Tag Archives: architecture

Iceland’s Stones of History

It is the horizon that marks the way across Iceland. It is there, where soft rock broken apart by fast-moving glaciers shows itself against the low, high-latitude snow, that one sees the difference between the impossible jumble of the near and the impossible formlessness of the distant.

It is the most basic cultural act to set up a human marker in that spot, in the most recognizable shape: a human guide. The jumble and the white-out become intimately more human, as a deep, psychological break between darkness and light. It clears the mind …

… and you find the way, exactly at the point, the ridges, where the wind blows the snow away. For most of Iceland’s history, these cairns were the difference between life and death as one travelled across country. Here at Litlafoss, it guides herdsmen out of the canyon pastures and away from the cliff where the raven nests and waits for you to slip and break your head. You can see some of these cairns on the left of the image below, although the one above was on the right and out of the image.

For Icelanders, these cairns are some of the deepest history in the land, and one of the historical markers of the creation of Icelandic culture.

They are to be approached with the reverence with which one approaches the caves at Lascaux or the Sphinx, and so are the glacial rubble fields that inspired them. Walk lightly in Iceland. Nature here is historical space.

You pass through history to get to the falls.

Litlafoss

To find the falls, you must go deep into the earth.

The Purpose of Trees in Iceland

In Iceland, trees wash up on the beach after swimming over from Siberia, which is fun.

Borgarnes

Their purpose is much like that of moose antlers in Canada or Alaska: nail them to the front door to honour wilderness… or a viking ship mast. Or a viking curse.

This is why Icelanders are such fine film makers. They are good at staging dramas in real time.

Everyone Can be a Faded Polaroid at the Harpa and Dance with Yoko Ono Now

There is beautiful light in Iceland…

.

… and I mean really beautiful light …

… but tourism survives on images, so the great opera hall, the Harpa, allows anyone to view others as if they are in a faded Polaroid shot from the 1970s …

… or an Agfa shot from the 1960s.

This retro thing, this notion of quoting the landscape in the very moment one observes it, is something the Icelanders learned in graduate school in New York, London and Berlin. It’s charming, but remember …

… every wave that goes to sea in Skagafjörður leaves behind a space for beautiful light. It’s like the sun is right there, you know.

Hólar in the Spring

It is.

In Iceland, Everything is Hay

When your sheep are starving, you will feed them old twine, your family Bible, the shirt off your back, anything, because without sheep there is nothing. Of course, most Icelanders are no longer intimate with sheep. For them,  they hay thing has been updated, all modern and tip top. In Reykjavik, anything, anything, even an old couch or an old barbecue made out of paving bricks, is a window.

Hverfisgata

But, of course, that’s the beauty of it.