Tag Archives: Holar

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.

The Architecture of Souls

If you look at mountains on a human scale, they have presence.

blue22Volcanic Glass, Skjaldsvik, Iceland

If you look at mountains on the scale of a mountain, they have presence.


Mountain in Late Afternoon, Skagafjörður, Iceland

If you look at mountains from a cultural point of view (in this case, Nordic mythology), they have presence…


Spring Sunset, Skagafjörður

In this case, story unfolds in time, as the earth turns from the sun, which is just below the ridgeline. Here is the same mountain a couple minutes later …sunset2

Spring Sunset, Skagafjörður

And a half hour later, when the sun is behind the shoulder of the Arctic Ocean?


Spring Sunset, Skagafjörður

The story continues through the northern lights at night, and on into the next day. Light is writing on stone and ice. If the mountains are viewed through Christian eyes, perhaps this is the spot for the centre of Christian life in Iceland.

holar2Holar in the Distance

The Heart of Christian Iceland, Skagafjörður

If you’re thinking of print making or writing, you might as well think big. When your technology is the earth itself, it’s easy to think of the architecture of souls.

Icelandic Houses: Part 2 (Rock)

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.

Egilstadur to Ardalur 039

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.

P1160057Enlightenment Era Cupid, Schloss Tiefurt, Germany

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.

Icelandic Houses, Part 1

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:


Farmhouse, Holar

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.

P1030757Turf 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.


Hallway, Holar

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.


Outbuildings, Bustarfell

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.”

grasshouse2Sod 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.