Matthew Crook talks about his placement in Iceland 2014 as part of the VAR programme.
Iceland – an island on the edge?
When seeking to extract cash from a hole-in-the-wall in Reykjavik on my wintry arrival, I banged in enough noughts to keep me in sundry expenses for (I hoped) the duration of the stay. I was dispensed one solitary crisp note in return! But it didn’t matter, after being sent away on slender pickings it soon became apparent that Iceland’s real riches are cultural and environmental, not commercial.
The EU Leonardo Lifelong Learning Programme supported our stay in July 2014. The aim was the greater understanding of vernacular timber-framed buildings, the pre-industrial lifestyle they supported, and their conservation needs. Our group of European participants consisted of professionals from diverse backgrounds – including a sculptor, dry stone waller, conservator and builder.
We were guided throughout the week by Icelandic archaeologist Margret Hallmundsdottir and her family. Margret, known familiarly as “Magga” is steeped in the history and culture of the island like no other, and gave us a peerless introduction to the culture of this hitherto remote Scandinavian outpost.
1- Conjoined Icelandic Farmhouse, Skogar Folk Museum.
Almost without exception, the Icelanders we met were welcoming, positive individuals
Without exception, the Icelanders we met were welcoming to outsiders. All displayed an abiding affection for their island, and a deep attachment to it.
Iceland is now one of the world’s technologically advanced nations, and is well connected to the rest of it via the internet and a modern airport. However, the indications are that the island was not permanently inhabited until the C8-9th, originally by a Celtic contingent of settlers, possibly from the Hebrides, and subsequently by Norse peoples.
Lying west both of the British Isles and mainland Scandinavia, the vernacular traditions of its buildings bear witness to predominantly Viking influences, as one might expect. Norse-style longhouses are timber framed with thatched and earth roofs. However, the use of thick turf and earth walling, set above a broad plinth of local stone is more characteristically Celtic than Norse.
Respect is due to the historic inhabitants of Iceland who assembled the plinths from volcanic stone. This stuff is the heaviest, most abrasive and intransigent natural material I have ever come across. As part of the placement, we reconstructed the base of an earth and stone field byre. It was several weeks before my arms and hands had recovered from the work. A good sub-floor drainage system is a critical component in the low-lying, wetter parts of the island, as we discovered on site ….
2- reconstruction of field byre as part of VAR programme, July 2014
Icelanders are famously well connected to their cultural inheritance and have undertaken a number of landmark archaeological projects in recent years. As a result of the data these projects have generated, the understanding of historic building traditions on the island has greatly improved.
Construction typologies varied over time, and even between the comparatively short distances that separate the North and South of the island. Unitary longhouses and barns, based around communal living, gave way to complexes of partially conjoined dwellings for individual families, connected internally by corridors and sheltered from the Atlantic winds by encircling stone walls.
Many of these dwellings bear startling similarities to the traditional Black Houses of Britain’s Northern Isles and Outer Hebrides, indicating that Celtic and Scandinavian / Gothic building traditions fused in a variety of different ways, and over a large area of Western Europe in the past.
The projecting stone walls of these buildings are said to create a particular aerodynamic effect whereby the incident wind is deflected up and over the house, rather than against its roof. Whether or not this is true, the thick walls provide plenty of insulation throughout the long North Atlantic winters.
3- reconstructed Viking longhouse, Thjodveldisbaer
Archaeological data, backed up by experimental archaeology has allowed the reconstruction of some mediaeval longhouses, notably the reproduction of Stong farmhouse, abandoned shortly after the eruption of the Hekla volcano in 1104. The complex, authentically re-created in 1974-77 at nearby Thjodveldisbaer features the Chieftan’s house and attached barn, plus a chapel – indicating that the island was christianised by this date.
The timber frame and panelling of the interior has been fashioned by traditional hand tools, with the major timbers lashed together or jointed in the classic manner. The interior features recreated furniture of the period, including replica butter and milk barrels. These are set into the cool earth of the barn, maintaining their contents in an edible state for longer.
4- Herringbone earth block wall construction, Thjodveldisbaer.
The continuum of earth-based building has been preserved into the modern era. During our placement, we were billeted at the eco-village of Solheimar. This settlement was established in the early C20th by the pioneering Sesselja Sigmundsdottir on progressive, anthroposophic principles similar to those of Rudolph Steiner.
5- Solheimar’s Sesseljuhus (photo from Solheimar website).
Individuals with and without special needs work and live together in the same place, thus avoiding a tendency to separation and institutionalisation. Artistic expression, e.g. through craft production, organic food production and renewable energy are key considerations in its daily operation. Many residents here are long-term, some having lived in the village for decades. This points to the success of Solheimar as an international centre for practical community ethics.
Iceland’s famously volatile geology is both a warning and a boon in equal measure. Geothermal energy provides virtually all of Iceland’s power needs, notably (vaguely sulphurous) hot water and electricity. Energy costs here are some of the lowest in the world. Allied to this is a sophisticated array of seismic detectors that provide advance warning of volcanic activity.
The pride and interest shown in the island’s native assets is demonstrated by the new visitor centre at the Hellisheiði geothermal power station. This is classically modern Scandinavian – sleek, angluar, finely detailed, set harmoniously within its landscape and finished in smart, sober materials.
When we visited in 2014, Iceland itself was showing some signs of recovery after the economic implosion of 2008-11. Central to this recovery are the obvious resolve, prgamatism and tenacity of its population. Through a process of continuous adaptation Icelanders have managed to survive in some of the most hostile environments in Europe. Although many economic challenges still face the country, Icelandic history tells us that they have survived more severe adversity in the past.
6- scheduled (protected) building in Reykjavik, with timber roof proofed by tar.
Buildings, monuments and sites are scheduled by the Cultural Heritage Agency of Iceland, and the The Cultural Heritage Act no. 80/2012 introduced three levels of protection, depending on the significance of an asset. Spot-scheduling exists, and all buildings over 100 years in age are protected via this legislation.
Nonetheless, whilst prosperity has allowed the administration to allocate resources to building preservation, civic and archaeological projects, a rash of rather indifferent development is starting to spread alarmingly across the countryside. Materials are evidently as cheap to source here as anywhere, and quite substantial dwellings are springing up all over the rural hinterland of the island’s principal towns. They are not grouped neatly into nucleated homesteads as in the past, but often sited arbitrarily and with little thought to landscaping. This problem seems to be shared with similarly under-planned Norway in recent years.
As an outsider I would say that the unspoilt landscape is Iceland’s greatest asset. Sites within their national parks such as Thingvellir have an elemental magnetism that is simply extraordinary. One wonders if rural planning legislation can be introduced before a tipping point is reached and the South’s rural landscape loses its essential qualities forever? Obviously a growing population has to be accommodated somehow, but is there are case for the creation of new planned villages or towns?
Fortunately, history tells us that Icelanders will not rest until they have mastered a problem. The emphasis on exploring cultural heritage through disciplined archaeological projects is committed to at a national level. An impressive array of cultural interpretive facilities exists across the island, supporting education and tourism. All this work stems from a deep-rooted sense of belonging, of pride and an instinct to share this knowledge of traditional culture and natural beauty with visitors.
I managed to get through my entire placement with barely breaking into my solitary Icelandic banknote – proof that, whilst Scandinavia may be expensive, what pays most is the richness of the land itself …