One of my absolute passions is visiting and learning about different countries and cities, their cultures and their buildings.
I have a theory that this partly comes from being told the childhood poem which says “Thursday child has far to go”. I was born in the Bahamas – on a Thursday! – and was encouraged to interpret this as my permission to travel the world.
I have taken many opportunities to travel to and live in other places. Highlights include studying and living in Paris, and working in Australia for a short while.
I’m very lucky that I often get to travel to interesting historic places. It is part of the continuous learning that comes with my specialism of the historic built environment: there is so much to be learnt about our human story from visiting and getting to know the history of other places.
And there are so many more places I’d love to experience!
For a very long time it has been on my list to visit Iceland, particularly to go to Reykjavik for New Year. After a lot of debating (and before Omicron was a thing), we went for it and booked a family trip for New Year and to celebrate my twin daughters’ 14th birthdays.
OTHERWORDLY AND STRANGELY FAMILIAR
Iceland really is like no other place I have visited. It is in equal measures totally otherworldly whilst also strangely familiar.
The 45-minute road journey from the airport to Reykjavik takes you through a moonscape of lava fields.
In ‘Names for the Sea: Strangers in Iceland’ by Sarah Moss I learnt that care needs to be taken navigating the lava fields. The voids that form in their creation can be capped with thin crusts of lava through which you can fall. People have gone missing in these fields, and due to the character of this moonscape it’s easy to get disorientated and lost.
From this unfamiliar natural landscape, the city of Reykjavik itself is a wonderful and comfortable place to get to know. The scale of a large UK town, it has a bustling café culture.
Like the proverbial busman’s holiday, I couldn’t help myself being drawn to the museums to immerse myself in the history and culture of the place and learn about its origins and evolution.
EARLY SETTLEMENT IN REYKJAVIK
The earliest evidence of settlement found in the city is a 10th-century hall or longhouse, the archaeological remains of which have been preserved in their original location as part of the Settlement Exhibition.
For anyone who has visited the Jorvik Viking Centre, the connections between our UK Viking history and that of Iceland will be clear.
The immersive exhibition really evokes the character that the small settlement of Reykjavik would have had in the Viking Age.
The Icelandic vernacular architecture developed into turf houses and then into timber houses, examples of which have been preserved and are cared for by The National Museum.
The earliest example in Reykjavik itself is a timber house on Aoalstraeti dating from 1762. An example of such a timber house can be seen in the exhibition in the National Museum of Iceland.
THE EVOLUTION OF ICELANDIC ARCHITECTURE
As we explored Reykjavik we were all drawn to the multicoloured buildings.
You get a really great view of them from the top of the iconic church, Hallsgrimkirkja.
We learnt that by the 1900s, the timber buildings were struggling as a result of the harsh weather. Builders started using alternative, more robust materials, and this is when the corrugated metal sheeting became a typical building material.
There is something uniquely Icelandic about the more modern vernacular of the small-scale metal-clad houses.
The simplicity of the proportions is very Nordic. Decoration is carefully placed and enhanced by some of the stunning street art. There are large windows and typically a larger void-to-solid ratio to get the most light in on the long dark days in winter. Overhanging roofs cast off the rain and snow.
They are a product of their environment, and all these buildings over 100 years old are automatically protected. They are shown on this interactive map.
A FLANEUR IN REYKJAVIK
The original plan for a four-night stay took an unplanned turn into a further seven nights. One of my daughters tested positive for Covid on our last day.
Not an ideal start to 2022 but there are definitely worse places we could have been!
Although my daughter was strictly isolating, I was allowed out. I took the opportunity to get to know Reykjavik a bit more. I did what I always loved the idea of but haven’t had the time to do since being a student: being a flaneur, exploring the streets and sketching the buildings.
Drawing on the poetry of Charles Baudelaire, the 20th-century scholar Walter Benjamin saw the flaneur as an emblematic archetype of the urban, modern, experience.
Flanerie (the act of strolling) was sometimes seen as quite passive and ambivalent. For me it is an active act of learning.
I see it as an essential part of really understanding the evolution of towns and cities, and getting under their skin.
Tracing the different streets and buildings from the earliest to the most modern is really fascinating to me. Then also having time to sketch the buildings was such a joy.
Amongst all the doing that comes with our work lives, it’s great to really connect to the things that fascinate us and led us down our career path in the first place.
Being a flaneur (or flaneuse?) is definitely something I plan to do more of in 2022!All Blog Posts