Fashioned in IronThe corrugated iron houses of Reykjavík
Reykjavík’s architectural landscape is, in many ways, a manifestation of the city’s literal and spiritual youth, a reflection of its vibrant energy. Compared to the capitals of its Scandinavian neighbours, Reykjavík is barely a teenager: flamboyant, changeable, energetic and colourful. A city in the prime of its life.
The streets of downtown Reykjavík are a spectacular palette of bright hues and neon shades. In the harsh cold of winter, the waves of the corrugated iron houses form stunning geometrical shapes in the snow, while in summer, the city shimmers with vivid colour under the midnight sun. Reykjavík is anything but uniform; the city is a medley of styles and influences, a hodgepodge of shape, size and colour, particularly in the older, western part town. The houses of Reykjavík stand as testament to the unique and rather youthful urban history of a city that developed slowly and sporadically, and that industrialised rather late. Reykjavík’s architectural landscape is, in many ways, a manifestation of the city’s literal and spiritual youth, a reflection of its vibrant energy. Compared to the capitals of its Scandinavian neighbours, Reykjavík is barely a teenager: flamboyant, changeable, energetic and colourful. A city in the prime of its life.
Though the island was first settled around 872, urban development didn’t come to Iceland until the late 18th century. The oldest structure still standing in Reykjavík is a wooden house built in 1765, nearly a thousand years after settlement. The island became a key trading post in 1786, after the abolition of the Danish trade monopoly. An influx of foreign merchants followed, bringing a tradition of construction in Norwegian and Danish styles. It wasn’t until the last decades of the 19th century, however, that the building of traditional turf houses in Iceland was finally banned, coinciding with the country’s first economic and structural growth spurt. It was then, in 1875, that Icelanders first imported the material that would come to revolutionise local construction; corrugated iron. Icelanders traded their sheep with England in exchange for this novel material, adopting it to cover prefabricated wooden houses newly imported from Norway, and built in the Swiss chalet style.
Corrugated iron is a cheap building material mainly used on living quarters in the developing world, or on the peripheries of the former British Empire, such as Australia or New Zealand. Icelanders were unique in the Scandinavian sphere for using it to build their homes. Their neighbours, rich in wood, used the material only for sheds and outhouses. Not only did corrugated iron minimise building costs, used as it was, in lieu of the outermost wooden façade, it also allowed the precious wooden structure within to breathe. The wavy iron protected the timber not only from water and wind, but also from fire, which was a major threat to the city. Local builders thus adapted Norwegian houses with the help of English metal to suit Icelandic conditions. Seeing as the industrial revolution only came to Iceland in the 20th century with the mechanisation of the fishing industry, perhaps it is not surprising that Iceland took to heart a material primarily associated with developing economies.
Even after the building of wooden houses was prohibited in Reykjavík, following the Great Fire of 1915, when 12 houses burned to the ground, corrugated iron continued to be used throughout Iceland for the roofs of concrete buildings. In order to seal it and protect it from rust, corrugated iron must be painted. In this, as much as in their fashion, Icelanders are not afraid of bold colours and sharp contrasts.