Iceland Building Stone

I recently returned from 10 days in Iceland. Wow, the island is one place that every geologist and rock lover should explore. I have never visited a place where geology permeates life and landscape as it did on Iceland, from erupting volcanoes to road destroying jokulhlaups to geothermally-heated, and very yummy, tomatoes. Of course, I have to begin my observations about the country by focusing on the building stone.

There is only one word to describe the stone used in Icelandic architecture: basalt. Like every place else on Earth, the Icelanders used and still use their local rock, and in this country athwart the rift zone between the North American and Eurasian plates, that translates to a rather limited selection. Basalt is everywhere, most particularly in lovely lava flows that cover hundreds of square miles.

Surprisingly for a land so dominated by stone, however, Iceland has very little history of stone masonry. Apparently, early buildings were often sod, perhaps intermixed with unworked basalt boulders. As my wife and I traveled around the country we saw very few buildings made of worked basalt blocks. The biggest and best was in the capital of Reykjavik, at the Alpingishúsi∂ or Parliament House. Built from stone quarried from nearby Skólavör∂uholt hill, it is a simple, unadorned structure erected in 1881. (As nearly anyone who visits Iceland learns, Iceland is home to the world’s first Parliament, the Alping, which held sessions practically without any interruption since 930, a rather impressive record.)

My favorite building in Reykjavik, however, was not built of stone but was the one of the most stone inspired buildings I have seen. It is the Hallgrímskirkja, the city’s towering cathedral atop the former quarry hill of Skólavör∂uholt. Designed by national architect Gu∂jón Samúelsson, it took almost 40 years to complete. No stone is used; instead it is made of concrete.

What makes it so stunning to my geologic mind is that Samúelsson was clearly trying to mimic the landscape of his native land. The main architectural motif is the basalt column. Looking at the front of the church, you can see basalt columns rising gently at first and then steeply to the steeple, a stepped back pyramid made of concrete basalt columns. If you spend any time in Iceland, you will encounter similar columns of real basalt.

Hallgrímskirkja is a stunning tribute to a land of stone. Not only did Samuellsson recognize the importance of geology to his native land but in incorporating the structure and shape of the basalt column, he acknowledged the inspirational aspects of geology, to architecture and to people.