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Norse Architecture: Buildings in Iceland

Iceland is a country full of magnificent waterfalls, geysers, glaciers, volcanoes, and endless lava fields. It is also a home for the Northern Lights and Midnight Sun. Along with its cliffs, black sand beaches, and colorful Highlands mountains, Iceland is full of amazing sceneries. Its architecture is equally exceptional and, in some aspects, unique. When you look at some pictures of Icelandic buildings, you can immediately recognize some Norse architecture elements' characteristics. Some of them are typical for Iceland only and come from a very remote past.

Traditional viking house and norse architecture

Traditional Viking house


Iceland is one of the most recently inhabited countries in Europe. According to the Icelandic medieval manuscript called the Landnamabok, the settlement's history on the island begins where today's capital city lies- Reykjavik.


Ingolfur Arnarson was Iceland's first settler after arriving in Reykjavik in 874. He was a Viking who came from Norway and built his first farm here. He proved that settlement in the new place was possible and started its colonization and first Viking houses building.


The typical Viking home was made on long log elements, which worked as a solid base for the house. Those elements also had another essential foundation function, protecting the wooden parts from rotting. The pillars supported the ceiling. The roof was built on the beams which were supporting its construction. The upper rafters formed a triangular structure which weight was lying on the pillars, lying on the floor on stones. At the time of the first settlement, Iceland was widely covered in forests, mainly in birch. It was used for building the first Viking houses. Those resources, however, were quickly depleted.


Turf roofs in Iceland


At that time in Norway, the turf roofs were already known. As most of the settlers who came to Iceland were from Norway, a new way to insulate the roof has emerged. Due to the lack of wood, they started to use turf, to cover the walls as it had good thermal insulation properties and was easy to get in Iceland. The roof was lined with grass and moss, which created an additional layer thanks to the roots network. The turf helped to keep the warmth inside the houses and not letting the cold in. It was imperative during the long and harsh winters in Iceland.

Traditional turf house in Iceland by the coast

The turf houses in Iceland are the architectural heritage that became one of the many choices to visit Iceland. Not many of them were maintained so that you can see them nowadays. Some of them, however, the big ones, were renovated and now serve as museums. Most of them belong to the National Museum's Historic Buildings Collection. In 1890 the major part of the Icelanders still lived in turf farms, but they started to move into cities and build different types of houses since that time.


Throughout the Middle Age, all the houses in Iceland were built from the soil. Those prototypes came from the origin country of the settlers, which was Norway.

Some of the houses which were discovered in Reykjavik came from the X century. Their characteristic elements were thick walls, on 2 meters, and oblong shape even up to 20 meters long. The houses were built from stones as wood was scarce on the island. The wood was only used for the roof constructions.


Reykjavik has evolved over the centuries. However, it still has the character of the village rather than a city. The city's development can be seen in several modern skyscrapers built to give the town some fresh view. The Harpa concert hall stands out with its modernity. The building is said to be made of ice, and it looks like it. The basalt landscape of Iceland inspires its facade.


Scandinavian Architecture


There are some aspects of Scandinavian architecture that help us distinguish it from any other. Apart from the houses were people lived, the Vikings also built other buildings that had different functions. One of those was the boathouses, built near the waterline. They served for the Viking boats to be kept during the winter while they were not used. Some of them were incredibly long as the Viking ships could reach up to 25 meters or longer. The base was made of stones, on which the wooden walls were built up. Each house could only keep one ship.

Viking ship by traditional houses showing the norse architecture

The religious houses were also built, even before the Christians came to Scandinavia. The first ritual houses were not much different from other buildings. Those were made from wood and were initially used for defeating the enemies and display the weapons. After the Christianization of Scandinavia, the Steve churches began to appear. The wooden churches were built using the same techniques as in making the boathouses.


The Stave church is very tall, with complex constructions. From the outside, they looked rather dark, as most of them were decorated with intricate designs.


Nowadays, the Scandinavian style in architecture is well known all around the world. Both building houses, interior design, and lifestyle can be subordinated to the philosophy which derives from the North. A balanced selection of decorative details, subdued colors, and simplicity is the key to Scandinavian architecture. Fabrics that preserve natural colors, raw wood, extensive glazing, and small decorative elements are the main aspects of the Scandinavian interior. The furniture is relatively simple. The houses are to be functional and ensure comfort for their inhabitants.


Campervan Reykjavik, 2021.

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