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.