Iceland. Part 1

Iceland? On the website about Ireland? No, it’s not a typo.

In certain ways these two islands are quite similar. Iceland seems to be in certain aspects an extreme version of Ireland. It’s a remote island at the edge of Europe, scarcely populated (with  majority of the population based in the capital city) and rather windy and rainy for most of the time. Both countries appeared on the maps as independent states around the same time. Iceland became independent state in 1918, and became republic in 1944. Icelandic economy at the beginning of 20th century was far cry from the wealthy state it is now.

With these facts in mind Iceland can be used as a good case study to compare the modernist architecture development on both islands.

Surprisingly, for such a remote and small community, modern architecture was introduced almost without any opposition, and young architects educated in Denmark and other Scandinavian countries were heavily influenced by the functional nordic approach.

Some of the buildings from Reykjavik dating roughly 1920-1947 (my highly subjective dates for the heroic period of the modernism) are presented below.

Public buildings

  1. National Museum of Iceland. 1944-1950. Architect: Sigurður Guðmundsson, Eiríkur Einarsson. Functionalist concrete building erected as a gift of Icelandic people to the nation to celebrate creation of the republic.
National Museum
National Museum of Iceland. View from north. Photographed in 2017
National Museum-plan
National Museum of Iceland. Floor plan with 2000 extension at the south end of the building.

2. Einar Jónsson Museum. 1916-1924. Architect: Einar Jónsson, Einar Erlendsson. Iceland’s first museum. Designed by the sculptor himself as a gift to Iceland to display publicly his works. Top storey contained penthouse apartment. ‘Column’ at the back of the building contains spiral staircase. The style of the building can be only described as eclectic, as the the term ‘postmodernism’ will have to wait until modernism gets invented.

Einar Jonsson 1
Einar Jónsson Museum. North-east view. Photographed in 2017.
Einar Jonsson 1923
Einar Jónsson Museum. North-east view. Photographed in 1923. Photo: L. Albert.
Einar Jonsson 2
Einar Jónsson Museum. south-west view with centrally visible spiral staircase enclosure. Photographed in 2017.
Einar Jonsson-plan
Einar Jónsson Museum. Ground floor plan.

3. Reykjavik Art Museum. 1933-39. Architect: Sigurður Guðmundsson, in collaboration with harbour master Þórarinn Kristjánsson. Originally built as a fishery office and a warehouse. Rebuilt in 2000 to house the museum.

Reykjavik Art Museum
Reykjavik Art Museum. View from the harbour. Photographed in 2017.

4. University of Iceland. 1936-40. Architect: Guðjón Samúelsson. Concrete building with Icelandic quartz cladding.

University of Iceland
University of Iceland – view of main entrance as seen from the Nordic House designed by Alvar Aalto. Photographed in 2017
University of Iceland-plan
University of Iceland – ground floor plan.

5. Melar School. 1944-46. Architect: Einar Svensson, Ágúst Pálsson. Due to architect’s education in Germany – the design was highly influenced by German funcitionalism. At the time of erection this was Reykjavik’s most splendid building used also for public events.

Melar School
Melar School. View from North-east. Photographed in 2017
Melar School-plan
Melar School – Ground floor plan.

6. Nes Lutheran Church. 1944-57 Architect: Ágúst Pálsson. First non-traditional church in Iceland. Sparked some controversy at the time of construction.

Nes Church
Nes Church. View from East. Photographed in 2017
Nes Church-plan
Nes Church. Ground floor plan

7. Reykjavik Swimming Pool. 1929-37 Architect: Guðjón Samúelsson. First swimming pool building in Iceland. Reinforced concrete structure.

Reyklavik municipal pool
Reyklavik municipal swimming pool. View from north-west. Photographed in 2017
Reyklavik municipal pool-plan
Reykjavik municipal swimming pool. Ground floor plan.

8. Agricultral Bank of Iceland. 1946-48. Architect: Gunnlaugur Halldórsson. Clear example of new ‘International Style’ with open plan public space, clean architectural lines and structure based on concrete columns.

Agricultural bank
Agricultural bank of Iceland. Street view. Photographed in 2017
Agricultural bank-plan
Agricultural bank of Iceland. Ground floor plan.


Map below shows the locations of the buildings around Reykjavik. Red circles denote public buildings, green ones – residential.

Residential modernist buildings in Iceland will be covered by separate blog entry.


Villa as seen from the main gate. Twisty path is leading to the entrance visible to the left. Photographed in 2017

Possibly the best example of Irish modernism, that’s not even in Ireland. Designed by the Irish designer-turned-architect Eileen Grey in cooperation with her partner Jean Badovici between 1926-29, located in little village Roquebrune-Cap-Martin on the French Riviera (about half an hour drive from Nice).

View of the main southern terrace and master bedroom windows with movable shutters. Photographed in 2017
View of the main southern terrace. Photographed in 2017

Other than being an outstanding example of early modernist total design experience – the building and the furniture are integral entities – the building was subject to artistic intervention by no other than Le Corbusier himself. This resulted in 8 controversial murals that led to long lasting dispute between Gray, Badovici and Le Corbusier.

One of 8 controversial murals painted by Le Corbusier. Guest’s room in lower ground floor. Photographed in 2017
Geography-themed collage linked with integrated light fitting in the main room (replica). Photographed in 2017

Currently, after many years of neglect and delapidation, the villa is restored (another controversial topic – this time among the conservation community) and since 2015 available for guided tours (together with adjoining Le Cabanon, and the holiday cabins by Le Corbusier).

Master bedroom’s terrace with Le Corbusier’s holiday cabins visible in the background. Photographed in 2017

It’s a pity that such an architectural masterpiece was not built in Ireland, and Eileen Grey herself had to leave Ireland for England and subsequently France early in her life to pursue her career.

Interesting solution to the electric installation. Surface-mounted exposed wiring. Photographed in 2017.
External ‘solarium’ with Monaco visible in the background. Photographed in 2017.

It’s worth noting that when E-1027 was being designed in 1926, the Weissenhof Siedlung in Stuttgart was still a year away, and the benchmark modernist villas like Mies van der Rohe’s Haus Tugendhat or Le Corbusier’s Villa Savoye were not even commissioned.

Shaded terrace under the main house raised on the columns (pilotis) in accordance with Le Corbusier’s 5 principles of modern architecture. Photographed in 2017

More information on Grey’s work and tour bookings available on Cap Moderne’s website.