Reykjalið: Economy, Environment, and Experience

Reykjalid is very small, and the economy there is very limited. Today, the area mainly serves as an accomodation area for tourism, a local center for farms that live around the lake and those employed at Krafla Power Plant.  Just up the street from my guesthouse, I found two relics of unsuccessful attempts to expand economic activity here.  One was a newer looking, but unoccupied building that was opened by the company “Green Solutions” in 2005. They recycled paper by reforming into molded pulp pallets (a very specific product used as a base for loads of freight and sized for a forklift, for example supporting piles of bricks that are being shipped).

The other deserted building formerly housed a diatomite plant:

This story gives an example of Icelandic of the fragility of Icelandic ecosystems. Diatomite is the fossilized remains of an aquatic algae, and was pumped up from the bottom of the lake for three decades, beginning in the 1960s. It has various applications such as filters, as a additive in soil or paints, and insecticide.

Lake Myvatn is named after the large clouds of “midges” or flies breed around the lake, and are a main food source for birds and fish. Land-owners (farmers) around the lake have fished here for 1,000 years- now the fishery has all but collapsed. Midge populations went through increasingly extreme fluctuations and the fish no longer had a reliable food source.   Scientific studies showed that midge population fluctuations coincided with the diatomite dredging activity- suggesting that the activities may have thrown off the ecosystem’s balance, with severe consequences. Full explanation.

Due to pressure internal and international pressure regarding the environmental damage, the plant was closed in 2004. An image of Myvatn lake:

Because of the small size, many things in Reykjalið are within walking distance. The de facto town center consists of a gas station and supermarker, with a few small houses behind containing a bank and post office. The school is nearby, with the public swimming pool only a few minutes further down the street. A car is essential to get to anything but these basic facilities. As mentioned in the Akureyri post, residents travel there regularly (perhaps a few times a week) to obtain goods and access other resources.

All buildings are single family or small guesthouses/cabins with a few rented rooms. While the most common construction in Iceland is cast in place concrete, I saw a concrete block house under constuction (or rather, partially constructed and abandoned). Some streets have small sidewalks while my street had none.


Geothermal Power and Heating: Reykjalið and Krafla

Lake Myvatn is located in northern Iceland near the Krafla volcanic area. I stayed in the small town of Reykjalið located along the lake shore and 5 kilometers from the Krafla area. There was an eruption in 1974, and today there are areas where the black lava fields are still smoking. The landscape changes abruptly on the drive from Reykjalið to the Krafla area: grasses and small trees, sandy dark tephra rings, cracking golden dirt and bubbling muds, mossy lava fields, dark black fields. The varied surfaces reflect a young earth that is still in the constant process of destruction and renewal.

It is a prime location for tapping into high temperature geothermal areas. I visited Krafla power plant to see how this relatively remote area powers the country.

This power plant, built during the 1970s, was almost abandoned after a volcanic eruption lowered the potential of the wells. Iceland has a unified grid, so while some of the power from this plant does go directly to northeast Iceland, some contributes to the shared power supplies. Interestingly, part of the development was always intended to go to power the Alcoa smelting plant further to the East.

From the window of my guesthouse I could see two plumes of smoke. If you see the plume, that actually means they are not using that borehole. If they were, the stream would be going through the pipes. The plume on the left is from a small scale geothermal plant, the one on the right is from an old diatomite plant (you can read more about it in THIS POST).

One element to the geothermal system that I was unaware  of is localized district heating system for Reykjalið, the small settlement of only 300 people (and a number of travelers).  About 3/4 of a mile from the edge last street of small houses, there is a small heating and power plant called Bjarnarflag, which has a capacity of 3 MW and supplies hot water to the small settlement. This process leaves it’s own “blue lagoon” of waste water. Apparently as soon as the new Myvatn Naturebaths opened, signs were put up saying it is too hot to safely swim- locals still swim there.  Water, electricity, and hot water all run under the street and any new buildings tie into it. More about Reykjalid.

Myvatn Naturebath

There are over 130 heating swimming pools in Iceland, and stories of bathing in naturally heated water goes back to the 13th century.  But the nature bathing complex tourist destination, tapping into the image of Iceland as this destination for “sustainable wellness” is a newer development.  I visited the Myvatn baths, which stands as an interesting comparison to the Blue Lagoon.

The complex is modeled after the success of the Blue Lagoon. The lagoon (heated, sulfurous swimming pool) itself still has the same quality, and there is a view over Myvatn lake.

However the architectural design is not executed in such a well developed manner.  Many of similar ideas come into play: use of local rock materials as walls, clean modern interior spaces, linear bands of program types that line the lagoon. But here it is not done in such an artful way.  The rock gabion walls here appear to provide thermal mass and texture, but are added to a typical wall construction without an attempt at synthesis.  The interiors have clean, simple materials, but are lacking the elements that create a thickness, tactility, or variation of light quality to the interior space. The cost here is about half of the cost at the Blue Lagoon. The much more remote location is likely the significant factor of difference, as well as the design quality of the facility.



Akureyri has around 17,000 inhabitants.  It feels somewhat larger however, because as the “Capital of the North” it serves as a base for much of northern Iceland, as well as travelers. The owner of my guesthouse in Reykjalið later told me that people who live up to 150 kilometers away will commute there for supplies and other amenities.  From Reykjalið (about an hour and a quarter away), he travels to Akureryi atleast once per week. This status as a regional base is reflected in the amount of shops, restaurants and amenities found in town.

After my brief weekend in Reykjavik, coming to Akureryi revealed several trends in Icelandic town planning.  In both towns, there are successful, clearly defined main streets.  Although the architecture along these streets may not be as picturesque as in many other towns,  various strategies make them highly utilized.  Sidewalks are wider than automobile lanes.  Car access is allowed, but controlled. The street has gentle turns, which naturally keeps driving speed slower.  Car access is not continuous but broken after several blocks by plantings.  I can imagine this allows for things such as localized deliveries to businesses, but dissuades through traffic from choosing this street. Programmatically the street is very varied, and outdoor furniture and seating is common.

Another similar element in both cities is the underutilization of the waterfront as a public space.  Many Icelandic harbors are functioning as a fishing port, but adjacent areas are underdeveloped. In both locations the main pedestrian street runs parallel to the waterfront only a few blocks away, but no continuity is created. In Reykjavik, for example, large towers have started to be built that cut off the rest of the city from the harbor. A pleasant although windy path runs right by the water, but along the adjacent road car rental places, fast food restaurants and gas stations are predominant. In Akureyri, the pier and waterfront area is very industrial and inaccessible, despite it being the main access point for large cruise ships and the location of various craft and art stores/centers. Both areas have amazing views and have a great deal of untapped potential.  New, but now largely stalled plans for the waterfront in Reykjavik start to address this, but more on that in a later post.

Akureyri is located at the head of a fjord and along the foothills of large mountains.  The topography here is much more extreme that in Reykjavik.  The Akureyri church, one of Sameulsson’s basalt inspired creations located near the main street, capitalizes on the topography and creates a dramatic outlook.  I quite enjoyed seeing this spatial configuration become a social space as it was appropriated in a funny way.  One day while I was there, a group of young Icelandic teens (dressed all in fluorescent spandex) had set up a large “FINISH” sign at the top of the large church stairs. They were playing the Rocky theme song, cheering on people as they came up the stairs and had a water table set up at the top.

The main social space is the public pool.  Families, elderly people and young people all share the space.  The sizable complex includes multiples pools, hot tubs (all heated by geothermal water) and water slides. On a 50 degree day, people sit in the pools for long whiles talking, before going right back into the locker room. Adjacent to the pool area there is a gym, a large play area featuring picnic tables, swings, a bounce house, and scaled down versions of Akureyri buildings.

Materiality + Groundplane: Glaumbær

About 11 kilometers away from the church in the previous post and further off the ring road, Glaumbær sits atop a hill, and looks out across the same fields and mountain ranges. This complex of small buildings includes a series of storerooms that are only accessible from outside, and connected only by their thick adjoining walls.

The most used living spaces are connected by an interior hallway.  The women working here told me it is not open as a museum in the winter and hence is very cold inside, but when people (up to 22 at a time) lived here the thick walls would keep the body heat in and create a reasonably comfortable temperature. Although I can imagine these buildings could feel damp and dark in the winter, the thick walls and discrete window openings create a dramatic and atmospheric light condition in the summer.

Buildings and rooms were added over time. You can see different interior construction methods from rooms that were either most used and updated, or built at a later time.  The gradual, flexible, and self similar growth presents an alternative to the the classical “principle of hierarchical distribution of part to whole” and “Alberti’s well know axiom that ‘Beauty is the consonance of the parts such that nothing can be added or taken away.'” (Stan Allen- Field Conditions).  Glaumbaer changed over time with the needs of inhabitants as well as with the flux of seasons and vegetation.

There are also two wood buildings that engage with the horizon.

Conversation: Studio Granda

“The sands of an arctic volcanic desert are black, shadowless and constantly shifting. There are no trees, buildings or roads and footprints are instantly erased. To survive one must watch the celestial bodies, focus on the horizon, heed the warning of the winds and make clear and precise judgements. The necessary acuteness of thought and tuning of the senses is equivalent to the practice of architecture where listening, reevaluation and production are all equally interdependent.” – Beginning of Studio Granda’s practice statement, found at

Today I met with Steve Christer from Studio Granda.  He started the firm with Margrét Hardardóttir in 1987, a few years after completing their studies at the Architectural Association in London.  They have a completed as number of notable buildings in Reykjavik, such as the City Hall and Reykjavik Art Museum as well as a variety of other school, private residence, and urban projects.

Setting up meetings during the major travel season (for tourists as well as Icelandic people) has been a challenge. The work day starts earlier here in Reykjavik.  After trying to juggle travel schedules, we found the only time we could both meet was at the right at the start of their week, Monday at 7:30 am.  Their office is just a few blocks from the water in an unassuming 2 story building set back behind another low building that Studio Granda is currently renovating.  Our meeting was brief but provided a useful perspective as I began my research in Iceland.

Q: How did the financial crisis affect Studio Granda’s practice?
A: Studio Granda estimates that 90% of their projects came to a halt during a period 10 days. Because they had a diversity of projects and clients they thought they might be more insulated from the crash, but unfortunately that was not the case.  They had nine people in the firm, and now they have two.  But, with their reduced size they have been able to do relatively well. For example, I saw drawings for interior renovations and a new private residence, and they have teaching positions.  However, the market has yet to turn and there are still limited prospects.

Q: Several Studio Granda projects have been held up as examples of sustainable design. The Reykjavik City Hall has green moss walls that appear to float atop Tjörnin lake (the lake where the first inhabitants of Iceland settled). Their Hof Residence in Skagafordur was recently featured in the New York Times.  How do they approach sustainability?
A: Steve is critical of branding designs as “sustainable” and suggested that Iceland has not developed in that way.  I got the impression from his and others’ reactions that there are many students and researchers who come to Iceland looking for some sort of utopia of clean energy and green buildings, and that this is an over-simplification that ignores past developments based on greed, profits, or shortsightedness.
For over a thousand years Iceland was poor and life was based on subsistence- this is inherently low impact and in that sense sustainable. But with the trend of a rising standard of living and wealth, growth was embraced and sustainability was not at all a main factor.  Furthermore, there is a difference between the image of sustainability (dripping moss walls at the city hall) and the actuality of it (the city hall is not intended to be nor does it function as an “ecological“ building).
In Iceland there is more built space can be used- that is not sustainable.  Steve suggests a legitimate method towards actually sustainability is to reuse and make existing spaces function with the current needs.

Q: Adaptive reuse is a valid strategy, but are there times when there are new needs that cannot be fulfilled with the current building stock? Furthermore, is being limited to reuse essentially self-defeating as an architect?  If new development is going to occur, shouldn’t it attempt to do so in a non-detrimental way? What about the Hof Residence- that seems to have a very specific relation to the site and use of materiality?
A: Of Studio Granda’s projects, that ones comes the closest to fulfilled what can be defined as “sustainable.” It is oriented to let in daylight but protect from strong sun angles, and uses turf as the roof material.  It incorporates local materials and uses concrete, which can be produced in Iceland. The house is also a very well used space, as the family has many visitors.  The family breeds horses on the property, which is a staple of the economy in Skagafordur.  The high profile family and project helped attract attention to the region and in this way helps to bolster the economy of the area. But there are several caveats. For example, the source of stones for the floors was extremely local, but it had to be shipped out to a mason who could cut it. Also, it is a large (3000sf) private residence located away from a town.

More images of the Hof house can be found at

Q: Does the long history of turf houses in Iceland make it a more obvious choice?
A: Despite the abundant examples of turf as a roof material, Studio Granda still had to do a bit of convincing to assure the Icelandic client that the turf roof would not leak or be a maintenance issue.

Q: What does a typical wall section for a building look like in Iceland?
A: Nowadays, they typically use approximately 150mm of concrete with 4” of insulation and the interior layer.    This is not necessarily proportionate to level of insulation usage in comparison to the US. Although as a whole the heating load is larger in Iceland, the winters are not more extreme than in New York City.  The upper level of Studio Granda’s office is a concrete wall with two air gaps that are separated by a vapor barrier- this functions relatively well as an insulator.   Steve described to the manner in which the surrounding buildings protect from cold winds, and the certain areas that have local conditions that make them less comfortable.  While perhaps sensitivity to site has not been a ubiquitous guiding principle for Icelandic buildings, Studio Granda certainly has a refined awareness of it.

Q: What are some of Studio Granda’s ongoing projects and prospects for the future? 
A: During the discussion there was a model on the table for a large single-family residence, relations of the owners of the Hof Residence.  Monochromatic and at a small scale, the elegant roof form was the first noticeable design element.  Reacting to a trapezoidal site, the roof  along one end is flat, which creates a modern roof line. As it spans the building footprint it becomes pleated and contracted, changing in section to something that abstractly references the traditional gable front “burstabær” of the turf houses.

Iceland may not have a large amount of natural resources and the economy is now sluggish- but some of the materials at their disposal are light, shadow, and the talents of Icelandic people.

Geothermal, Materiality + Integration: The Blue Lagoon

My first stop in Iceland was the Blue Lagoon, a manmade geothermal bath. It is located close to the airport and welcome relief after an overnight flight (made uncomfortably lengthy due to a 3.5 hr delay at JFK- thanks Delta).  As a popular tourist attraction along the well-beaten path, I am surely not the first person to observe it from architectural perspective. But it is a simple, strong example of the very different image of renewable energies, and an architectural space that responds to and integrates with the landscape through section and materiality.

The images of disasters associated with energy production are familiar: the smog of coal burning, the oil slicks of gasoline production gone awry. Here too, they thought they had an environmental disaster at hand after drilling geothermal wells for the Svartsengi power plant led to water pouring out into the landscape.  The minerals coming up calcified on the lava rocks creating a watertight pool that heated water filled.  After people began bathing in the pools, and especially as people with skin diseases noted its healing effects, the idea for the Blue Lagoon as a tourist destination and health clinic was born. The mix of heat and minerals in the water creates an environment unfavorable for bacteria, so chlorine is not needed.

The international airport is located in Keflavik, about an hour from Reykjavik out on the Reykjanes Peninsula. Keflavik is home to the former US military base, which is now occupied partially by NATO and partially by a university. The landscape en route to the Blue Lagoon is a windswept lavafield. It is a stark first image of the foreign landscape.

The building that welcomes visitors is unassuming on approach. From the parking lot, visitors walk over a simple path of dark pavers through a canyon of lava rocks that opens to the entry door and view over a cyan-blue pool to the left. The airy lobby, cafeteria, shops, and desk make up the band of programmed space runs adjacent to the edge of the lagoon, with service spaces and parking to the outside. Another part of the building branches off and houses the locker rooms. Entry, locker access, and purchases while inside are all coordinated through a wristband, and extra costs can be paid on the way out.

Pool and view of power plant to the left of the entrance.

Cafeteria in Blue Lagoon. But does the nice open space warrant overpriced sandwiches?

Materiality is brought into the space in several ways- the exterior lava formations literally continue into the space of the restaurant.  A wall of stacked lava bricks runs continuously through, creating a divide between the large main spaces and the areas of circulation to viewing decks and service areas.  Even the materiality of the roof shows the thought of integrating into the surrounding context.

Other spaces are created with clean, contemporary materials: site cast concrete walls, perforated metal mesh ceilings, and hardwood floors. Thin wood elements reoccur in several different roles: a ceiling material in the main space, as space dividers along circulation, and as louvers to protect from strong sun angles on the exterior.

The use of sectional relation with the ground both integrates it into the landscape and creates drama. The band of program terminates into the walls of lava at each end, and steam baths and saunas are embedded directly into the hillside. Sitting in the restaurant brings you into confrontation directly with the landscape, while still allowing light to come though. Being lower than the surrounding plains creates a sense of protection in the pool and protects from the strong winds.  Also, the climb up to viewing platforms on the roof becomes a revealing of the expansive vista of sharp brown rocks.

"Lava wall" in the restaurant. Outside the windows a light well allows light and a view of the rock wall.

Textured wall that runs continuously through spaces.

Roof and landscape beyond.

Left: Hallway to viewing platforms. Right: Wooden screens on facade.

I read that today the lagoon has 2 of it’s own wells and no longer draws water directly from the nearby power plant.  And while bathing is definite staple of Icelandic culture, the 30 euro price tag and location near the airport means the visitors are largely foreign.  The Blue Lagoon projects the image of Iceland, while perhaps not feeling authentic.

Since there are many places to swim in heated pools in Iceland, the success of the blue lagoon (with such high entry fees) is certainly owned in large part to the design of the complex. It is an example of how architecture helped create great value (here- out of something that was initially perceived as a natural disaster). This model for a tourist destination has been replicated once in Myvatn, with another just opening this summer near the Golden Circle (a main tourist route outside of Reykjavik). Despite the hype or high level of tourism, the complex suggests a number of useful strategies for integration into the landscape, at a spatial, material and cultural.