Tag Archives: Fritz Höger

Gunnar Turns Over in His Grave

In March 1940, Gunnar told Nazi Germany about Icelandic architecture that blended with the land. He meant a mixture of German and Icelandic styles, such as his house at Skriðuklaustur, designed by the Hamburg architect Fritz Höger and, well, countrified by its Icelandic workmen, who substituted Icelandic river stones for square cut German ones. Ooops. Nice turf roof, though. Blending in.

He was trying to avoid this:

Albert Speer’s Volkshalle (Hall of the People): architecture that luckily never was.

What the American occupation of the war gave Gunnar’s East Iceland was this:

Dang. The poor man is turning over in his grave.

Got the turf right, though.

Icelandic Architecture: Thinking Small

Werner Daitz

Werner Daitz,the architect of Hitler’s concept of claiming Lebensraum (existential space) from Poles, Lithuanians, Latvians, Estonian, Finns, Czechs, Slovaks, Jews, Serbs and Ukrainians, updated his arguments in 1943, after the debacle of Stalingrad. On the principle that the fate of no one people was at stake but of Europe as a whole, he wrote in The Europe Charter:

A healthy life is only possible when every individual being, just like every naturally-occurring community, follows the Rule of Self-Sufficiency: as a foundational principle, to live in its own space and from its own strength — which is to say to live a non-imperial life. Imperial life is an unhealthy life for an individual, just as it is for a community. And, as it is today [1943], when the Individual human being has the “freedom” to lead an unhealthy life but only at the price of its own decline or to join a partnership under the pressure of an emergent crisis, so does a family, or a family of peoples, also have the undeniable freedom to temporarily lead an unhealthy — an imperial — life. But then it must either return from the compromises demanded by emergent crisis to an autonomous life or disappear.

Ralph Giordano

The article is a chapter in Dietz’s 1943 book The Rebirth of Europe through European Socialism. Daitz inspired Gunnar Gunnarsson’s friend, the architect Fritz Höger, after he spoke to the Nordic Society, a pan-Baltic, cross-cultural association of folk-based writers, which included Gunnar. Remember, though, that “European Socialism” in this context means “Nazism” and “Rebirth” means “the normalization of life after war.” As to what that normalization means, we can thank Ralph Giordano, from Höger’s Hamburg, who hid in a basement for the duration of Daitz’s war, as his father was Jewish and “freedom” meant the freedom to die in Auschwitz. In 1989, Giordano published a book titled What if the Nazis Had Won the War. He noted that Best, who had experience administering the Danes, Estonians, Latvians and Lithuanians through the German terror, developed a four-level administrative model:

 

 

Every people must look after itself, after looking after the continental administrators [Germans].

Every people must manage its own affairs, as representatives of the German government.

The central government of every people must work within the oversight of representatives of the Race of Leaders.

Under no circumstances will a replaced people participate in the government at any level.

Brutal stuff.  In the light of Best’s practical experience, it’s highly likely that Dietz meant that a return to normalcy meant a return to the world of folktale, with all other peoples replaced in order to forestall the creation of a liberal state or melting pot in which individual cultures would disappear. Höger and Gunnar, who met Daitz in 1932, took different lessons from Daitz’s existential war — different from Daitz’s above and from each others’. Höger tried to become the national architect of the Third Reich, to build buildings representing German folk traditions, and failed. Hitler wanted the imperial roman wedding cake architecture of Albert Speer. Gunnar left the continent to live the life as a modern German farmer in Iceland, in a house that Höger built.

Skriðuklaustur

The idea was likely to merge German-inspired administrative skill with Icelandic farm life, to enable more people to succeed on the land. No doubt, the plan was also to avoid Hitler’s war. Note that the building’s turf roof is an echo of old Icelandic turf houses, while the stonework is solid and North-German. Well, not really. Those rocks were supposed to have been square cut, but Gunnar’s Icelandic workmen could find no cuttable stone, so on their own, independent Icelandic initiative, drove down to the Hengifossá River (to the right) and brought home some river rocks and worked with that. The result is comic. Höger was incensed. It’s kind of a fairytale house as a result, but I’m proud of those Icelanders. They broke all of Best’s rules, all at once, even before he started planning the invasion of Denmark in April, 1940. Here they are again:

Every people must look after itself, after looking after the continental administrators [Germans].

Every people must manage its own affairs, as representatives of the German government.

The central government of every people must work within the oversight of representatives of the Race of Leaders.

Under no circumstances will a replaced people participate in the government at any level.

 

All broken! Even more lovely: for all his ambiguity and his bad choice in friends, Gunnar got it right too and also broke most of those laws, going so far as to tell Hitler the following in March, 1940, in his speech Our Land:

But one must always have the effect on the landscape at front of one’s mind and guard against mistreatment. For the way the landscape is treated is the way the people are treated. If tastelessness becomes the norm in the Icelandic landscape, gets a roothold and spreads widely, it will soon become visible in the spiritual life of the people as well. Perhaps there are already signs of this today.

In other words, none of Speer’s architecture and its imperial pretensions in Iceland, not for Gunnar. The Icelanders would look after their land themselves. None of this kitsch:

Just this:

And a day’s drive to the East, this:

And, everywhere, this kind of thing:

There’s more than one way to knock the stuffing out of imperialism.

Colonial House Building 101, an Icelandic Novel

Gunnar Gunnarsson, Novelist and boy from the colonies, left Denmark (the colonial heartland) in 1939 to build a farm on Iceland (the colony) that would provide in a physical form the cultural direction of his novels. His friend the North German architect Fritz Höger, who volunteered to design Gunnar’s farmstead, had in mind something like this …

010Half-Timbered Danish Farmhouse

Den Fynske Landsby, Fyn, Danmark. The working courtyard in front follows the ancient Norse (and thereafter Icelandic) architectural model of a tun, an open air working room between buildings. Gunnar’s farmstead was to have a large an open tun between buildings, which was abandoned when the additional buildings were never constructed.

A German architect building a Danish-style building on Scandinavian soil for a man who lived his life between the German and Danish worlds would be a way of making peace with the Prussian takeover of Schleswig Holstein (Höger’s area of Germany) from the Danes. It was, of course, the time of an ascendent Nazi Germany, so the idea of a country house built by a German architect would contain some notions of German country houses, and in this case, a Tyrolian one (dominant at the time, with the annexation of Hitler’s Austria fresh in everyone’s minds, and all) …

Telfs, Untermarkt strasse, Tirol, AustriaTelfs, Austria

Note the balcony. It provides a commanding viewpoint. A central part of Höger’s design was to build a large terrace in a roman or Italian extension of this model. An absolutely key part of German culture is that Germans like to live outside. Their terraces are their summer homes. It’s not quite like that for Canadians, like myself, or Icelanders, who lives in countries a bit less amenable to lounging around in the cold. Still, what was done was done. What Gunnar had in mind was a totally different idea of living outside, much like this …

landhusLandhus Farm Barn, Fljótsðalur

This is a variation on the icelandic version of the previous two architectural methods: build the house out of the materials of the earth itself; your whole life is lived within and on the land. In such a situation, a terrace is rather redundant. Gunnar was committed to the idea of human habitation fitting into the land as if it were not even there, or as if it were an extension of it, like this…

housepointThe Foundation Walls of a Former Turf House

Overlooking the Lagarfljót

What he got is more like that than other houses in Iceland …

snugGunnar’s House Seen from Down the Hill

True to Gunnar’s vision, it changes colour with the seasons. True to Fritz’s, it is made out of cemented, rather than stacked stones. Fritz had in mind cut, square blocks of good German rock. There is no such rock in Iceland. The local boys settled on round stones from the river. Score: Germany 1; Iceland 1. A draw.

Thing is, Gunnar’s whole idea was that architecture, and especially how it fit into a landscape, determined the soul of a people and their ways of thinking. He was dead set against putting non-Icelandic architecture within Iceland, as it would, he felt, damage the people and their ability to survive. Now, one reason his farming venture failed is that there was war (started by his readers, the Germans), and a resulting invasion of Iceland by the British and the Americans, who paid so well for labourers to build their infrastructure that there were no surplus young men to care for animals like this …

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Icelandic Ewe Demonstrating Ancestral House Roof Clambering Technique on a Hay Bale

Go, girl!

… and in this way the war ripped out the economic underpinning of Gunnar’s farm. What’s more, the rough and ready construction methods the young men learned on the American and British bases had a kind of effect that eventually led to this…

red

Definitely Not Gunnar-Approved Architecture

Thrown together for reasons of utility and nothing else. That is what farms look like throughout Iceland. There doesn’t appear to be the money on many to build anything better and, besides, it works. This kind of raw utilitarianism would not have appealed to Gunnar, and he would have feared that it would have led to sloppiness. He might have seen this, for example, as a consequence …

stuffSheep Pigging Out on a Haybale

But what Gunnar did not foresee was a permanent divorce of Icelanders from their land. A tiny fraction of the original rural population now has to grow more sheep, cows and horses than ever before … something has to give. The solution has been German, rather than Icelandic, industrial farming methods, capitalized on American industrial farming models. Has all this led to the wealth and security Gunnar was trying to create with his tun-based farmstead that would bring German agricultural models to the land and separate Iceland from colonial overlordship by teaching farmers how to get more wealth from their land, and keep it rather than giving it away to colonial capital managers?

0307-Iceland2_full_600Not quite yet. There’s more than one way to lose your sovereignity. Perhaps the process of decolonization is not complete and something can still be learned from Gunnar’s attempt. Heck, it could have been him holding that protest sign. Perhaps Gunnar’s time has come.

The Novelist, Sod Roofs, and the Other People

Today I’d like to walk some paths between sod houses, Iceland, and Gunnar Gunnarsson’s inner world. All paths link in a vast web, each link of which is a starting point. My starting point today is a passage from Gunnar Gunnarsson’s novel, The Sworn Brothers, written during the First World War and translated into an English that was archaic even in 1921, when it was published in New York. A better contemporary title might be The Blood Brothers, especially for the passage quoted below, which tells of the ceremony by which Ingolf and Leif, the heroes of the book, become brothers by oath.

eidbrueder2

The Oath

Note the turf arch. From the German Book Club Edition of 1933 (Hamburg).

Here’s the story illustrated by that image. First, the cutting of the turf …

Ingolf and Leif had now cut loose the piece of turf, and went together to lift it. They raised it carefully till it stood straight up and formed an arch. Then Atle Jarl stepped in and placed his spear in the middle of the arch to hold the turf up. He himself stood and supported the spear while Ingolf and Leif cut loose an oblong turf under the arch. Their blood was not to run on the greensward, but was to mingle on the bare earth.

… and then the drawing of blood …

Ingolf thrust his knife-point well in and cut a deep gash. Leif put his knife right through so that the point projected a couple of inches on the other side of his calf. He had difficulty in drawing it out again. The blood ran down in red streams. The spectators felt a strange shuddering thrill at seeing how it oozed out from under the naked soles of their feet.

… the mixing of it with the earth …

Leif watched the course of his blood attentively as it approached Ingolf’s on the brown scar of earth between them. As it seemed to him to go too slowly, he stooped down, directed the streams of blood with the point of his knife, and stirred the blood and earth round between him and Ingolf. A laugh then rang out in the air from hundreds of throats.

… the proclamation of brotherhood …

Atle Jarl now proclaimed that Ingolf Arnarson and Leif Rodmarsson had entered into legal brotherhood, and named the witnesses. With that the solemn ceremony was at an end.

… and the re-laying of the turf …

The grass-turfs were carefully laid down again in order that they might grow firm and be incorporated with the earth’s life. Ingolf and Leif were now joined together by the strongest bonds that exist the blood-tie between brothers, the most sacred and inviolable of all blood and family ties. The earth by which they had been formed in different mothers’ wombs had now drunk their blood mingled, and had at the same time given them new birth, since they had passed together under the turf arch, a part of earth’s living frame. The earth knew now, and had recognized their covenant a covenant no power could break.

And now, from Iceland, a few observations. First, a turf arch …

Egilstadur to Ardalur 039Turf Doorway, Bustarfell

In Gunnar’s representation, the sacred, pre-Christian earth that lies beneath its cloak of sod, and which figures so powerfully in The Sworn Brothers, once lay at the heart of every Icelandic house. In fact, they were cut out of it.

Next, Gunnar’s house at Skriðuklaustur, with its sod roof (designed by Fritz Höger, a German architect who shared Gunnarsson’s romance with pan-Nordic culture) …

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Skriðuklaustur

Note how the space of earth inside a traditional sod house (containing darkness) has been replaced by a space of air (containing light). The sacred grass covering remains, but as it is no longer connected to the living earth, it is only symbolic. In other words, this house is a poem. It is an act of human will. It is the space into which Ingolf and Leif shed their blood, as conceived of in Gunnar’s imagination.

Below the house, the old cloister below the house is being excavated. It’s worth a look, too …

P1020175

The Red Earth of the Cloister Floor (Klaustrið að Skriðu)

For perspective on the theme, a little journey north to Husavik is recommended. Besides a beautiful Christ in the form of a polar bear in its graveyard, the harbour church also has this moving painting as an altar…

lazarus

Christ, Bringing Lazarus from the Dead

Right out of the mid-Atlantic Rift in Þingvellir, yet. The painting is the work of Sveinn Thorarinsson, an artist from Kilakot farm in the spreading estuary of Kelduhverfi county (1930-1931). 

This is a splendidly nationalistic work. So were Gunnar’s novels. So was Gunnar’s house. Poetically thinking, Gunnar, who had returned to Iceland to build his house, had returned from the dead (Exile in Denmark, the colonial power; exile from the land and farms of his childhood, and so on.). In keeping with his modern saga, “The Sworn Brothers,” to swear his oath, he needed a sod roof, to cover the earth upon which he swore it. Here’s another variation on the theme:

elfhill

Elf House

Like a human house, it is covered with sod — just a bit more dramatically. (Out of respect for the privacy of the elves, I will not give you the locations of their houses.)

Not all elf houses are the same. Here’s one with a chimney…

P1040294

… and here’s one without sod, and with its smoke hole plugged …

crossElf Fortress, with its Roof Plugged by a Cross

It has been like this since the day the settlers arrived. As the story goes, a Christianized chieftaness sailed up the fjord, spotted this volcanic plug, and dealt with it right then and there. Luckily for the elves, there is a whole complex of plugs in the area, but, still: ouch.

A house part elf city, part peasant hut, and part elf dwelling … that’s what Gunnar was making, both out of stone, wood, glass and sod, but also out of words, between the pages of his books and in the minds of his readers (he hoped.) Considering it all poetically, and leaving aside for now questions regarding the appropriateness or timeliness of the gesture, he was bringing his books to life, through the construction of a man, or a space for a man, out of the stuff of Iceland, energized by his will.

Next: Why Elves?