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Iceland Mag

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Seven interesting facts about one of Reykjavík’s best known landmarks, Hallgrímskirkja church

By Magnús Sveinn Helgason

  • A towering presence A bonus fact: Hallgrímskirkja does not tolerate "love locks" which tourists like to leave behind. Hundreds and thousands of such locks have been cut from the bars on the windows in the steeple tower. Photo/Vilhelm Gunnarsson

One of the most easily recognizable landmarks of Reykjavík is Hallgrímskirkja church. Located atop Skólavörðuholtið hill, it towers over downtown and giving its striking presence to the Reykjavík skyline.

1) The tallest building in Reykjavík, the sixth tallest structures in Iceland
Standing at 74.5 meters tall Hallgrímskirkja is the tallest building in Reykjavík, the second highest building in Iceland, and the sixth highest structure in Iceland.

The tallest building in Iceland is an office tower by the Smáralind shopping centre in the suburban municipality of Kópavogur, south of Reykjavík. “The Smáratorg tower” as the building is called is just 3.1 metres taller than Hallgrímskirkja (77.6 m). Hallgrímskirkja is also slightly smaller than the fourth tallest structure in Iceland: A smokestack on the aluminium smelter in Reyðarfjörður, East Iceland, which measures 78 metres.

The three tallest structures in Iceland are radio antennas, the radio antenna at Eiðar in East Iceland (220 m), the Naval Radio Transmitter facility in Grindavík on the Reykjanes peninsula, (244 m) and the Longwave radio mast at Gufuskálar on the Snæfellsnes peninsula in West Iceland (412 m). The Gufuskálar mast is also the tallest structure in West Europe.

2) It took 41 years to build
Hallgrímskirkja was designed by the State Architect of Iceland, Guðjón Samuelsson in 1937, after years of discussion about where to build a church named after and in the honour of Hallgrímur Pétursson, one of the best known poets of Iceland. However, the war delayed the start of construction, which only began in 1945. Work proceeded slowly, as the church was a monumental undertaking. The crypt beneath the choir was constructed first, being consecrated in 1948. The steeple and the wings were then consecrated in 1974, while the construction of the nave was only completed in 1986.

Guðjón did not live to see the completion of his best known building, as he had died in 1950.

3) Its design is inspired by Icelandic nature
Guðjón Samúelsson, who designed Hallgrímskirkja also designed several other important buildings in Reykjavík, including the National Theatre by Hverfisgata, the main building of the University of Iceland, as well as the Roman Catholic cathedral in Reykjavík.

Guðjón’s work was under strong influences of the Scandinavian Modernism, known as Functionalism, but he also sought inspiration into natural shapes and forms, as he was seeking a distinctive style of “Icelandic architecture”, an architecture in harmony with Icelandic landscape. Many of Guðjón’s works carry strong references to Icelandic nature, particularly the basalt columns formed when a thick lava flow cools slowly into a polygonal joint pattern. The wings and the steeple of Hallgrímskirkja therefore look like cliffs of basalt columns.

 

 

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A photo posted by @thisbrutallife on

 

Some have seen Hallgrímskirkja as an example of “Brutalist architecture”, which is a style of architecture which descended from the modernists and flourished in the 1950s and 1960s. The name is derived from the French word for “raw”, and Le Courbusier’s reference to the use of raw concrete, or “béton brut”. However, Guðjón's search for inspiration in the raw forces of nature, rather than raw concrete, makes it questionable whether Hallgrímskirkja could be considered brutalist in style. But, then again, Icelandic nature can often be somewhat brutal as well, showing how diametrically different motives and sources of inspiration can yield similar results?

4) Hallgrímskirkja is the only piece of a much grander design
According to Guðjón Samúelsson’s earliest drawings for Skólavörðuholt, it was to be the site of a giant neo-classical square, surrounded by the University of Iceland and other institutions of higher learning and the arts, with a large square cathedral standing in the middle. The design, which bears striking similarities to the Senate square in downtown Helsinki, would have been the centre of cultural life in Reykjavík, and Iceland: “A Citadel of Icelandic Culture”, as Samúelsson put it.

Nothing ever came of this grand citadel. The area around Hallgrímskirkja wasn’t even properly paved until the late 1990s.

5) It's construction was very controversial

It is sometimes said that Icelanders like nothing better than to argue about buildings, construction or zoning. Any big construction project in Iceland therefore has the potential to turn into a nation-wide argument. Hallgrímskirkja is no exception.

Not only did the construction of Hallgrímskirkja take a long time (41 years), incurring significant cost overruns, but it had not even been completed when major repairs had to be made to the steeple in 1983. It turned out the concrete had been defective, with serious fracturing and crumbling of the top of the steeple. This, and the excessive costs, caused some frustration.

But what most of the critics focused on was that they felt the building was just plain ugly. These critics argued the church was both obscenely big and “so ugly it insulted the aesthetic sensibilities of those alive and unborn alike”, to quote one prominent critic.

6) Still, Hallgrímskirkja ranks both as one of the worlds strangest and most beautiful houses of worship
But even if Hallgrímskirkja has grown on most Icelanders many foreign visitors see it as somewhat odd. It keeps popping up on lists of the strangest or oddest buildings in the world. In 2012, for example, the Danish newspaper Politiken named it one of the ten strangest, or “most unbelievable” churches in the world, and in 2014 it was voted as one of the strangest buildings in the world on the webpage Strange Buildings, while 4,520 visitors of the website Boredpanda voted it as one of the world’s 33 strangest buildings, ranking it as the 24th strangest.

Most, of course, see beauty in the strangeness and in October 2015 Hallgrímskirkja was picked as one of 19 most beautiful houses of worship in the world by the Architectural Digest, one of the oldest magazines in America dedicated to interior design and architecture.

7) It is not the cathedral of Reykjavík
Given it’s size and commanding presence many foreign visitors, and even some locals, assume it must be the cathedral of Reykjavík. But technically it’s not. It's just a very large church! Hallgrímskirkja is named after, and built in honour of, reverend Hallgrímur Pétursson, a 17th century clergyman and one of Iceland’s most beloved poets. Hallgrímur Pétursson (1614-1674), who wrote many hymns still sung today, is best known for the Passion Hymns, or Passíusálmar. The Passion Hymns are a collection of fifty hymns, one for each working day of the seven weeks of Lent. The singing of the hymns during lent is a time honoured tradition in Iceland.

The actual cathedral church of Reykjavík is located downtown, right across the street from the house of parliament. 

Read more: 10 beautiful Icelandic churches to visit

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