Sofia Nannini is a PhD student in History of Architecture at Politecnico di Torino. Her research interests focus on construction and material history, with a special attention to the history of concrete. For her PhD dissertation, she is researching the role of concrete in Icelandic architecture between the 1850s and the 1950s.
The Story Of A Garden That Survives On The Edge Of The Arctic Circle
There’s not much on the banks of Dýrafjörður, one of western Iceland’s many deep fjords. Some farms, some bare mountains with permanently snowy peaks, a road that runs along the coast, a church, and an old school. The earth is dark and barren, flocks of sheep graze freely between streams, and the north wind doesn’t allow plants to grow very tall. “If you get lost in a forest in Iceland, you just have to stand up.” This joke reflects the arboreal reality of the island with caustic Nordic irony. In fact, only about two percent of its territory is covered with trees. But it hasn’t always been like this. When the first Norwegians arrived by sea in the distant year of 874, birch forests covered almost 40% percent of the island’s surface. Over the centuries, the trees were slowly felled to build ships and houses and to make way for pastures. Only in the last 50 years has this trend been reversed, thanks to political pressure for reforestation. However, it is still strange to spot green stains in Iceland’s almost desert-like desolation, and for this reason the little oasis of Skrúður stands out even more.
Skrúður is a little botanical garden ensconced in a little wall of stone at the slopes of a steep, icy incline, founded in 1909 by Sigtryggur Guðlaugsson, a Protestant pastor and teacher in the nearby boarding school of Núpur. The purpose of the garden was to educate the school’s students, teach them how to work the land, to take care of plants, and be able to recognize them. It was such that, Sigtryggur and his students slowly erected an enclosure, removed the stones, dug the ground, and planted trees that still flourish today. While there is frozen gravel all around, one enters in the garden and is surrounded by colorful flowerbeds and fruit trees.
In the center of the greenery lies a little greenhouse, a glass refuge capable of capturing the little warmth provided by the Arctic sun. This hidden corner of agriculture ripped from the barren landscape was awarded the Carlo Scarpa International Prize in 2013, an important recognition in the world of landscape architecture. The jury commented this on the motivation for their awarding of the prize:
“Skrúður is a fortress and a crucible unto itself: its enclosure embodies a condition that searches for a point of contact between two worlds, that of the confidence and trust of cultivating the earth, and that of the conscious gaze on the vastness of locations that accompany the very human experience.”
Passing the entrance gate into the garden is, in fact, an unparalleled architectural experience. It’s hard to feel the place’s uniqueness at first, because the presence of fertile land and green fronds above is easily taken for granted. Slowly, however, one catches on to the powerful gesture made by the young students of these valleys a century ago: to snatch up a little strip of silent, deserted land, and render it human, transforming a minute enclosure into a place of learning and memory.
The Icelandic poet Guðmundur Ingi Kristjánsson described the garden like this in 1938:
Skrúður er brosandi blettur
blettur sem er að sjá
sýnir hve mild og máttug
moldin sem landið þitt á.
Skrúður is a smiling mark
that deserves to be seen
which shows how mild and powerful
the earth of your land can be.
Those who admire Skrúður really do, in fact, “know the creative wish to cultivate.” An activity so ancient and so human that it can only be fully appreciated on the edge of the Arctic. Those who admire and walk about this garden in the middle of nowhere understand the incredible magnitude of the work hidden behind every flower, and are moved by the observation of the eternal showdown between humanity and nature, which here, even for just a few square meters, finds harmony.
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