Why, to keep the cows in. Of course.
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.
Dang. The poor man is turning over in his grave.
Got the turf right, though.
There’s the pretty one.
With ruins in the foreground.
Neither is Iceland, though. That’s something the Icelanders keep to themselves. What they present to you in its place are charms and gestures.
You know, stuff you remember from the world.
When the Iceland Review asked its readers for 15 reasons why they loved Iceland, I thought: “15? Only 15? How is that possible?” Still, I was very brave and limited myself to 15, and they’re in the magazine online today, complete with photos from my time in Skriðuklaustur. You can read my 15 reasons for loving Iceland here:
Here’s an image of some of those lovingly-respected trees of Reykjavik, mentioned in the article:
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 …
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) …
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 …
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…
Overlooking the Lagarfljót
What he got is more like that than other houses in Iceland …
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 …
Icelandic Ewe Demonstrating Ancestral House Roof Clambering Technique on a Hay Bale
… 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…
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 …
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?
Not 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.
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.
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 …
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) …
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 …
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…
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:
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…
… and here’s one without sod, and with its smoke hole plugged …
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.