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Hallgrimskirkja: Reykjavik's Modernist Wonder


Where Gumbo Was #438

Hallgrimskirkja, or Hallgrim's Church, would be noticeable even if it weren't Iceland's tallest building and largest church, and sitting on Reykjavik's highest elevation. It is one of those churches, like Gaudi's Sagrada Familia, that both define and defy what it means to be a church.


And it's a latecomer to the modernist scene: designed in the 1930s by Iceland's official state architect, Guðjón Samúelsson, construction wasn't finished until 1986, 41 years after work began. It's named for Hallgrímur Pétursson, an important 17th century figure in Icelandic church history.


Despite its clearly modern lines, meant to resemble Iceland's rocks, mountains and glaciers as well as the sea, some criticized it at the time as old-fashioned, or using too much of other styles and models, including Grundtvig's Church in Copenhagen.

P1140936One criticism was acted on, though: the church was made taller because  Iceland's Catholics had built their first cathedral only a few years before, and only a few blocks away. Christ the King Cathedral, above, is neo-Gothic and very tall, but also very narrow, and was also designed by Samúelsson. The Church of Iceland, which is Lutheran, was not going to let the Catholic cathedral have the laurels for height, and Hallgrimskirkja's tower was extended.


The strong designs on the inner and outer doors of Hallgrimskirkja interested me stylistically; they seem to show strong kinship to traditional themes of Viking-era pieces in Iceland, while also, especially in the lettering above, reminding of early 20th-century design.


Inside, the decor is spare and simple, without the profuse images and artworks that might be found elsewhere. But there are also a number of really striking pieces, including a crystal baptismal font.


The furnishings, on the other hand, are blond wood and nice enough, but not really eye-catching. Tho backs of the benches swing across so that audiences can face the entrance of the church for organ concerts.


The organ is one of the church's glories; despite a functional but not very impressive case for its console, the 5200+ pipe installation is one of the best Art Deco-influenced installations I've seen anywhere.


The tower also serves as Reykjavik's equivalent of the Empire State Building; it's really THE place to go for a view of metropolitan Reykjavik, if you can call it that. I think of it as either the biggest small town ever, or a pocket world capital. Either way, there are great views from the tower


One of the views down is toward the Leif Ericsson statue that stands in the forecourt of the church, honoring the original Viking arrival in about 874. The statue was a gift from the United States in 1930, marking the 1,000-year anniversary of Iceland's parliament, the Althing.


Just for interest, here's another unusual church by Guðjón Samúelsson, in Iceland's small northern city of Akureyri; it was designed about the same time as Hallgrimskirkja, but actually finished in 1941. Guðjón Samúelsson was the first Icelander ever to receive an architecture degree.

Just for inteAkureyrarkirkja_-_panoramio_(1)Photo by Jon Gretarsson/Wikimedia

Congratulations to George G and PortMoresby, who were able to identify our mystery location this week!


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The best part of every trip is realizing that it has upset your expectations

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