Updated: May 7
The monumental presence of the Hallgrimskirkja church in Reykjavík cannot be overstated. In a city where most buildings are just two stories high, it stands out in more ways than one. From a distance, its height is the first thing that sets it apart.
Literally towering above the majority of its neighbors and impacting the skyline of downtown Reykjavík, the church tower reaches up seventy-three meters into the sky over the capital.
The second way in which the church stands out is in its unique design. There was great controversy over the years around the architect’s vision for the church. Many people criticized the style that drew on a modernist aesthetic along with inspiration from Iceland’s geological formations.
In this article, we will take a closer look at Hallgrimskirkja, delving into the architect’s vision for the place and the long process of its realization. Lastly, we’ll touch on the practicalities of visiting this unique and impactful landmark.
The history and design of the Hallgrimskirkja Church
The idea of building a new church in Reykjavík began way back in 1930. At this time, the state announced a nationwide competition to design a grand cathedral for the heart of the capital.
However, after several years, none of the entrants quite satisfied their vision. So in the late 1930s, the government commissioned Guðjón Samúelsson to design a fitting church.
Samúelsson was the official state architect for Iceland, and he had already designed several important buildings in the country. At that time, he was the only fully qualified architect in the whole country, so it is not so surprising that the competition was not an all-out success. If there were to be a similar competition in present-day Iceland, the results would be very different.
The brief was that the church should seat 1200 people and have a high impactful tower befitting its place in the center of Iceland’s capital. The tower was also to double as a radio mast for the soon-to-launch national radio service.
Samúelsson began researching and working on his designs throughout the 1940s, though work actually began at his chosen city center site in 1945. Unfortunately, Samúelsson fell ill and died in 1950 before he was able to fully complete his designs for the church. The task of realising his vision was passed on to two new architects, Hörður Bjarnason and Garðar Halldórsson.
The whole process sustained many setbacks and much debate and criticism over the years, but these new architects finally managed to finish the project, leading to the church’s consecration in October of 1986. Since then it has provided a place for people to come together to worship and celebrate. It has also become an important landmark within the capital city.
The design inspiration behind Hallgrimskirkja
The idea behind Guðjón Samúelsson’s design process was to create a unique and recognizable Icelandic architectural style. Iceland is a young country without a long history of grand architecture and engineering, as held in many other countries.
Therefore, he wanted to create something unique and entirely Icelandic. Samúelsson based this partly on his preference for the modernist aesthetic, as well as his love of the Icelandic landscape.
It is easy to see how Iceland's incredible natural wonders and geological formations could inspire artists and designers alike. In fact, many of its natural forms appear quite architectural even to the untrained eye. Vast rocky pillars rising up from the ocean, volcanic basalt columns and soaring waterfalls and cliffs.
The famous Spanish architect Gaudi drew inspiration from the flowing curves of nature. Guðjón Samúelsson did the same but through a very different lens and in an entirely different landscape.
If you have already seen some of the main sites in Iceland, you’ll probably have clocked the connection. When looking at the front façade of the Hallgrimskirkja Reykjavik Church, you’ll see an obvious echo of Iceland’s geological formations, especially in the tall basalt columns that are found in several settings around South Iceland.
The most striking resemblance is found at the beautiful Svartifoss waterfall in the Skaftafell Nature Reserve. Here a single plume of water drops down a sheer cliff face. The waterfall is flanked by a series of tall hexagonal black basalt columns.
Similar rock formations are found on Iceland’s famous black sand beach Reynisfjara near the town of Vik. These two dramatic sights offer a palpable connection to the majestic Hallgrimskirkja church.
The main difference between the church and its natural inspiration is the color. The basalt cliffs and columns are a dark and brooding black, whereas the church is pale white granite; it was actually built using a concrete structure, then the façade was cast in smooth white granite.
This choice of material is a further nod to the natural forces of Iceland, bringing to mind snowy views and the monumental forms of the country’s many glaciers.
The interior of Hallgrimskirkja Church
Inside Hallgrimskirkja Church you’ll find a vast and minimalist space of cool and neutral greys. Throughout the space, tall windows of plain glass and simple design flood the interior with light.
To continue the analogy of Iceland’s glacial landscapes, stepping inside the church could be like stepping inside a glacier. Cool, calming, and on a truly grand scale. Don’t worry though, there is heating inside the church.
One of the most striking things about the interior of the church is its organ. This huge instrument was constructed in Germany, and is just over fifteen meters high. It boasts over 5000 pipes with the largest coming in at a whopping ten meters tall. It is an impressive musical instrument both to look at and to hear.
When its chimes fill the interior, you can’t help but be moved. The acoustics in the church are also top-notch, and a new digital set-up makes it much more versatile. Large choral concerts and performances are regularly held in the space. In addition to traditional church services, artists such as Bjork have also performed here.
Visiting Hallgrimskirkja Church
Hallgrimskirkja Church can be visited throughout the year, but it does have seasonal opening hours.
In the summer months from May to September, the opening hours are 9 am to 9 pm.
In the winter season from October to April, it shuts its doors at 5 pm.
These are the visiting hours but, of course, there are regularly scheduled special events when the church is open in the evening. This is especially true around Christmas, as many choral services and concerts are held here.
How much does it cost to get in Hallgrimskirkja?
It is free to enter the church building itself, but there is a small charge for taking the elevator to the top of the tower. As one of the highest points in the city, it is well worth going up for a look.
You will see the whole colorful city of Reykjavík stretching out around you. Snowy peaks rise up in the distance, and you can even spot the curve of the bay and the harbor area. A wonderful photo opportunity, it’s also worth visiting to get the lay of the land. Note that access to the tower is always closed half an hour before the church closes.
Who is the statue inside Hallgrimskirkja?
When you visit the church, you will notice a large statue of a man on a stone pillar outside. This prominent piece represents the heroic figure of Leif Erikson, a famous Norse explorer from Iceland. He is thought to be the very first European to set foot on the North American continent.
Vikings ventured far and wide in the tenth and eleventh centuries, and Leif the Lucky was one of the greats! The statue was gifted to the city by the United States to mark 1000 years of the Althingi, or the Icelandic parliament that was established way back in AD930.
What religion is the Reykjavík church?
The Hallgrimskirkja Church is officially a Lutheran church, but its doors are wide open to anyone who would like to experience it.
You may not think of Iceland as a particularly religious country and you’d be quite right. In fact, many Icelandic people are essentially atheists, with a growing interest in reconnecting with the pagan beliefs of their ancestors.
Nonetheless, Christianity has had an important part to play in the history of Iceland. And despite most people only attending church for special occasions, you will find some 300 churches dotted around Iceland.
Reykjavík's main landmark
The Hallgrimskirkja Church lies at the very center of the city of Reykjavík. As such, there are lots to see and do all around it. However, Reykjavík's church remains the capital’s main attraction.
Reykjavík is a very pedestrian-friendly city, so it is easy to explore on foot. If you have an interest in arts and architecture, this is a must for your bucket list. There are also several important places to visit nearby. Now the only thing left to do is to lock in your campervan rental and head straight for Iceland's capital and main city!