Category Archives: Architecture

Industrial Iceland, Industrial Nature and Industrial People

Þjófafoss on the Þjorsá is a lovely spot, rich in wildflowers, lichen and wondrous lava blobs under Búrfell and Katla, and then there are the falls, which are stunning.

Traditionally, the fall stretched from the cliff to the left, and over the rubble field to the right of the current fall. The pool below the fall was hardly so. 2/3 of the fas would have been underwater.

Historically, this was a green land until 1104, when the volcano Hekla filled it in. After that, it ran as a high rapid in a monumental flow. Now it is a fall. The water of the Þjorsá is diverted away from it to run two power plants. It stands as a warning against becoming too enamoured with “Nature” in Iceland. It is often an industrial product, either as a constructed landscape, the planted forests of the North East …

Ásbyrgi

… or even the great fjord lake, the Lagarfljót, in the East…

Hydroelectric Outflow Now: the Lagarfljót below Hallórmstaður

Not to mention the Blue Lagoon, which is the outflow from a power plant, too.

There are many more examples. The great black sand beaches of Heraðsandur, for example, with its re-engineered rivers and outflow strewn across the entire East Coast by wind, currents and tides.

This industrialization of landscape raises many questions. If this were happening in Canada, it would be called encroachment on Indigenous space, which it would be. Because there is a myth that there were no people living in Iceland before the Icelanders came in the 9th century, Icelanders can escape that one. There were Irish, and walruses, but someone the Irish don’t count and the walruses are, well, not human, although I don’t see why that should make a difference. We are looking at walrus country without walruses.

Settlers on the Skagaströnd

Instead of carrying the weight of settler colonialism, which burdens countries like Canada, the United States, Australia and South Africa, Icelanders claim a history of settlement, of claiming and developing wild land in the middle of the Atlantic. It sounds benign, but what it means is the very industrialization of landscape I have described above. Even sheep, all 3,500,000 of them in the country, are industrial, and have turned the country from a birch forest into a desert.

Settlers at Starmyri on the Selá

The wind takes over as soon as their hooves cut the sod.

Kirkjubær

Iceland markets itself as pristine nature now:

https://guidetoiceland.is/connect-with-locals/regina/jokulsarlon-glacier-lagoon

And that’s the other side of this story. Wonderful places like the Lagarfljót, Heraðsandur and the Jökulsárlón are embedded in a story of global climate change, melting glaciers and eroding dunes. So much of what there is to see in Iceland is of this process. It doesn’t make it less beautiful, but it does make it fraught. It’s not pristine nature that one views in Iceland, so much as nature’s reaction to human industrialization, often by visitors who are a vital part of that industrialization. Nature is, pure and simple, an industrial product in Iceland. It is still wonderfully beautiful, but it is more an image of technology for a technological people than it is a land in and of itself. Even this blog, after all, is a technological product.

The Bones of Petroleum as an Art Form in Iceland

Once there were fuel stations for travellers. They were built on farms and were the modern equivalent of a service economy that had sustained wealthy farms for many hundreds of years. Some even had garage and tire services and predated the Ring Road of Dutch Camper Company fame. Many of the country hotels in Iceland still follow this old model of serving travellers on farms. The fuel stations are gone now as working centres, though. The more remote of them have been replaced with a lone pump, an automatic card reader, a light, and the bright sign of a national chain in a corner of a field. Not at Starmyri, though!

This translation of a bustling service centre on a rich farm is a bitter story. Once on the gravel road north along the East Coast from Höfn, with valuable shore rights at the mouth of the Seal River…

The Road of the Speeding Camper Vans Crosses the Seal River and Hurtles On

… and a good, sheltered landing, it was isolated by the sea by black sand drifting south by rivers re-engineered in the North during the diversion to create the hydroelectric power for the aluminum smelter in Reyðarfjörður.

Sómastaðir
The oldest stone house in Iceland, rebuilt by Alcoa, and now a National Historic Site, stranded from the sea by the smelter behind it.

The result was a new East Coast built from lagoons and long, black sand beaches…

Your average coastal farm is a long way from the Atlantic now!

…beloved of tourists and useless for farms that live in 1100 years of time, not the continually re-occurring present and fictional pasts and futures of 21st century time.

Reykjavik after the economic crisis.

Still, as you can see…

… the whale bones of an older past keep it company now, as if they were the busts of roman senators on their plinths. This is beautiful art-making. You can see 1100 years of life at once.

Whatever Siberian forest this tree grew in before washing west and south and landing on the Starymyri shore, I bet it never expected to achieve eternity like this! And, yes, at Starmyri, where the sheep pastures have eroded away in the wind…

What passes for a sheep pasture today in Starmyrí, as the winds of a changing petroclimate take all the soil away.

… the shore is blocked by industrial sand, shore rights are extinguished and the road has been moved away from the farmyard, the farm still manages to draw sustenance from travellers.

Each cabin offers an ideal Iceland, framed as a work of art.

Like many important things in Iceland, you have to find the history yourself, on the principle that you only need to know what you need to know and if you find something else, then you know and don’t need to be told, in this country that dresses up as pristine nature, her newest artistic dress.

An old farmer built this artwork in his retirement. The family keeps it in his memory. What a clever man!

Bakkagerðiskirkja in Black and White and Green

In 1914, local boy Johannes Kjarval was starving. Ladies in town asked him to paint an altar for the Bakkagerðiskirkja, the Bakkagerthi Church. He’d spent his childhood herding sheep on the mountain and dreaming of elves, so he painted Christ giving the Sermon on the Mount on the Alfaborg, the elf city behind the church, with all the townsfolk listening, elves and humans.

It has yet to be consecrated by any bishop! But if you go to visit it today, you can see his Iceland still. The elves have been replaced by tourists in campers, and the church remains in darkness, as all good Icelandic interiors are, with 1,000 years of turf houses in their memory.

The Icelandic subconscious lives in a darkness warmed by human presence and looks out through small windows into the light, which is the Earth and not the sun. It’s simply the way it is.

Oil Slick? Not in Iceland!

In Canada, this would be an oil slick, caused by a passing freighter illegally flushing out its tanks at sea.

Njardvik

Not so nice!

But in Iceland, it’s more like an Earth slick.

Njardvikura

It’s the confluence of a river that is taking an 1100-year-old farm away and the desire for a new road to prevent rural depopulation in Borgarfjördur Eystri.

The concept of “nature” is a balancing act here.

Art and Nature in a Quarry: It’s an Icelandic Thing

Eldborg, the Tephra Cone that translates as Fire Mountain, in Krysuvik…is a beautiful place, rarely visited….

… is a beautiful place…

You can get close to life there.

The road’s not even busy.

Two generations ago, when it looked out over an active quarry, …
… it was a major site for native Icelandic tourism. One of Iceland Air’s original jets is named after it.

Does this look like a jet to you? No? If you’re Icelandic, it might.

It was part of a network of walking paths, where Icelanders could celebrate all things Icelandic, including the beauty of Kjarval’s paintings, which a few aging Icelandic hikers still do by lunching in Kjarvalstaðir, his gallery in Reykjavik…

… but that’s about it. Icelandic artists are too worldly now to make much of his trolls and elves and such like.

Eldborg

They’re into environmental protection and other more modern mythologies, which they have embraced with great verve, but it’s good to remember that in Icelandic culture the capacity remains to see art, nature and a gravel quarry together, as one thing. The same can be said of rivers: quarries, all.

Bessastaðaá

Yes, a quarry.