Your browser is no longer supported

For the best possible experience using our website we recommend you upgrade to a newer version or another browser.

Your browser appears to have cookies disabled. For the best experience of this website, please enable cookies in your browser

This site uses cookies. By using our services, you agree to our cookie use.
Learn more here.

‘Introducing infrastructure into Iceland’s epic landscape demands a relationship with architects’

Iceland pylons jpg

Rocketing tourism numbers are demanding greater infrastructure - but how should architects approach such an extreme and valued landscape?

Put the question to Icelanders about how they envisage the country’s economic future and many answers, framed both positively and negatively, will immediately hone in on tourism. The small country in the middle of the North Atlantic has been experiencing rocketing growth in visitor numbers, up from 470,000 in 2010 to 1.2 million last year. Never mind that in the aftermath of the 2008/9 crash Icelanders were discovering that there was ‘more to life than fish and aluminium’ as one politician put it – seven years of gradual economic recovery have seen tourism overtake fishing in economic value.

Yet the country appears ill-prepared for this massive influx, one which – given that so much rests on infrastructure to accommodate and service visitors – architects are at the heart of, a point underlined while visiting this year’s DesignMarch festival and conference in Reykjavik. Downtown was abuzz with building work reminiscent of pre-crash days, with the architectural and design community rushed off their feet yet apprehensive about where they are heading. The 2008 economic meltdown continues to shadow conversations, wounds recently re-exposed by the fallout from the Panama Papers. A deep societal divide – which saw Iceland’s largest political protest ever, the Prime Minister’s resignation, and the Government teetering on collapse – is again strikingly clear. If the capital’s new hotels and accommodation, fuelled by the exponential growth in visitors, are the most visible part of the building boom, the challenge applies equally, and arguably more so, to the vast and overwhelmingly rural inland Iceland. With the natural world so powerfully at the heart of the country’s identity, how sustainability itself is interpreted can become contested, and broader fissures at cultural, professional and political levels come to the surface.

Harpa Henning Larsen and Batterid Architects02

Harpa Henning Larsen and Batterid Architects02

For those who stay in the city, Reykjavik’s Harpa Concert Hall - which doggedly pushed through the economic crash - has fast become one of its largest tourist destinations 

‘The task is huge with the current growth of tourists and level of infrastructure’, says Dagur Eggertsson, Reykjavik’s current Social Democratic Alliance Mayor. ‘Reykjavik is the only authority which has a regional plan to distribute the tourists.’ Densification and ‘Copenhagenisation’ – radically overhauling transport policy to reflect Scandinavian 21st-century public transit and cycle friendly urban sustainable aspiration – rather than a throwback to mid 20th-century automobile dependent suburban sprawl Americana, are centrepieces of the Municipal Plan 2010–2030. Pressure is particularly pronounced regarding city-centre rented accommodation. Hotels, other accommodation and the disruptive take-off of Airbnb, are conspiring to reduce housing availability. The Municipality has introduced a quota system and the plan identifies prioritised districts in an effort to distribute both tourist accommodation and housing within less high demand districts, linked by the improved transport. As Eggertsson states, ‘the regional plan distributes development, where and how it should be, to reduce pressure on housing. There are quotas for the centre with no more than 23 per cent of the land to be built for hotels in the downtown District 101’.

‘The level of infrastructure needed for a 25 per cent year-on-year increase in visitors is thin on the ground’

Reykjavik may be the first port of call for the vast majority of tourists (the Icelandic Tourist Board (ITB) estimates 97 per cent will arrive in the capital) but it’s the country’s singular natural world that is the main draw for the vast majority. ITB’s same research indicates 80 per cent state they’re arriving to experience Iceland’s awe-inspiring wild outdoors. ITB’s Inspired by Nature slogan, which greets those arriving at Keflavik Airport, is merely a version of an accepted shorthand, that Iceland Is Nature. Yet the level of infrastructure needed for a 25 per cent year-on-year increase in visitors, is thin on the ground. ‘We have the municipal plan. But when you leave Reykjavik,’ Eggertsson adds, before a deep intake of breath, ‘there is nothing.’

Nature at a monumental scale and the desolate grandeur of its remote interior, including the vast highlands territory, are the other side of Iceland’s tourist gold rush to downtown Reykjavik’s hotel boom. I’d defy any newcomer not to catch their breath soon after leaving the comparative urban normalcy of Reykjavik; grey on grey suburbs, dual-carriageway ring roads, harbourside industry and office blocks, then the physical experience of travelling into Europe’s most scarcely populated country. Beyond the capital, a tiny dot on its south-western edge, Iceland is a huge wild country, 40,000 square miles or three times the size of Wales.

How do the country’s architects go about making an architecture out of this otherworldly, raw, extreme landscape? In a country still able to describe itself as authentically wild, there is more opportunity than in many parts of the world to explore the wild made concrete. Not surprisingly, compared to the urban-centric architectural norm, Icelandic architects, as much as many other artists, are often in thrall to the power of their home terrain. ‘Many architects who start out working abroad, get homesick for Icelandic nature, and come back to work in Iceland,’ noted Hrólfur Karl Cela, a partner at Basalt Architects, over Skype, before adding how Basalt’s work is about respecting nature. Not dissimilarly, Steve Christer, the English half of English-Icelandic practice, Studio Granda, underlines the contrast of Iceland to most other parts of Europe. ‘Working here is special because there are no precedents, one has to invent an image for nearly every building type as it’s often the first of its kind.’ So it is also not surprising that the overwhelming presence of nature can be found expressed in showcases, whether Olafur Eliasson’s basalt-inspired glass quasi-bricks on the principal facade of the Harpa Music Hall, and its volcanically black walls on the interior, or the mossy waterfall wall at the roadside entrance to Studio Granda’s City Hall.

studio granda city hall

studio granda city hall

Studio Granda’s City Hall

Alongside the intensity of nature’s presence are the pressing practicalities of managing tourists. The sheer footfall is overwhelming habitat, ecology and facilities and what infrastructure is already in place. Simple design can have an impact, however. Basalt’s Cela points to how, here, even minimal interventions can make a difference. ‘Something as simple as a snow path can guide and prohibit and also protect the other surrounding nature.’

With 60 per cent of tourists visiting the principal tourist attractions outside Reykjavik – the day-long circular coach tour known as the Golden Circle takes in the Geysir hot springs, Iceland’s original Parliament, Thingvellir, and the Gullfoss waterfall – expanding places to visit has become a priority. Within the tourism and design world, the first steps of spreading the load are often illustrated by the highly successful Blue Lagoon spa bath complex, 30 miles and a day’s outing south of the capital fed by hot geothermal springs. Designed by Basalt Architecture, the Blue Lagoon is only one of several cultural/tourist-related projects which the young practice, founded by Sigríður Sigþórsdóttir in 2009, have realised or are working on. Another LAVA, or the Icelandic Volcano and Earthquake Centre, once complete, will also be within reach of Reykjavik daytrippers.

In the aftermath of the meltdown, as the growth in tourism began to become clear, the Government made funding available. How effective it has been, however, is questionable. The Tourist Site Protection Fund was set up in 2011 to upgrade major sites like Gullfoss waterfall, along with new projects. Although one-third of 450 projects have received support, the fund appears to have stalled due to a lack of skills, experience and knowledge once out of the capital district. Projects have foundered, particularly when town and village councils have been required to come up with half the funding. A Government money-raising initiative, a ‘nature pass’ or tourist tax, has also failed to deliver practical solutions after years of committees and meetings. ‘There was a lot of talk early on,’ says Birger Teitsson of Arkís, which has done considerable work in the Vatnajökull National Park, ‘and a lot of interest in projects like the Norwegian Detour Road Programme and in what’s happening in Switzerland and Austria, for years, but it never came to anything.’ ‘There’s been quite a bit of wasted time,’ notes Basalt’s Cela, ‘trying to develop ways to cope. And a lack of a whole vision like Detour.’

‘We don’t need roads cutting into and over the nature, if they’re needed at all, they can follow the landscape’

Which isn’t to say the vision isn’t there. Andri Snær Magnason, the influential poet and environmental activist, co-launched the Heart of Iceland campaign with Björk in the autumn, to turn the interior Highlands into a National Park, a joint effort by Iceland’s environmental organisations which enjoys widespread support. Magnason envisages the most minimal of interventions. ‘We don’t need roads cutting into and over the nature, if they’re needed at all, they can follow the landscape,’ says Magnason. ‘It makes sense to build up things around the edges and divert people into the towns around the edges of the park, increasing places to visit.’ Magnason, who is also working on an Icelandic natural history museum and counts BIG’s Bjarke Ingels as a friend, is currently running for Iceland’s presidency. Set this grand thinking against the most basic, though also consequential, issue, and the challenge becomes that much more graphic: there are apparently far too few toilet facilities, a point raised repeatedly in several conversations, complete with lurid tales of loo paper and human dumps being a newly common problem underfoot, when out hiking.

Without strategic planning, projects emerge as one-offs across different parts of the country, with the emphasis not necessarily on buildings. Since the Blue Lagoon, Basalt has completed another open-air bath in Hofsós, a tiny village in the far north, which looks from the practice’s photographs – I haven’t visited it – a careful, sensitive insertion into the shoreline landscape of the village. The pool rests above the ocean level and, according to Basalt’s partner Marcos Zotes, ‘disrupts the nature as little as possible, placing a boundary, while in dialogue with the nature of the place’. The real-world version of Studio Granda’s elegant looking Markarfljót bridge renders should be constructed this year, providing a more accessible pathway to Þórsmörk nature reserve in the aftermath of the Eyjafjallajökull volcanic eruption in 2011. The single-span 158-metre bridge comprises two locked steel cables, Studio Granda emphasising the Icelandic architectural mantra that the bridge has been designed to stand as lightly as possible in the vast glacier landscape.

studio granda bridge

studio granda bridge

A rendering of Studio Granda’s Markarfljót bridge, lightly crossing the landscape

Unsurprisingly, Basalt’s Blue Lagoon and Hofsós hot spring pools aren’t the only ‘water’-related tourism sites in a country where hot spring bathing reaches back as far as the earliest ninth-century settlers. For instance, A Stofunni Architects and Studio Stirk completed the Fontana bathing pool inland in Laugarvatn. More radical are a loose network of architects, designers and artists working together to develop the Vatnavinir, or ‘Friends of the Water’, project. Originally conceived in 2010 and folding healthy living into eco-tourism, these remote natural and small-scale pools will only be accessible by foot. Dormant the last few years, the project is apparently ready to be kickstarted again. ‘The local tourist authorities said they weren’t prepared back then. Now, they say they are,’ reports Sigrun Birgisdottir, one of Vatnavinir’s team and the Icelandic Art Academy’s dean of architecture and design.

Over in the east of the country is the closest there is to the beginnings of a network within the Vatnajokull National Park, formed around one of Europe’s largest glaciers. Snæsfell National Park Visitor Centre by Arkís is the first of four centres given the green light after the Park’s creation in 2007. The centre stands slightly above the Fljótsdalur valley, joining walkway, viewing platform, the visitor centre and administration rooms and fusing copper, larch and concrete surfaces into a long thin sculptured ensemble. Not unlike some of Canadian Brian MacKay-Lyons’ work, the result suggests land art as much as architecture. Opened in 2010, the Snæfell visitor centre was Iceland’s first BREEAM accredited building. The targeted Very Good has been reached, even if the accreditation process hasn’t, six years on, been formally signed off. Indigenous larch is used in the interior joinery and cladding, although much of the timber was imported. A grass roof adds a nod to Iceland’s traditional turf vernacular, with the principal BREEAM sustainability focus on water, health, ecology, CO2 and recycling. More recently, last year, Arkís completed the Ófærufoss viewing platform and mountain huts, while the long-delayed second visitor centre near Kirkjubæjarklaustur in the south is now on the drawing board.

ofaerufoss vatnajokull national park

ofaerufoss vatnajokull national park

Ófærufoss in Eldgjá, at Vatnajökull National Park

Vatnajökull National Park is the most recent of the country’s three National Parks. In simple terms, the park was the quid pro quo or, more nakedly, guilt exchange for the massive hydropower project within the Vatnajökull glacier highlands. This had been forced through the Icelandic Parliament in the early 2000s by the same political parties currently in serious hot water, despite huge protests and splitting the country’s population in two pro and contra the hydro/aluminium development in the east. Follow the money and the loans borrowed by Icelandic banks for the project turn out to have been a critical factor in their collapse two years later. On Vatnajökull the subsequent destruction of local ecologies; rivers, lakes, and fish stock has borne out the worst fears of environmentalists – and others. Although most brutally evident with the Kárahnjúkur hydropower dam – the largest in Europe – and the Alcoa aluminium smelter, some environmentalists, not least Magnason, frame the visitor centres, and with it technocratic tools like BREEAM, as mere cover for a decimation of nature; industrial sustainability pitted against environmentalism.

That’s one way of looking at it. What’s also evident though, is how the presence of nature on an epic scale demands a relationship with architects, an experience which is mostly missing elsewhere. There are perhaps only hints and clues, but if an architecture of the wild is possible anywhere, it’s there, in Iceland.

Oliver Lowenstein is the Editorial co-ordinator of Fourth Door Review

Lead Image: Pylons carry wires along the south-east coast of Iceland. Sorce: Stuart Forster / Alamy