandinavia

Part of the reason has to do with circumstance. The high point of Pan-Scandinavianism came in 1851, when Norway and Sweden sent troops to assist the Danes in a war against Germany (they came too late to do any actual fighting, but it’s the thought that counts). In the next war, in 1864, against a more formidable Germany, led by Bismarck and allied with Austria, the Norwegians and Swedes decided to stay home. That put paid to the dream of a united Scandinavia.

“In the 19th century, everyone here was busy trying to get away from Denmark, so joining with them in a Scandinavian union did not sound appealing.”

And yet, even if they would remain separate states, unification pressed on with a monetary union before World War I and attempts at a military union before World War II (both failures). In the latter war, the Nordic countries fought on various sides and after it ended, some opted to join NATO and what ultimately became the EU, while others did not. But in 1952 the Nordic Council was quietly formed and now citizenship in one country essentially means citizenship in them all.

The struggle for independence

So where does Iceland fit into all of this? In the 19th century, everyone here was busy trying to get away from Denmark, so joining with them in a Scandinavian union did not sound appealing. But some individuals, such as the writer Gunnar Gunnarsson—born in Iceland but working in Denmark—did take to it as a way of reconciling their two identities.

In fact, the moniker “Scandinavian” itself referred to the independent kingdoms of Denmark and Sweden, as well as the separate Norwegian realm of the Swedish king. But what about Iceland and Finland, which both became independent in the first half of the 20th Century?

The name of the Nordic Council indeed refers to the five countries. Yet both Iceland and Finland seem marginal, so much so that institutions had to be set up to spread the Nordic gospel to these borderlands. Finland—always a bit too close to Russia for comfort, as well as speaking an unusual Finno-Ugric tongue—got a Nordic library. Iceland got a whole building to house the library. And even the Faroe Islands have a Nordic House. But there’s no need for one in Oslo, Stockholm or Copenhagen. Those are the Scandinavian heartlands, and missionary work is not required.

From Finland with class

This isn’t to say we’re complaining. The Nordic House is a beautiful building, designed by Finnish architect Alvar Aalto, representing one peripheral country by another. Better yet, it is runs and paid for by the Nordic Council, so all events organised by the house are free.

The location is also interesting. It used to be a small Nordic island in an Icelandic swamp. The mire is still there—a sanctuary for birds, now—but the house is slowly being encroached upon by modern buildings, including the DeCode Genetics office building, and the Natural Science department of the University of Iceland. But the Nordic House will remain, a reminder of both our Nordic-ness and our peripheral status within that family.


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