Popularly known as the ‘Land of Fire and Ice’, Iceland is an island country where one can experience landscapes that foster volcanoes and glaciers at the same time. This presence of two wonders of nature on the same piece of land makes Iceland a global hotspot for awe-inspiring sceneries and an abundance of cinematic backdrops. 

But sceneries are only the tip of the iceberg of things Iceland has to offer, for it is known for a lot of other unique things – one of which is its remarkable vernacular architecture. 

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Capital of Iceland-Reykjavik_©Azamara.com.

History of Vernacular Architecture in Iceland

Iceland’s traditional architecture is derived from various Scandinavian influences. The country has a history of being ruled by Vikings between the 9th and 13th centuries. The Viking chieftains had established a form of governance known as the ‘Althing’, and for the same reason, Iceland is known to be one of the oldest parliaments in the world. 

Along with establishing a civic structure, the Vikings had a strong influence in shaping the vernacular architecture of the country as well – they turned the Viking longhouses into turf houses in Iceland. They were responsible for cutting down the birch trees present on Iceland’s landscape as a part of establishing a civilization, and hence depriving the country of its natural forests. 

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Iceland landscapes_©Demilked.com.

Iceland’s Turf Houses 

With the lack of wood to serve as a building material people were forced to come up with some other alternative to protect themselves from the harsh climate of Iceland. They found the solution to this problem in ‘Turf’ – the top layer of soil that is held together so tightly by the roots of grass that it can easily be cut into mats. 

‘Turf’ as a building material gave form to the famous Turf Houses in Iceland. These green cloaks of structures seem to melt into the natural landscape of the country.

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Icelandic Turf Houses_©guidetoiceland.is.

Turf houses are traditionally built with a stone foundation over which a wooden frame structure is built, and later the walls and roof are plastered with mats of Turf. The stone foundation prevents moisture from the ground to seep into the structure above, which in turn increases the lifespan of the structure. Also, Turf ensures that the temperature within the structure remains stable throughout the year – it keeps the interiors warm during winters, and cool during summers. Thus, it became the most reliable typology of constructing dwellings in Iceland.

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House with Stone base and Turf walls_©guidetoiceland.is.

The Uniqueness of Iceland’s Turf houses

Turf house, as an architectural marvel, was not first invented on the grounds of Iceland. Since Turf is a biodegradable material, and it is also susceptible to erosion through wind and rain forces, its historical heritage cannot be traced back to any particular civilization. However, there is evidence of similar constructions throughout countries such as Scotland, Norway, Ireland, Greenland, and even the Great Plains of America. 

Therefore, we know that this method of construction, wherein Turf is used as a building material, has been used for thousands of years by cultures across Europe and the Arctic since the Neolithic period.

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Icelandic Turf Houses_©en.wikipedia.org.

As previously mentioned, the Vikings were the people who brought this methodology of constructing houses with them to Iceland. This makes the vernacular architecture of Iceland a borrowed form of architecture. Regardless of being a borrowed method of construction, Iceland has extended its quirks to this form of architecture and turned it into its vernacular-built form – so much so that today these houses are known as ‘Icelandic Turf Houses.’ 

Turf houses that existed in most of Northern Europe came to be known as the traditional architecture of Iceland because in other countries the Turf houses were only built by the poor who couldn’t afford other materials whereas in Iceland Turf houses were common to all people regardless of their financial status. It was so because this typology of construction suited the landscape and climate of Iceland like no other. This was also the reason why Turf houses saw widespread use in Iceland. 

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Icelandic Turf Houses_©i1.wp.com.

Shortcomings of the Turf houses

Despite that the structure was suitable to the landscape and climatic conditions of Iceland, Turf houses had their shortcomings. The need for insulation from the harsh climate of Iceland meant that Turf had to dominate the surfaces of the structure. The Turf was used in double layers to ensure that the interiors were well insulated. This also meant that the openings on the surfaces were also to be minimized which contributed to the poor light and ventilation within the structure.

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Interiors of Turf Houses_©fieldstudyoftheworld.com.

Also, Turf being a biodegradable material meant that its roots would deteriorate over time. Whenever the roots holding the Turf together deteriorated it became obligatory that the structure be rebuilt. This only happened once in 20 to 70 years, depending upon the quality of craftsmanship, but since Turf was a renewable resource in Iceland which was also widely available rebuilding wasn’t difficult.

Other structures in Iceland

Iceland’s traditional architecture was dominated by the presence of Turf houses but there were other structures as well that were a part of Iceland’s architectural heritage.

When Christianity arrived in Iceland during 1000 AD, numerous churches began to be erected all over the country. A majority of these churches were again built-in Turf but a few of them were also built out of timber-frames. As time succeeded, stone was also used as a building material in churches as well as other structures. Icelandic Stone made way into the architecture of Iceland during the 18th century but it required remarkable craftsmanship – this made it expensive and thus was only used to build official buildings in the country.

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Holakirkja-largest stone church in Iceland_©en.wikipedia.org.

Later as urbanization reached the country, timber began to be imported in prefabricated forms for the construction of residential as well as commercial structures. These structures had high-pitched roofs and low walls to ensure that snow slid off the structure easily. 

As Iceland moved towards independence from Denmark there was an implementation of Icelandic free trade. This led to diversity in the architecture of the country. Slowly and steadily, the changes took form as prefabricated houses and structures built in concrete and corrugated iron sheets. This shows how the country has allowed multiple influences to become a part of its architecture and turned it into a rich civilization. 

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House in Reykjavik showing use of corrugated metal_©en.wikipedia.org.

References

https://guidetoiceland.is/history-culture/icelandic-architecture

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Architecture_of_Iceland

https://www.fieldstudyoftheworld.com/turf-houses-traditional-green-buildings-iceland/

https://www.nationalgeographic.com/travel/article/things-to-see-traditional-houses

Gautami Menon
Author

Gautami Menon is a final year student at the Institute of Architecture and Planning, Nirma University. As an aspiring architect, she is passionate about expressing design through the written medium. She believes that architectural design is a platform where intellect meets art and her designs are an attempt at justifying the same.

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