Iceland’s Hallgrímskirkja Church in the capital city of Reykjavík is a must-visit church if you go to Iceland or if you like to visit churches like me for its architecture. It is an unusual church that has a façade very different from the ornate Gothic or Renaissance church façades. Stand in any corner in Reykjavík, and you will see this church with its stark white façade towering above colorful and small two to three-storeyed buildings and dominating the skyline of Reykjavík. It is undoubtedly the best-known landmark for being the tallest building in the capital.

Hallgrimskirkja by Guðjón Samúelsson: The largest church in Iceland - Sheet1
View of Hallgrímskirkja Church ©

History And Significance Of The Site

Firstly, about the need for a church. The history of the church is not far from being old from the history of the city itself. Reykjavík was just entering the phase of development in the mid 19th century. A hilltop named Skólavörðuholt, on top of which now sits the church, was a rock quarry with a viewing tower. A road named Skólavörðustígur connected the hill to the harbor. When buildings started to get built in the area, the State architect Guðjón Samúelsson decided to make it a religious center. A competition was held by the Parish of Reykjavík in 1929 for the design of the church with a seating capacity of 1200 and a towering height that could be used for radio signal transmission. When there was no winner in the competition, the responsibility was passed on to Guðjón Samúelsson in 1937.


Image 2 – Photograph taken from Skólavörðuholt hill in 1877. View is of Skólavörðustígur road, harbor and few houses ©

Secondly, about the significance of the site before the church was built. A pride of Iceland- the statue of Leifur Eiríksson (c.970 – c.1020), the statue of the first European to set foot on North America, was gifted by the United States in 1930 to Iceland for celebrating 1000 years of it’s Parliament. The location to sit the statue was the hilltop, the site of the demolished viewing tower, and which is now the church complex, leaving people no space to have a city-and-harbor-view from a top point.

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Statue of Leifur Eiríksson in front of the main entrance ©www.scotimages.comarchitecturereligious-buildingshallgrimskirkja-reykjavik-iceland

And thirdly, the name of the church. The name of the church – Hallgrímskirkja, is after the most respected and beloved poet and clergyman of Iceland, Reverend Hallgrímur Pétursson (1614-1674), who was the reason for the spiritual development of Iceland through his collection of hymns, the Passíusálmar (Passion Hymns) that reflected the Passion of Christ.

Architecture Style And Details Of The Church

Guðjón Samúelsson, who was responsible for designing many buildings including churches in the country, aimed to make this work an identity. It was the peak period for Iceland to own a national style in architecture that would be recognized by the world in the coming generations. He was always inspired by Iceland’s landscape – the rugged mountains, glaciers, and volcanoes, and so tried to create an ‘Icelandic style of Architecture’ using these as design elements.

Hallgrimskirkja by Guðjón Samúelsson: The largest church in Iceland - Sheet3
Inspiration taken from basalt columns at Reynisfjara beach ©www.extremeiceland.isenattractionshallgrimskirkja-reykjavik-iceland

Although from far away you will not be able to make out the design of Hallgrímskirkja, when you near it, you will be able to see the elements of the façade that is quite unusual for a church. It has a plain white tower with a height of 74.5 meters (244 feet) including a stepped steeple, and sloping sides in a hexagonal columnar arrangement. The design is inspired by volcanoes and the sloping sides resemble the cooled lava, the volcanic basalt. It is a simple yet impressive facade that looks blended with the mountainous surrounding with its white concrete finishing. The plan is divided into three parts and is different from the regular Latin Cross-shaped plan – the main body with two wings on either side used for services purpose, having the columnar façade element, the nave, and the cylindrical body as the sanctuary. All of which appear separate from each other, especially from the outside.

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Stepped steeple and observation deck window ©www.scotimages.comarchitecturereligious-buildingshallgrimskirkja-reykjavik-iceland

Very much contrast to the exterior is the interior of the church. In the main body, natural light flows in through the tall clear-glass windows fixed in the gaps between the hexagonal columns, whereas the nave features Gothic crossed-vaults and slim and tall pointed-arch windows with clear glass. The sanctuary is a semi-circular cylinder and has tall, clear-glass pointed-arched windows that illuminate the entire church. There is an observation deck in the main tower to have views of the city. The slim proportions, minimal lines, and the rough white granite finishing make the entire structure appear tall and minimalistic from inside as well as outside. Since Reykjavík was new to construction development, by that time, concrete had already become a popular material in all parts of the world. Guðjón took this opportunity and used it extensively in Hallgrímskirkja. It also serves as a tough material in harsh weather.

Hallgrimskirkja by Guðjón Samúelsson: The largest church in Iceland - Sheet5
The main tower, rectangular nave, and cylindrical sanctuary ©www.whatson.is9-things-you-didnt-know-about-hallgrimskirkja-church
Hallgrimskirkja by Guðjón Samúelsson: The largest church in Iceland - Sheet6
Gothic cross-vaults and tall pointed arched windows in the nave ©www.extremeiceland.isenattractionshallgrimskirkja-reykjavik-iceland
Hallgrimskirkja by Guðjón Samúelsson: The largest church in Iceland - Sheet7
Tall pointed arched windows in the cylindrical sanctuary ©www.whatson.is9-things-you-didnt-know-about-hallgrimskirkja-church

This unusual design led to a dislike of the Hallgrímskirkja church architecture by various architects and the people. It led to controversy. The use of various architectural styles was also disliked. Guðjón was criticized for the design to be too old-fashioned. This design also echoes Grundtvig’s Church of Denmark except that it has a brick façade. Still, he took all the criticism and constructed the design he had envisioned to look like the Icelandic landscape. Due to this, it took 41 years to build Hallgrímskirkja (1945-1974), but it (the choir) was in use since 1948.

Importance Of Hallgrímskirkja As Heritage And A Tourist Place

Owing to the history and significance of the site and Hallgrímskirkja as said above, this church became the national monument of Iceland. National and social events are also held here. When there was a rise in the tourism industry, it became the most visited place in Iceland.

The observation tower in the church is now a popular spot for photographers to photograph the colorful capital and the harbor and snow-capped mountains. Hallgrímskirkja also hosts many cultural events like concerts and art exhibitions throughout the year which attracts a large number of people from all over the world. Especially the ‘winter festival’ held during the dark nights, where Hallgrímskirkja stands in glory for the light show letting it display colorful lights over its stark white body, visible from every corner in Reykjavík.

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View of Reykjavík from observation deck ©www.thehotelguru.combest-hotels-inicelandreykjavik
Hallgrimskirkja by Guðjón Samúelsson: The largest church in Iceland - Sheet9
Light show © www.archdaily.com227012rafmognud-nattura-marcos-zotes

Pranjali is a passionate artist and an architect who loves to blend her designs with nature. She designs meticulously and is always exploring the impact of architectural spaces on user's mind and body. You will find her lost in travelling, daydreams, books, and also on mountain trails.

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