The following description of Icelandic architecture dates from a book called “The North-west Peninsula of Iceland: being the journal of a tour in Iceland in the spring and summer of 1862, by Charles William Shepherd. You can view it here. It is a distressing and unsympathetic piece of work, which in its basic details could as easily have been written about any farmhouse through Europe, but isn’t, perhaps to shock his audience, perhaps to create some romantic sympathy, perhaps to warn against it. In other words, it has more to do with England and its politics than with Iceland, but, still, it provides some glimpses into the past, which might be useful.
Farmhouse Tools, Bustarfell
My grandfather and even my father were trained in the same tools as these in Europe. My childhood was spent with tools just like this in Canada. We didn’t let them rust, as this museum is, mind you. We took them out and used them. This is what the industrial revolution looks like at the end of the road, where it is paid for by hard, personal work.
Curiously, when Gunnar Gunnarsson went to Germany in 1940, he spoke about the one thing that was on his mind: farm houses. It is a carefully coded political statement, that is best viewed in context. Today, I’d like to give some of that context. First, an Icelandic farmhouse:
Here’s Shepherd (the images are mine): “Icelandic farm-houses are invariably embedded in walls of turf from two to four feet, or even more, in thickness, through which embrasures are cut for the windows.
House Window, Bustarfell
Three sides of the house are thus coated, the front being generally left unprotected, but sometimes the house is entirely surrounded by turf walls, and the roof also has a coating of turf upon it externally. In front it has the appearance of several low bams, with their gable ends towards the approach, in the centre of one of which a low door is cut, while in the others a few small windows are placed here and there in no regular order, and each gable has a weather-cock on its summit. The interior of an Icelandic farm-house, however, it is no easy matter to describe.
Turf Walls, Holar
The stranger who enters them is as often as not suffering from a more or less severe concussion of the brain, his head having come in forcible contact with the top of the low door-way. I have often crept through a door not more than three feet high; the general height, however, is between four and five feet Then, there is a descent of a step or two to an uneven, damp earthen floor, which is sometimes in puddles.
Farmhouse Entranceway, Holar
All is pitch dark; and the height of the passage barely admits of a person standing upright; nay, not infrequently a half-dried cod, or halibut, suspended from the ceiling, meets the intruder face to face. After a few yards there is an invariable stumble over a door-sill into another passage equally dark, which runs at right angles to the former, and of which there is no knowledge till the opposing earthen wall gives an unpleasant intimation of its presence.
This passage right and lefl is sometimes straight, but always has either its floor or its roof uneven, so that the explorer is continually in danger either of falling down, or of hitting his head against a rolling ceiling. The passage leads on the right and left to rooms which are the best in the house. They are from ten to fourteen feet square, and are coated entirely with deal, and often painted in various colours. One is set apart for visitors, and generally contains a bed, sometimes a four-poster, situated very often in a recess in the wall, before which a curtain is drawn in the day-time ; also, a little table under the window, looking out through a turf embrasure, two or three chairs, a chest of drawers, a small looking-glass, a few Danish prints hanging against the wall, and sometimes a shelf or two of books. A bottle of schnapps and two liquor glasses stand upon the drawers, or window-sill.
Upper Room, Holar
The floor of these rooms is raised a step above the rest of the ground-floor. Upstairs, over these rooms, are lofts, in which the inhabitants sleep. They are long low rooms, surrounded by a raised bench, from eighteen to twenty-four inches high, and three or four feet in width, on which the sleepers range themselves. The staircase is very irregular and dangerous, being often a ladder with half its spokes broken or loose, and, besides, it is in total darkness.
Work Room, Bustarfell
The kitchen, placed on the ground floor and at the back of the house behind the best rooms, is, like the passage leading to it, dark and without windows. It is generally a large room, with a peat fire smouldering in its centre. A round hole in the roof is the only vent for the smoke, so that everything is coated with soot. Quantities of peat and birch-wood are stored around, two or three tubs of water stand at hand, and a huge kettle is always on the large stones that form the fire-place, while many changes of damp garments hang and blacken on the rafters above.
Upper Window, Bustarfell
In addition to the kitchen there are other dark apartments, store-rooms, and sleeping-rooms; but the smells from dried fish and half-cured mutton, the choking effect of condensed smoke, the accumulated rubbish and smuts of ages, as well as the danger of breaking the head or neck, completely cured any curiosity we ever possessed of peering into these dark abodes.”
Out the Window, Holar
If you haven’t figured out that a traditional Icelandic relationship to darkness, light, and up and down is not the same as that of the 21st century, let alone of those people living in gaslit England, it might be helpful to scroll back up over these images again.
Here’s Shepherd again, in a piece remarkably prophetic of Gunnarsson’s intent…
“The farmer and his family, with his labourers and their families, all live under the same roof. There are no such things as labourers’ cottages in the country; in fact, two houses together are very seldom seen, except in the small towns and fishing villages. The whole household generally take their meals together, and seem outwardly to live on in equality. In the winter, for four or five months, they seldom move far beyond their immediate outbuildings, in which their cows and sheep are stalled.
These poor animals are stowed away in dark houses like large oblong earth-mounds, with a small door at one end, but with no window; as a substitute, however, the turf on the flat-ridged gable is left loose, so that on fine days a little light and air can be admitted. There are several such buildings adjoining every farm-house, and the mud and filth about their door-ways are truly distressing.”
Sod House Given Back to the Grass, North of Hvitserkur
Life was hard (and windy!) in this location and no man or woman can be blamed in any way for leaving. Nonetheless, anyone who left this land also left the map of his or her unconscious that the sod house represented and embodied, with its passages between darkness and light, of low and high space, and of different qualities of light for different functions, moods and different levels of sociability. This map of the unconscious was also Gunnarsson’s map of Iceland. I’ll talk about that in the next post.