The Icelandic sod houses that largely vanished in the last half of the twentieth century reflected the interests of peoples’ lives and in turn moulded the way they thought. That’s another way of saying that they acted like poems.
Icelander, Looking Out of His Sod Poem
Long ago this was a seaside cliff. Now even the coastal plains are above sea level and covered with grass.
Another way to put that is to say that Icelandic houses were the subconscious mind of Icelanders. The house below shows the modern Icelandic method of keeping the imagination green and growing.
Bishopric at Holar
A combined Norwegian-Icelandic restoration project, complete with rooftop sprinkler.
These houses varied in design, but were all built of some combination of stone, driftwood and birch wattles, but mostly out of earth and sod — a lot more sod than in the image above. That was some fancy house. For an indication of a broader range of variations, there’s a collection of photographs of a number of these houses here, showing regional and historic variations. Here’s a variation with a cat…
A Cat and Its House in Borgarfjörður Eystri
It’s been in the ownership of one human family since the heady days of the 1970s-era back-to-the-land movements.
Although such traditional houses were built largely of sod, it’s not really sod that defines them, but shelter. In Iceland, an island in the the middle of the North Atlantic, that means shelter from the sea. In complex ways, this architecture was fundamental to Gunnar Gunnarsson’s project at Skriðuklaustur, sheltered far inland in the northeast from both the sea and the deteriorating politics of Europe. To get closer to that thought, I’ll be talking about its components, one piece at a time. Today: rock.
The “Church Floor” of Kirkjubæjarklaustur
Basalt Crystals Shaved Off by Ice
In terms of rock, near the core of the idea of Iceland and its houses being one, lies this thought of Gunnarsson’s on Iceland itself:
“The pillars of its cliffs are like the beams of a tightly-linked chain rhyme.”
from Our Land (1940)
Gunnarsson had in mind something like this:
Basalt Crystals West of Vik
With a frozen troll out in the water. (I’ll be getting to those trolls in a couple days.)
The connection between sod and stone is strong — and an obvious connection to people who are used to living in the earth. After all, sod covers rock.
Dettifoss: The Beginnings of Sod …
… over the poetry of the earth. Once the sod is skin deep, the poem is still there.
The kind of people who would intuitively see the connection between the earth and their bodies and the poems that speak to them are ones to whom a house is not a typical above-ground structure with four walls, a door, windows, and a roof but something that rises from the land and sinks back down into it again, like waves.
Sod House, Bustarfell
People like that lived underground, in what were basically excavations into the poem that was the land. Such excavations drew underground space out into the light. Because of this simple, physical orientation to space, the poem was completed, and brought into the present, in the moment when a man, woman or child stepped out of the house. If you were one of those people, you carried time out with you. You were, in fact, the present of something very old and very dark.
Entering Present Time
Here, the following series of images might show what I mean. First, a chain-linked poem …
Quickly Cooled Basalt Cap on Top of Slow-Cooled Pillars
Complete with a Door
And some Icelanders at home in in their poem …
Multiple Flows of Chain Rhyme Stopped by the Cold of the World
And a bunch of Icelanders, too, at home here on the boundary of the ocean and stone. Gunnarsson’s novel The Black Cliffs makes a clear connection between birds like these, on cliffs like these, and the dark recesses of human motivation. He intended it as a kind of Heart of Darkness.
I know. I’m thinking like a poet here, but so was Gunnarsson. At Skriðuklaustur he was trying to build an enlightenment, to bring, so to speak, the unconscious past into a conscious present. In mainland Europe, the Enlightenment was built out of the scientific and technical developments of the 18th and 19th centuries.
Gunnarsson was trying for a new Enlightenment, one built out of local patterns of belief rather than out of the imported classical models that were the rage in a National Socialist Germany that started out with dreams of becoming a Baltic, or Nordic, country, and became a Mediterranean one instead. Ironically, Gunnarsson’s house at Skriðuklaustur was profoundly German. (More on that soon.)
One important way it was German was that it was above ground. In his piece, Our Land, written for a reading tour he gave in Germany during the first year of the Second World War, Gunnarsson seems to have been musing that if Icelanders were going to start building houses aboveground, in the light, they would need some guidance — and not guidance that came purely from continental ideas. He was trying to offer it. Typically, he also wanted it to remain hidden.
Next: Hidden houses and other people.